Treasure of the Incas
James O’Brien, one of the most famous horticulturists of the late 1800s, was an expert on orchids, particularly the large-flowered Cattleya species. He was secretary to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Orchid Committee, advisor to the editors of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, and frequently assisted the botanist H.G. Reichenbach in his botanical deliberations. When Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, awarded the first Victoria Medal of Honor in Horticulture (VMH), she presented it to James O’Brien.
O’Brien was one of the pioneers in reclassifying the large-flowered Cattleya species, insisting they should be individual species and not varieties of Cat-tleya labiata. He often took his case to horticulturists outside England, and, on one of his visits to Jean Linden of L’Horticulture Internationale in Brussels in the autumn of 1890, he happened upon the first flowering of a new Cattleya species from Peru that they had recently received from the orchid collector Eric Bungeroth.
The plant O’Brien saw in Linden’s greenhouse was a marvelous specimen. It had tall pseudobulbs and a long flower spike with six flowers standing in an upright position in the manner of Cattleya warscewiczii. The flowers themselves were 7 inches across and had unique cream-colored sepals and petals, and a lip of various shades of crimson, in netting and marbling that almost defied description. Linden himself was so impressed with the flower and the gorgeous flower spike, that he had his artist paint them, and published the picture in his Lindenia the following year.
Rather than see this magnificent new Cattleya subjected to years of indecision like its predecessors, O’Brien decided to describe the species himself and wrote a botanical description in The Gardeners’ Chronicle of December 13, 1890. He gave the new species the grand name Cattleya rex.
Cattleya rex was one of the last of the labiate Cattleya species to be described, but it was not really a stranger to the orchid world. Jean Linden had seen Cat-tleya rex as a young man during his travels through South America in the 1840s. The famous orchid collector Gustav Wallis had also seen it in the 1870s. Several plant collectors over the years had even tried to extract it from its hideaway in the western Peruvian Andes, but the plants never survived the hard trip through the mountains to the Peruvian coast, down the west coast of South America, through the Straits of Magellan, and across the Atlantic Ocean. Shipping the plants in the opposite direction, down the tributaries of the Amazon River on a long, circuitous route to the east coast of Brazil was equally hazardous and unsuccessful. It finally took Eric Bungeroth, one of the rediscoverers of the lost C. labiata, to transport a group of plants he had collected through the hot, steamy jungles of Peru, along the wandering little fingers of the Amazon, to the port of Manaos, where they ultimately sailed from Brazil to England.
However, even Bungeroth failed to enjoy the fruits of his success, for, although the plants arrived in Liverpool, England very much alive, most of them froze to death as the shipping boxes languished in the unheated dock warehouse. The loss of the plants broke Bungeroth’s spirit because this new Cattleya was to have been his crowning achievement. With a heavy heart, he abandoned collecting and never ventured into the jungles again in search of C. rex.
Of the few plants that survived the freezing, some were sold to L’Horticulture Internationale in Brussels. The plant Linden pictured in Lindenia, and O’Brien described in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, was the first of that small group of plants to flower. Except for this one 1890 shipment, no one successfully imported C. rex for the next 50 years.
It was not until 1940 that a reasonable number of C. rex finally reached the outside world. In 1940, Harry Blossfeld, a Brazilian orchid grower, armed with Eric Bungeroth’s notes, attacked the Peruvian jungle with an intense passion to succeed, and emerged some months later with almost 800 plants. It took a gold-mining project to open up the area where C. rex grew, and the new technology of the airplane to get C. rex back alive to Lima, Peru and São Paulo, Brazil.
Harry Blossfeld sold his C. rex through advertisements in issues of the American Orchid Society Bulletin of the early 1940s. You could buy a package of five plants for $37.50, a handsome sum back then, and most orchid hobbyists on the east coast of the United States acquired a plant or two at that time. When I first started growing orchids, it was common to have a friend give you a backpiece or division of his C. rex, and it was one of the first cattleyas I learned to grow.
Cattleya rex is one of the easiest of the large-flowered Cattleya species to recognize because it has one of the more uniform color patterns. Most C. rex have white sepals and petals with an undertone of yellow that gives them a cream-colored appearance. The lip pattern is unique and is made up of varying shades of crimson in an irregular netting and marbling that often coalesces into an almost solid crimson lip. Jean Linden described the labellum of C. rex with great admiration. He said, “Throughout the whole orchid family there exists but few gems comparable to the labellum of this species, in which the purple combined with gold is modified into a crimson of the hue of Spanish wine, and the marbling and veins are of an exquisite elegance.” Despite the similarity of most flowers, of course, C. rex still has the normal color types for which all the large-flowered Cattleya species are famous. There is a very rare alba form, a semi- alba, and a pale pastel delicata. There are C. rex ,with solid crimson lips, and a few clones with splashes of yellow in the sepals and petals.
Not all C. rex are 7 inches across, as were the flowers O’Brien and Linden saw. Harry Blossfeld seems to have imported a number that were in the 6- to 7-inch range, but most C. rex are closer to 4 inches across — at least in cultivation in the United States and Europe today. These smaller-size flowers have sometimes been a disappointment to collectors, but C. rex makes up for this with the large number of flowers it produces on a spike. Cattleya rex is one of the most floriferous of the large-flowered Cattleya species, and will normally produce five or six flowers on a spike, and there are records of as many as nine and 10 flowers.
When Cattleya rex was introduced, it added a new dimension to the breeding of yellow cattleyas. Before C. rex, Cattleya dowiana, with its yellow sepals and petals, was considered the only yellow species among the large-flowered cattleyas. But C. dowiana’s yellow color was so recessive it rarely appeared in its hybrids. When the cream-colored C. rex, however, was crossed with C. dowiana, the resulting hybrid, C. Triumphans, had yellow-petaled flowers, so in reality, there are two yellow large-flowered Cattleya species, C. dowiana and C. rex.
Cattleya Triumphans was a sensation when it first flowered and received its share of First Class Certificates and Awards of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in England. Because of the scarcity of C. rex during the late 1800s and early 1900s when breeding with the Cat-tleya species was at its peak, Cattleya Triumphans became the primary vehicle for C. rex breeding.
Cattleya Triumphans is a vigorous grower with large flowers borne well on a tall flower spike, and it imparts these excellent qualities to its hybrids. It also imparts the full or entire lip to its hybrids, which avoids the lip and flower distortions that sometimes result from cut-lip yellows.
Because C. rex was in such short supply for so many years, the full extent of its breeding potential has never been explored. While C. dowiana has been used to make hundreds of crosses, only a handful are made with C. rex. This is unfortunate, because C. rex is superior to C. dowiana in several important qualities. The flowers of C. rex last more than twice as long as C. dowiana, and C. rex is much less susceptible to rot. Cattleya rex produces more flowers on a spike than does C. dowiana and its flowers have better form. While we know a great deal about the inheritance of the yellow color in C. dowiana, relatively little is known about the inheritance of yellow color from C. rex.
Like C. dowiana in Costa Rica, C. rex grows near the top of huge tropical trees that often tower some 70 feet in the air in C. rex country, and have trunks 2 feet or more in diameter. The natives Harry Blossfeld hired to collect the C. rex in 1940 refused to climb these gigantic trees, so the trees had to be cut down — which took two natives at least half a day per tree, and produced an ecological disaster. Only a few C. rex grow on each tree, and many C. rex plants were crushed and destroyed when the trees struck the ground or hit adjacent trees as they fell. It was a costly project to collect C. rex, not only in the number of lost C. rex plants, but also the loss of the giant hardwood trees. Even Harry Blossfeld expressed sadness at the loss of so many splendid trees. Time, unfortunately, has only made the ecological problems worse, as present-day coffee, tea, and corn growers use the modern slash-and-burn technique to clear land, and the giant trees themselves have become a cash crop. For C. rex, however, survival may be better than ever as Peruvian orchid lovers rescue large numbers of C. rex plants that would otherwise be destroyed by the fires, and escort them to a safe haven in orchid nurseries. As sib crosses are produced from these plants, we will hopefully see a lot more of C. rex in the future.
Cattleya rex has been without doubt the most glamorized of the large-flowered Cattleya species. Linden’s portrait of the first C. rex, shown on page 841, is one of the most striking pictures in Lindenia. Even today, Angela Mirro’s grand watercolor of C. rex is so outspoken in its praise of C. rex that it spent the entire spring this year on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
Cattleya rex is one of the golden treasures of the Incas that neither the Spanish conquistadores nor the voracious Victorian plant collectors successfully conquered. Like the Incas themselves, who survived in the protection of their mighty mountains, C. rex still reins supreme from its towering trees in its isolated haunts in the Peruvian jungle, and now, aided by its many friends, it may finally be able to pass on its full legacy to the orchid world.
Acknowledgments: Isaías Rolando, MD, one of Peru’s well-known experts on Cattleya rex, has graciously allowed me to include his slides of these distinct color forms in this article.
How to Grow Cattleya rex
Like most of the large-flowered Cattleya species, Cattleya rex is relatively easy to grow. It will send out a new lead in late winter or early spring in the United States and complete the growth from late May to late June. Buds will appear in the sheath before the growth is completed and the plant should be in flower by mid-July to early August. After flowering, C. rex will rest until it begins growing again in late winter.
Cattleya rex seems to grow best in smaller-size pots that will allow no more than one year’s new growth. After they flower, I treat them like C. dowiana, keeping the plants as dry as possible during the autumn and winter months when they are dormant. Like C. dowiana, C. rex benefits from lots of sun during the winter months, and the more sun it receives, the more flowers it will produce. I grow my C. rex in my intermediate house, which ranges from 60 F at night to 85 F during the day.
Cattleya rex will usually send out a new flush of roots about the time it begins new growth and the best time to repot it is when this flush of roots appears. Under greenhouse conditions, C. rex will usually produce a 10- or 12-inch-tall pseudobulb, and four to six flowers on a flower spike. Unlike C. dowiana, which often lasts only a week or so in flower, C. rex flowers will normally last three weeks or more.
Some people have described C. rex as difficult to establish, but I have not found this to be true. When I acquire C. rex plants, even imported plants, I wash off all the old medium and immediately pot them in sphagnum moss in the smallest-possible pots they will fit into. I do not allow any room for the plant to make a new growth since the purpose here is to encourage the plants to root, not grow. Once they are well-rooted in the small pots, the whole rootball is eased out of the small pot and moved into the next-size pot, one that will allow room for one new growth. At this point, you can add your standard medium in front of the sphagnum rootball and the plant should grow normally. When using sphagnum, it is important not to pack it tightly so there is a good air exchange to stimulate root growth. You should also avoid using more than a 4-inch pot so the sphagnum will not stay too wet too long. If you must go to a 5-inch pot because of the size of the plant, you will have to take care in watering the sphagnum so it will not stay too wet. Clay pots are preferred over plastic pots because they allow a better air exchange with the medium. — A.A. Chadwick.