Cattleyas Go Hollywood!
By A.A. Chadwick and Arthur E. Chadwick
That one word that best describes the world of orchids is glamour. No group of plants has ever captured the imagination like this strange, exotic, and beautiful flower.
When they were first discovered in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, orchids became the most sought after playthings of European royalty. Kings and queens had magnificent collections and by the mid 19th century, orchids were part of the complete royal fabric, grown by dukes and barons, viscounts and ladies. Queen Victoria had a large orchid collection as did the German Empress, Queen of the Belgians, and the Empress of Russia. Cattleyas were especially revered by collectors and were eventually given the title “Queen of the Orchids.”
Cattleyas were truly prized flowers. They had delicious fragrances and were available all year. They were large in size and came in exotic shades of lavender and purple. There were all white flowers and white with dark purple lips. They had a delicate appearance that said “Look, but don’t touch.” And they were very feminine. For more than 30 years, from the late 1920’s through the 1950’s, women wore corsages of cattleya flowers whenever they wanted a touch of glamour. They wore them to fancy luncheons, dinner dances, the theatre, the opera, or any other fashionable affair. President Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie, was never seen in public without her corsage of two or three cattleya flowers. In the 1940’s, teenage boys gave their Junior or Senior Prom dates cattleya corsages – because the girls expected them.
This glamour would soon span the century and as the world moved into the technology age, a different kind of royalty appeared – the stars of motion pictures and television. Such famous Hollywood personalities as Gregory Peck and Raymond Burr grew a treasure trove of cattleyas. During his many television interviews, Gregory Peck was often surrounded by his large cattleya plants with their magnificent array of white flowers. Raymond Burr’s orchid collection was legendary and included a sizeable commercial interest, Sea God Nurseries, with hundreds of registered cattleya hybrids and an orchid garden on the island of Java.
In keeping with the tradition of glamour, one of our modern day celebrities, Priscilla Presley, sat down recently to have her picture taken for this magazine, next to her namesake orchid, Cattleya Priscilla Presley. It was through mutual friends that we approached Ms. Presley several years ago about the concept of having an orchid named in her honor – specifically a cattleya – and included a copy of ‘The Classic Cattleyas’ book as an introduction. She liked the idea and, in the months that followed, she personally selected this hybrid from photographs of seedlings that were in production. As the delicate buds started to appear in the sheaths, we would ship the special plants across the country – in the dead of winter - praying that the plants wouldn’t freeze or get damaged.
We are so proud to be associated with Priscilla Presley who is one of the most recognized personalities in the world. Known initially though her marriage to the ‘King of Rock & Roll’, Elvis Presley, she went on to star in many successful films including the Naked Gun trilogy and the long running Dallas television series. When not in front of the camera, she guided Graceland into the popular tourist attraction that it is today as founder and chairwoman of Elvis Presley Enterprises. Recently, she inspired TV audiences everywhere with her ballroom dance routines on Dancing with the Stars.
Her beautiful purple hybrid is a product of a fascinating cross between the famous Cattleya Bonanza and the lovely Cattleya Altesse. Cattleya Bonanza has been widely written about for its superior breeding abilities so it is familiar to many orchid hobbyists but Cattleya Altesse is one of the hidden treasures that few people know about today.
C Altesse was first introduced to the orchid world in 1936 by the French company, Vacherot & Lecoufle in Paris. Its lineage practically guaranteed stardom because it was a continuation of the fine breeding of Sanders of St Albans, England – using C Britannia in 1903 and C Remy Chollet in 1926. The famous species stud, C trianaei ‘Grand Monarch’ FCC/RHS gave C Remy Chollet its particularly round shape and vigorous growth habit.
The resulting C Altesse plants had strong floriferous bloom spikes. The flowers cleared the sheaths well and lasted a long time – an important quality for the corsage industry. The best varieties of C Altesse made their way to the United States and were used by commercial growers, primarily on the East Coast, to make some of the best cut flower crosses of the day. Jones and Scully gave one plant their coveted varietal name, ‘Orchidglade’ but, for the most part, C Altesse was rarely exhibited at shows. Instead, its primary use was for stud purposes though many of the resulting crosses were not officially registered with the Royal Horticultural Society - leaving the hybrid relatively unknown until now.
Cattleya Priscilla Presley fills an important gap in the history of cattleya breeding for it demonstrates the beauty that C Altesse can impart on purple hybrids. All the seedlings from this celebrity cross bloom during the winter months of January and February – exactly when they are desired most by the public. The lovely lavender shaded petals vary ever so slightly from plant to plant and the darker throats offer a hint of gold veining and an unmistakable fragrance.
Ms. Presley, who also has a rose perfume which carries her name, keeps a collection of her namesake orchids in Beverly Hills, CA where they bloom for over a month. She displays the plants in ornate decorative pots which further enhance their beauty and keep the heavily laden flowers from tipping over. The new hybrid was unveiled for the first time as a large grouping of seedlings at this year’s Virginia Orchid Society show in Richmond.
We would like to express our sincere appreciation to Priscilla Presley for her wonderful cooperation with this article, and we sincerely hope that she has many years of enjoyment from her new hybrid.