Dance of the Cattleyas

An intimate look back at the Queen of Fashion


C. trianaei

A young man, barely 16 years old, stood in the vestibule of Edith Myers large stone residence on Spring Avenue when I arrived to see her orchids. The vestibule was piled high with large white boxes - each containing a corsage of a Cattleya mossiae flower. A few boxes even had corsages with two flowers.

The young man smiled sheepishly at Mrs. Myers as he took out his wallet.

“If I don’t give my girl an orchid for the Junior Prom,” he said, “she’ll think I’m a square, and then she won’t go out with me anymore.”

That said, he handed Mrs. Myers 3 well-worn one dollar bills – his evenings wages at an after-school job. He took a box with only one flower. Two flowers cost $3.75.


C. mossiae

1946 was a big year for cattleya orchid corsages and it seemed every orchid hobbyist I knew had a finger or two in the pie. Edith Myers had a 150 foot long greenhouse with its entrance a few feet from her kitchen door, and the greenhouse was filled with Cattleya trianaeiC. mossiaeC. labiata and otherCattleya species. She considered herself a hobbyist, but she cut enough flowers each week to pay the cost of her greenhouse heat, osmunda, pots and other orchid stuff, and the wages of her part-time grower – a young preacher from a local church.

The 16 year-old boy was from the high school just down the street, but Edith often hired college students to take orders for corsages for dances at one of the universities in Philadelphia – a 20 minute train ride away. Whether you went to high school or college in 1946, cattleya orchids were everywhere. The girls loved them and the boys who gave them got a little loving too.

Not surprisingly, the girls’ mothers also loved orchids, and when there were no dances to plunder, Edith sold her cattleya flowers to a wholesaler who gave her this week’s market price which ranged from 75 cents a flower to over 10 dollars a flower, depending on supply and demand. Easter and Mother’s Day were usually sold out weeks ahead of time, and desperate florists were willing to pay any amount a few days before the holiday to be able to put something in that cattleya corsage they had promised their best customer.

I wasn’t too good at making up corsages; my fingers usually got tied up with the ribbon. I only knew how to grow orchids, so I sold all my cattleya flowers to a fancy flower shop for $1.00 each year-round and they made them into exquisite $12 fashion pieces for their elite clientele. At times my cattleyas went into sophisticated vase arrangements at twice the price. Since I was only 15 years old in 1946, I had to settle for the $1.00 I received from the florist even though the market price was 2 or 3 times that much in the spring. It was a struggle to clear the expenses for my little 30 foot greenhouse but, I had to admit that selling cattleyas was a better way to earn your spending money than mopping floors at the record store.

Hybrid cattleyas were still scarce in 1946, so most of the orchid corsages were made with whatever Cattleya species was in season at the time. That meant women wore Cattleya labiata flowers in the fall, C. percivaliana and C. trianaei flowers over the Christmas holidays, C. trianaei and C. schroederae flowers during the winter and C. mossiae flowers for all the big springtime affairs. There were always a few of the other spring-flowering cattleyas like C. lueddemannianaC. gaskelliana and C. warneri, but florists really only knew the names “labiata,” “trianaei” and “mossiae,” and that is what they asked for.

The fashion for wearing corsages grew up in a more gracious era than we seem to have today, an era when people associated femininity with the delicateness and beauty of flowers. It started with outdoor camellias, grew rich with sweet-smelling white gardenias, and blossomed into full-blown millionaire status with cattleyas. Unlike camellias and gardenias, cattleyas were the perfect corsage flower. Camellias were mostly pink in color, gardenias were only white, but cattleyas came in rare, feminine shades of lavender and purple, white with yellow throats, and two-tones, and when you got into the newer hybrids, yellow, red, orange and a host of art shades. Unlike camellias and gardenias, each cattleya flower was also different and individual just like people. You wouldn’t find two women at a dance wearing identical flowers. Cattleyas also had an exotic three-dimensional appearance that made them a lot more interesting than other corsage flowers. Camellias and gardenias lasted only a day in a corsage, while a cattleya could be enjoyed for several days after the event it was made for. From a florist’s point of view, cattleyas could be cut on a Tuesday and sold on Friday or Saturday in a corsage with no apparent deterioration in the flower’s appearance. The only thing missing was the lovely fragrance which disappeared 2 days after the flowers were cut. Cattleyas were easy to make up and one flower made a very presentable corsage. Two flowers were stunning and three were only for presidents’ wives and social dowagers with money and status to burn. Camellias and gardenias had fairly thick substance, while cattleyas were so fragile looking you were afraid to touch them for fear you would hurt them. They were truly the look-but-do-not-touch flower –feminine to the core. What more could you ask? They had delicateness, longevity, three-dimensionality and beautiful colors – and they were available every day of the year.

When cattleyas were the queens of fashion, you could make a lot more money selling them as cut flowers than you could make on almost any other investment. Commercial flower producers who began growing cattleyas often became millionaires within a few years. I saw a grower throw out a 400 x 50 foot greenhouse full of huge gardenia plants, replace them with cattleyas and triple his income in one year.

Although the fashion for wearing corsages has largely disappeared in the barrenness of our technological age where beepers, cell phones and virtual everything replaces reality, I still see an occasional cattleya corsage on a well-dressed woman at a formal dance. Surprisingly, these women are not all wives of orchid hobbyists like my wife is. My wife, of course, never goes to a dinner dance without wearing her trademarked orchids. The corsage is there even when she is doing a wild jitterbug … which has to be a real challenge for survival for both the flower and its wearer.

Monday, June 1, 2009 - 12:00