First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Barbara Bush

Barbara Pierce Bush’s signature white hair and friendly persona endeared her to the American public for decades as her husband embarked on his numerous positions within the federal government. Prior to becoming the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush was Vice President, Director of the CIA, Ambassador to the United Nations, and Liaison to the People’s Republic of China.

As First Lady, Mrs. Bush adopted literacy as her signature cause. She had witnessed her son, Neil, struggle with Dyslexia as a child and sought to empower families with the necessary tools to read. “Family is unquestionably the most important part of my life. My wish is for every parent and child to experience the joy of reading and a lifetime of learning.” In 1989, she launched the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Barbara Bush is no stranger to orchids. While the Bushes were on diplomatic trips to Asia, the Singapore Botanic Garden named and presented two orchid hybrids bearing her name. In 1982, she received Aranda Barbara Bush (Arach hookerana x Wan Lai Chan) and, in 1992, Phalaenopsis Barbara Bush (Best Girl x Shim Beauty). The Singapore Botanic Garden is on the cutting edge of orchid technology and names their hybrids after foreign dignitaries and celebrities who visit the gardens.

In 2003, Owens Orchids in Pisgah Forest, N.C., registered Odontocidium Barbara Bush (Onc Macmax x Crowborough) after getting written permission from Mrs. Bush. Blooming plants were then sent to her home in Texas. The Owens family is distantly related to President Jimmy Carter’s family which helped facilitate the deal. Their nursery has been in business since 1962.

It was the cattleya of 2004, however, that stole the show.

Blc Barbara Bush (Lc Josephine Robinson x Blc Apparition) launched Mrs. Bush into the orchid history books as she became part of a tradition of consecutive First Ladies having cattleyas named after them dating back to the Hoover administration. (See ORCHIDS Aug 2012)

The cross was named by Chadwick’s but originally made by a small grower from North Carolina, Lenette Greenhouses. The business was founded in the late 1960’s by Ken Griffith and his wife, Eleanor.  

Legendary grower Gene Crocker, of Carter & Holmes in Newberry, S.C., speaks fondly of his friend Ken Griffith. “When I met him, he was my barber in Kannapolis, N.C. and he was growing orchids at his home. He had a greenhouse full of cymbidiums and sold the flowers at Easter. It was good to be able to talk orchids while I got my hair cut.” Gene was always known for his hair.

Ken eventually gave up barbering and grew orchids full time. Over four decades, Lenette registered nearly 300 crosses and exhibited in all the area orchid shows. ‘The semi-alba’s were a passion of mine,’ Ken said.

And what a semi-alba cattleya it is. The parentage shows a heavy C warscewiczii and mossiae influence so the flowers are large and well presented. There isn’t a specific blooming season as the seedlings bloom throughout the year.

One of the parents is Lc Josephine Robinson (Pegi Mayne x Cynthiana) which was made by Lines Orchids in 1961 and represented the culmination of Lines’ outstanding breeding with semi-albas. Variety ‘Lines’ AM/AOS was one of 16 stud plants featured in the June 1965 AOS Bulletin on semi-alba breeding (along with two varieties of C Bess Truman). John Lines described this cattleya as “a very fine strong-growing semi-alba. The snow-white sepals and petals, combined with a beautifully proportioned lip, make this beautiful variety the queen of the group.”

Josephine Robinson is also a great example of “east coast” breeding. One parent, Lc Cynthiana was made by Rivermont Orchids of Signal Mountain, TN and the other parent, Lc Pegi Mayne (and grandparent, Lc Eugenia) was made by H. Patterson & Sons of Bergenfield, New Jersey. The early 1960’s was a bountiful time for First Lady hybrids as Patterson made C Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 (See ORCHIDS Aug 2014) and Lines made C Bess Truman in 1962 (See ORCHIDS Feb 2014).  

Lines Orchids received two awards from the American Orchid Society for Lc Josephine Robinson – ‘Atlanta’ AM/AOS in 1961 and the heralded ‘Lines’ AM/AOS in 1964 – and both complimented the lip coloring. ‘Atlanta’ is described as “Lip deep purple edged with fine white ruffled border.”

Scott McCandless, who is a 4th generation grower at Lines, was able to locate John Lines’ original handwritten notes for Lc Josephine Robinson ‘Lines’ AM/AOS. The lip is described as ‘royal purple all the way around, faint white fringe on front, two medium gold eyes in the throat, burnt gold lines inside.” The plant had four large flowers at the time.

Much of Lc Josephine Robinson’s outstanding traits can be derived from a long forgotten 1917 hybrid, Lc Schroderae (Bella x C Maggie Rafael) which appears on both sides of the parentage. The hybrid is a reminder of the huge impact that the Schroeder family had on orchid history.

Baron Sir Henry John William Schroeder (1824-1910) had one of the finest collections in all of Europe in the late 1800’s. His estate, known as ‘The Dell’ sported 12 large orchid greenhouses including two that were devoted to just fine cattleya varieties. The Dell collection was so impressive that it was given a four page feature in the very first issue of The Orchid Review in 1893.

Baron Schroeder was a wealthy merchant banker and when a new cattleya species was discovered in 1896, he purchased all the specimens. Botanist H. G. Reichenbach named the new species for the Baron’s wife, and called it Cattleya schroderae. The Baroness, he said, “is so well known as an enthusiastic lover of orchids.”   

When the Baron died, his son Baron H.W. Bruno Schroeder, took over the collection. He was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s orchid committee and an active hybridizer.  Bruno must have felt that one orchid named after his family wasn’t enough so, in 1917, he registered a new hybrid with the exact same name – Schroderae.

Lc Schroderae turned out to be a very successful white with colored lip cross. It earned many awards from the Royal Horticultural Society including ‘Magnifica’ FCC/RHS in 1919 and ‘Gloriosa’ FCC/RHS in 1920. In addition, the fine varieties went on to produce dozens of new hybrids for breeders worldwide.

 The other parent of Blc Barbara Bush is Blc Apparition (Blc Nanette x C Enid) and was made by Stuart Low & Co of Great Britain in 1949. The word, apparition, is derived from the French and means ‘super-natural’ or ‘unexpectedly wonderful’. The hybrid is a classic example of ‘English’ breeding in that the entire lineage, with one exception, can be traced to commercial nurseries in Great Britain: Low, Sanders, McBeans, and Veitch. The French firm, Messieurs C Maron & Fils of Brunoy, intervened with Bc Mrs. J. Leeman in 1902.

 Apparition made its way across the Atlantic where it was used as a stud plant. Lenette combined it with other plants besides Josephine Robinson including Rivermont’s Blc Mellowglow (=Blc Salter Path). Joseph Redlinger of Homestead, FL registered several Apparition crosses including Blc Memoria Judy Garland (x C Sonja Altenburg). 

Another Florida nursery, Tom Ritter’s Tropic 1 Orchids in Kissimmee, exhibited Apparition ‘Sara’ in 1966 and received a Highly Commended Certificate from the American Orchid Society. Once again, the judges raved about the coloring - “Three large white flowers with petunia-purple lips, on one spike. Labellums edged in white. Flat flowers, well held.”

Blc Barbara Bush is the only First Lady hybrid to contain C quadricolor in the lineage. This Colombian species is rarely used in breeding today for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the flowers remain ‘cupped’ on most plants. No other species does this. The buds begin opening just like a normal cattleya but then, for reasons unknown, never fully open. The flowers harden off in a ½ open or ‘bell-shaped’ position which makes it difficult to fully appreciate the beauty. In addition to having cupped flowers, the inflorescence often hangs downward, which leaves the viewer to crouch down in order to see inside.

 Wild orchid collectors have traditionally passed up the opportunity to take native quadricolors from the trees due to their less than desirable characteristics. Likewise, the cut flower industry wanted nothing to do with the species. As a result, there remain populations of these cattleyas growing in the jungles while other species have gone practically extinct. Thus, the often ridiculed cupped flowers have turned out to be a survival mechanism.

For over 150 years, C quadricolor was called C chocoensis after the Choco region of Colombia. Historical records show that the very first discoverers of the species in 1849 used the name quadricolor after noticing the four shades in the throat – lavender, purple, yellow, and white. Early breeders were eager to make new hybrids and, despite its flaws, C quadricolor was a willing participant. The petals were wide and the four colors in the throat attractive. In addition, the flowers lasted nearly as long as the workhorse, C trianaei. By 1945, there were several dozen primary and early crosses using C quadricolor – including C Annette (x warscewicziii) in 1919.

The early Sander’s hybrid registration books were particularly informative because they often listed the varieties of each parent. In the case of C Annette, the pod was held by C quadricolor alba and the pollen came from C warscewiczii ‘F. M. Beyrodt’ or  ‘F.M.B.’ The warscewiczii semi-alba stud is one of the most prolific breeder plants of all time but the C quadricolor was relatively new.

The only award of C Annette was a semi-alba in 1924 – given an FCC/MNEOS (Manchester and North of England Orchid Society). The judges wrote “Four large white flowers, the labellum purple.” The next generation was wildly successful as Blc Nanette (C Annette x Blc Everest) had 56 registered offspring by 1960.

There have been several attempts to present Barbara Bush with her namesake cattleya.

The first occurred in 2005 when Mrs. Bush was speaking in Richmond at the Virginia Literacy Foundation – an organization that she helped start while at the White House. The flowers, however, opened a few days after the event so they were shipped to her home in Texas. She responded with a lovely hand-written note, “They are beautiful. I am so honored!”

The second attempt occurred in 2012 when Mrs. Bush and her daughter-in–law, Laura, were speaking at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library as part of the series ‘The Enduring Legacies of America’s First Ladies.” The flowers were in the waiting room but the Bushes arrived with not a moment to spare and went straight on stage.

Alas, presenting cattleyas is not for the faint of heart.

At age 90, Barbara Bush is just getting started. She is the author of two children's books, C. Fred's Story and Millie's Book as well as an autobiography, Barbara Bush: A Memoir and Reflections: Life After the White House. She is devoted to her 20 grandchildren and great grandchildren and remains active with her literacy organization. Her namesake cattleya is on public display at the U.S. Botanic Garden. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015 - 15:45