First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Rodham Clinton was anything but a traditional First Lady. She was visible and outspoken with a resume that included being an attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund and a professor of law at the University of Arkansas. She viewed politics as the “art of making possible what appears impossible.”

Her husband, Bill, was the 42nd U.S. President, serving two terms from 1993 to 2001. In his first year of office, she chaired the Task Force on National Health Care Reform – a challenging position which brought her both praise and distain. In 1996, she called on all Americans to collectively take responsibility for their children and published a book to that affect. By her husband’s final year as President, she had moved her residence to New York and was running for the U.S. Senate.

In the fall of 1992, an un-named seedling, Blc Meditation x C Kittiwake was on a delivery truck en route to a local florist in Delaware. The buds had been wrapped in cotton for protection during the trip but now were starting to open.  The truck was being driven by A. A. Chadwick who took one look at the flowers and said, “I’m keeping this one!”

He enjoyed the flowers and suggested that we re-bloom the plant the following year. The timing coincided with the 1993 Eastern Orchid Congress which was held in Raleigh, North Carolina. We featured the semi-alba in our commercial display where it got the Best Semi-Alba Cattleya in the show. No small feat, given the dozens of other exhibitor’s flowers.

By now, we realized that this un-named hybrid was very special so we contacted the breeder, Carmela Orchids, who graciously gave us permission to name the cross. At the time, the President of the United States was Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, had never had an orchid named after her. My father and I discussed the decades-old tradition of U.S. First Ladies and their namesake cattleyas. Several of these women had actually been presented with the flowers. Perhaps we could not only name the hybrid after Mrs. Clinton but also present it to her.

We set our sights on this seemingly impossible task for the next time it would bloom - fall of 1994. Our exuberant letters to the White House were politely declined. Our senior U.S. Senator from Virginia followed up with a more official letter which was also turned down. Things were not going well as the plant went in and out of bloom. Finally, through the efforts of a mutual friend, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, we were given an opportunity.

In October 1995, the First Lady was scheduled to speak at the annual Kennedy-King dinner in Alexandria, VA. We were given front row seats to hear the slate of speakers then ushered to a waiting room just before Mrs. Clinton took the stage. It was here that we experienced the ‘bomb-sniffing dogs’ and the scrutiny of the secret service. Shortly after a thunderous applause from the stage, our door opened and in walked a long line of very large body guards followed by the First Lady.


We presented Mrs. Clinton with three flowers, each made into a fancy corsage. The First Lady was truly moved by our efforts and was engaging as we explained the significance of the hybrid. The meeting lasted only two minutes but, according to her scheduler, this was quite a long period of time. Most ‘meet and greets’ only last a few seconds.

Gerritt Takasaki of Carmela Orchids is credited with initially making Blc Hillary Rodham Clinton (Meditation  x C Kittiwake), in the late 1980’s. A small number of the seedlings were bloomed out at Carmela but most were sold to growers around the country. Gerritt could not have imagined that one of the plants would land in the hands of the sitting U.S. First Lady.

Carmela Orchids was founded in 1960 in Hakalau, HI by Yasuji Takasaki and his wife, Mitsuko. The company was named after their first daughter, Carmela and all four of their children became involved in the business.

Mr. Takasaki had been a cultivation supervisor at a local sugar plantation in the mid 1940’s and was dabbling with cut orchids as a side job. He purchased a planter box containing 90 Vanda Miss Joaquim for $800 from a friend. With the help of his family, he sought out to be “the largest vanda grower in the territory of Hawaii.” By 1960, the company had three acres of Vanda Miss Joaquim production and “picked 35,000 blossoms daily.”

By the end of the decade, Carmela Orchids was transitioning into potted plants. Mr. Takasaki purchased some cattleyas whose colorful flowers inspired his two sons. The oldest son, Sheldon, graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in horticulture and became the company manager. The younger son, Gerritt, managed the tissue culture and seed germinating laboratory. Both sons traveled extensively to orchid shows throughout the U.S. and Japan putting in displays and selling at trade shows.

Over the years, Carmela Orchids built a reputation for high quality plants and offering hobbyists a chance to raise young seedlings from flasks and community pots. Their mail order catalogs contained pages of new and exciting cattleya and phalaenopsis crosses, many of which were shipped worldwide.

Blc Hillary Rodham Clinton has a long lineage dating back six generations and includes nine different cattleya species – predominately C dowiana, C warscewiczii, and C mossiae.

One parent of Blc Hillary Rodham Clinton is Blc Meditation (Bc Deesse x Lc Fedora) which was bred by a Hawaiian backyard hybridizer named Bill Nishimoto in 1974. He gave the seed pod to commercial grower J. Milton Warne of Honolulu to germinate. Mr Warne kept some seedlings to bloom out and sold many compots throughout the island. Blc Meditation became widely dispersed and was used extensively in breeding programs by other Hawaiian growers. Such well known plants as Blc Erin Kobayashi (x Blc Waikiki Gold), Blc Mahina Yahiro (x Bc Donna Kimura), Blc Blanche Aisaka (x Lc Stephen Oliver Fourakre), and Blc Good News (x Lc Persepolis) were all bred in Hawaii using Blc Meditation as a parent. Over 100 offspring have been registered to date with Blc Meditation.

At first glance, the flower of Blc Meditation gives the appearance of being a large white with a classic oversized frilly ‘brasso-type’ lip. However, close inspection reveals a hint of purple in the very tip of the lip in many varieties. Thus, the hybrid is not a true alba which paves the way for some interesting ‘white with colored lip’ breeding.

There has been speculation over the years about the Deesse variety that Nishimoto used to make his famous Blc Meditation. Nishimoto has always claimed that he used #47 which he acquired from Vacherot & Lecoufle via Beall Orchids in Washington State. Indeed, this variety was listed for sale in Alberts and Merkel Bros 1964-1965 catalog under the heading “Connoisseur Plants.” Some islanders believe that he used variety ‘Ranier’ which looks similar.   

Blc Meditation was wildly successful and remade many times by other growers. Sibling crosses of select varieties were also made. There were only two awarded plants - ‘King’s Ransom’ AM/AOS in 1983 and ‘Lahaina Lipstick’ AM/AOS in 1988. The most prized variety, ‘Queen’s Dowry’, was never awarded yet was considered to be the best breeder. Carmela used ‘Queen’s Dowry’ to make Blc Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Bc Deesse is often given credit for the success of Blc Meditation, but the other parent, Lc Fedora is also an impressive flower. Lc Fedora (Lc Laguna x C Hardyana) was made in 1931 by Charlesworth & Company, Ltd, one of the great growers of England. World renown for their Odontoglossom breeding, Charlesworth also pursed other genera including cattleyas and created such breakthroughs as Lc Luminosa, C Iris, L Coronet, Sl Psyche, Lc Elinor, and Slc Anzac. Joseph Charlesworth started the company in 1880 in Heaton, Yorkshire, England (the same hometown as the author’s family).

Charlesworth bred three successive generations of semi-albas culminating in Lc Fedora with Lc Laguna (C Tityus x Dominiana) in 1924, and C Tityus (Enid x Octave Doin) in 1912. In their 1933/34 catalog, Charlesworth offered several varieties of Lc Fedora for sale to the public including a rare albescens form for three pounds, three schillings. 

The other parent of Blc Hillary Rodham Clinton is C Kittiwake (Brussels x Luegeae) which was bred by the California firm, Armacost & Royston in 1948. ‘Arm-Roy’ as they were called, was a massive operation in Los Angeles. Their monthly full page advertisements in the AOS Bulletin boasted the Largest Breeders of Orchids in America. They grew all genera but cattleyas were their specialty.

Kittiwake was a valuable tetraploid stud plant at Armacost for decades. It was used to make such semi-alba classics as C Persepolis (x Pegi Mayne), C Ahmad Sheikhi (x Mem. Maggie Hood), and Blc Portage Glacier (x Bc Mount Hood). Kittiwake was never awarded by the American Orchid Society but variety ‘Brilliance’ was given an Award of Merit by the Orchid Digest Corporation in January 1962.

As late as 1979, Armacost was offering original divisions of C Kittiwake ‘Brilliance’ for $500 each. Their catalog described the plant as follows: “Some orchids retail their worth because of their transcendent beauty. Some increase in worth as they are proven as breeders. C Kittiwake ‘Brilliance’ has both of these attributes and more…” Carmela used ‘Brilliance’ to make Blc Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Courtney Hackney’s 2004 book, “American Cattleyas: Species and Outstanding Hybrids that Define American Hybridizing” praises C Kittiwake as well as one of its parents, C Luegeae (dowiana x Enid). English grower Charlesworth made C Luegeae in 1910 and it became a stud plant for dozens of hybrids for over half a century. The Orchid Digest Corporation recognized C Luegeae alba ‘Fulfillment’ HCC/ODC when exhibited by Roy Fields in July 1961.

The plant that was presented to Mrs. Clinton was given the variety name, ‘First Lady’. While the entire cross was high quality, there was one plant which stood out among the others. The radiant color of the lip is unique and the American Orchid Society judges described it as “rose-purple, margins ruffled, picotee lilac, throat heavily veined saffron” when they awarded a Highly Commended Certificate in 2005.

Variety ‘First Lady’ is a vigorous grower and blooms reliably every October with 2-4 large blossoms. The original plant has been split many times and there are divisions in private collections and on public display at The U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

Hillary Rodham Clinton won her U.S. Senate race and served out its six year term. In 2008, she was appointed U.S. Secretary of State – a position she held for four years. As of press time, she was running for President of the United States. If Mrs. Clinton ever retires from public office, perhaps she might like to try her hand at growing orchids. She joins thirteen current and former First Ladies who have had cattleyas named after them. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 - 15:15