First Ladies and their Cattleyas: Rosalynn Carter

In 1953, Jimmy Carter left a promising Navy career to run the family peanut farm in Plains, Georgia. Ten years later, he launched his first political victory by winning a seat in the State Senate. By 1971, he was Governor. His humble beginnings contributed to the public’s perception of Carter as a ‘Washington Outsider’ and helped him win the White House in 1976.

Along the way, his wife, Rosalynn, was right by his side. She had been the bookkeeper for the peanut business and together they taught Sunday school. She and their three sons campaigned tirelessly for the future President as did an enormous group of volunteers nicknamed the ‘Peanut Brigade.’

Mrs. Carter developed a lifelong passion for the issue of mental health and Jimmy made sweeping reforms while Governor. As the First Lady of the United States, she built on those policies as honorary chairperson of the Commission on Mental Health. Her recommendations brought increased acceptance of people with mental disorders.

From the outset, Rosalyn Carter had no intention of being a traditional First Lady. She attended Cabinet meetings, national security briefings, and played a key role in the 39th President’s signature achievement, a Middle East peace agreement. The Carters held the peace negotiations with the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of Israel, as well as their wives, which helped to create a more relaxed atmosphere.

In late May of 1977, Rosalynn traveled as the President’s official envoy to Latin America. She met with the presidents and prime ministers of seven countries. In preparation for the two week trip, Mrs. Carter took Spanish lessons and was briefed on the weighty issues of the day – from energy policy and nuclear weaponry to beef exports and financial aid. While other First Ladies had traveled abroad to press their husband’s agenda, none had engaged the issues directly.

The Carters had a special interest in Latin America and had traveled there many times prior to his election. The last stop on her historic trip was Venezuela where Rosalynn met with President Carlos Andres Perez and his wife, Blanquita. After discussing the important diplomatic topics, Mrs. Carter was escorted to a meeting of the North American Association of Venezuela where she received a very special welcoming gift.

Venezuela is home to roughly 1500 naturally occurring orchid species including six large-flowered Cattleyas – gaskelliana, jenmanii, lawrenciana, lueddemanniana, mossiae, and percivaliana. The capital, Caracas, is a bustling city with well established commercial growers such as famed orchidist Henrique Graf of Plantio De Orquidea. In the southeast corner of the city, just minutes from Graf’s business, was a sizable operation called Urimare Nurseries (Viveros Urimare) owned by Dr Abraham Jesurun.

Jesurun was an accomplished grower and hybridizer, having registered 51 cattleya crosses as early as 1966. He used the best stud plants of the day – Slc Anzac, Lc Lee Langford, C Nigritian, Blc Norman’s Bay, C Penang, Bc Pastoral, Bc Hartland, Blc Fortune, C Bob Betts, and Lc Princess Margaret. He named many of his hybrids after friends and family members.

Urimare Nurseries consisted of six greenhouses and a lab for seed sowing. Cattleyas were sold retail, wholesale, as cut flowers and potted plants. Jesurun was well known and presided over the local orchid society (Socieded de Orquideologia del Estado Miranda) for six years. Like many commercial growers, his business started out as a hobby. He split his time between orchids and running the two largest vegetable oil companies in Venezuela (Los Tres Cochinitos in Caracas and Aceite Diana in Valencia).

Abraham Jesurun was a savvy businessman. One of the top stories around the world that day was Rosalynn Carter visiting Venezuela. What better way to call attention to his orchid company than by naming a cattleya after the visiting wife of a newly elected American President – especially a First Lady who was trying to improve relations and the local economy.

The ‘Rosalynn Orchid’, as it was referred to by her staff, was astounding. The flowers were a rich medium purple with dark orange ‘eyes’ and five flowers on a spike. The potted plant was wrapped in fancy gold foil and presented to Mrs. Carter by the grower himself, Abraham Jesurun and his wife, Gloria. The local cub scouts also gave cut cattleyas to the Carter entourage. As can be seen from the photograph, Mrs. Carter was smiling from ear to ear.

Afterwards, the historic plant was transported to Washington, D.C. aboard Mrs. Carter’s plane. Rosalynn spoke first at a joint news conference, “This morning in Venezuela, President Perez said…that…my visit to Latin America had opened new paths in inter-American relations.” Mr. Carter joked, “It’s a much greater sacrifice for me to have her gone than the Vice President…or the Secretary of State.”

Undoubtedly, Mrs. Carter’s namesake orchid, which accompanied her home, had also contributed to the warm feeling of the trip. She officially thanked Dr. Jesurun in a follow-up letter - “Your thoughtful gesture of naming this lovely orchid after me will remain a symbol of the ties that bind our countries.” It could be said that her cattleya had become the official symbol of friendship between Venezuela and the United States.

The lineage of Cattleya Rosalynn Carter (Dinah x Dark Emperor) speaks volumes about the quality of the hybrid. Although Abraham Jesurun had many fine stud plants from the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, he also had a few outstanding breeder plants dating back to the early 1900’s. His C Dinah (Dupreana x Elvina), for example, was first made by McBeans Orchid Nursery in Cooksbridge, England in 1919. McBeans was an exhibitor at the very first Chelsea Flower Show in 1913 and is still in business today. By 1946, there were over 45 registered hybrids using C Dinah.

As a promising hybrid between C warscewizii and C warneri, C Dupreana became a popular stud plant for early summer dark purple hybrids. C warneri was one of the first cattleyas to receive a First Class Certificate from the RHS when S Rucker exhibited it in 1866. Numerous C warscewiczii have been awarded by the RHS and ‘Low’s’ variety FCC/RHS from 1910 is one of the best for dark color.

In 1896, A. A. Peeters of Brussels Belgium, exhibited a C Dupreana where it was described by the Gardener’s Chronicle as “larger than C warscewiczii and similarly colored.” The cross was registered by the legendary Firmin Lambeau of Villa Vogelsang (Birdsong House). Even today, hobbyists are familiar with the name, Firmin Lambeau, due to the highly awarded alba variety of C warscewiczii which bears his name.

C Elvina (schilleriana x trianaei) does not sound like a hopeful cross given the notable shortcomings of C schilleriana in terms of flower size and color. Yet it was used on occasion to increase the flower count and to keep the foliage medium-sized. In 1896, the Gardeners Chronicle described this event, “J Veitch and Sons of the Royal Exotic Nursery in Chelsea received a gold medal “for a remarkably fine group which would be praiseworthy at any season of the year. Among the plants...was the new Cattleya Elvina, a dwarf plant bearing large flowers, the sepals and petals of which were of that light purple…”. One variety of C Elvina received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. The availability of superior jungle plants at the turn of the century often produced much finer crosses than we have today.

The other parent of C Rosalynn Carter, C Dark Emperor (C Nigritian x C Nigrella), was bred by Robert Gore of Fort Lauderdale, FL in 1957. Aside from having a sizable cattleya business called the Orchid House, he was a trustee of the American Orchid Society and chaired the committee that established the AOS judging point system. He traveled the world and had one of the largest collections of C trianaei in existence – with 285 named varieties.

Of the 135 cattleya crosses that Gore registered during his lifetime, C Dark Emperor was arguably his greatest accomplishment. The hybrid garnished three AOS awards shortly after being named – ‘El Portal’ HCC/AOS in1957, ‘Mariner’ HCC/AOS in 1959, and the well-known ‘Black Caesar’ AM/AOS in 1963. Fellow Florida grower Trade Wind Orchids of Miami received the 83 point Award of Merit for ‘Black Caesar’ where it was described as having “Three intensely dark deep purple flowers of fine form, substance, and medium size on one spike.” Trade Wind would run a full page color ad in the AOS Bulletin a few years later promoting the plant for its stud potential.

What will be remembered about Rosalynn Carter’s namesake cattleya is that this is the only First Lady hybrid to have been bred outside the United States. Except for the recently discovered presentation photographs from Venezuela, there are no known images of the stunning flowers. The grower, Abraham Jesurun’s entire orchid collection was given away upon his death and it is unclear if any plants of Cattleya Rosalynn Carter exist today. Given the historical significance of the hybrid, we are in the process of remaking the cross.

At age 87, Rosalynn Carter remains passionate about mental health. She serves on the Board of Advisors of Habit for Humanity and is co-founder with her husband of the Carter Center – a partnership with Emory University that is guided by a fundamental commitment to human rights. The former First Lady is the author of five books and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Friday, May 1, 2015 - 12:30