Until recently, most Americans had never heard of Wilmington, Delaware. The state, itself, is tiny and bears the nickname, “Small Wonder”. My parents have lived there since 1960, growing orchids in their redwood greenhouses and raising a family.
Horticulturalists know the Wilmington area as a hot bed of plant activity with the famed Longwood Gardens just over the Pennsylvania line and the annual Philadelphia Flower Show a short drive up I-95. Even closer is the sprawling 1000 acre former DuPont estate, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Now Wilmington has a new attraction; the 46th President of the United States.
Joe and Jill Biden have been fixtures in Wilmington for as long as anyone can remember. They are regulars at the local grocery store, Janssen’s, and most residents have had at least a sighting of the famous couple. My father once sat next to Mr. Biden at the barber shop.
Jill Biden, or Dr. B as her students call her, grew up about an hour north in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. She met her future husband on a blind date while he was a freshman Senator and they married a few years later. For most of her adult life, she has been an educator – teaching at nearby public schools and technical colleges.
On January 20th, Jill Biden will be the 16th consecutive First Lady to have a namesake cattleya hybrid. The time honored orchid tradition dates back nearly a century to Mrs. Herbert Hoover and the wife of every president since has been recognized. The full collection of First Lady Cattleyas resides at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. where the blooming plants are rotated into public displays.
The Biden orchid, botanically known as Blc Jill Biden (Goldenzelle x Sea Swirl), was officially registered in 2013 while her husband was Vice President. The hybrid was bred by The Orchid Trail of Morrisville, North Carolina and named by Chadwick’s. The flowers are large and frilly – the corsage type – and range from yellow to green with a delightful fragrance.
The lineage of this first lady cattleya is well known in orchid circles.
The first parent, Blc Goldenzelle (Fortune x C Horace), is a product of the 1980’s California breeding scene and is one of the most widely used stud plants in history with over 250 registered offspring. The American Orchid Society has granted prestigious flower quality awards to 30 different varieties of Goldenzelle.
The other parent, Blc Sea Swirl (Greenwich x Mount Vernon), produces flowers with an exotic greenish hue and originated in 1989 at the legendary breeding program of Orchids by Hausermann in Villa Park, Illinois. Variety ‘Whirlpool’ AM/AOS was distributed worldwide and can be found in many collections today.
Shortly after the Jill Biden orchid was named, the Vice President, himself, was scheduled to appear in Richmond, Virginia on a campaign trip. Politicians regularly visit the city because of its close proximity to the U.S. Capitol and were nearly omnipresent during Virginia’s recent two decade run as a swing state.
We heard about the impending Biden visit from a client who is a local political activist and saw our “Jill” hybrid in bloom at the greenhouse. We wondered if this might be a good time to present the flowers. Timing is critical with perishable orchids as there is only a narrow window when the petals are their freshest.
Spouses sometimes accompany politicians to campaign events and it was unclear if both Biden’s would be in attendance. Our plan is always to give the flowers directly to the honoree - in this case, Jill Biden – but, given the short notice, the Vice President might have to do. We cut the flowers, put them in a water tube, and let the activist take them to the rally where she presented the flowers on stage to a grinning Joe Biden amidst a throng of cheers.
He loved the orchids and took them back to Wilmington that night for his wife to enjoy. This is likely the only time in history in which namesake orchids have been transported on Air Force Two, the official plane of the Vice President. Once again, Delaware has lived up to its nickname, “Small Wonder”, and Jill Biden’s hybrid now rests securely in the legacy of the first lady cattleyas.