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Cattleya Valerie Royston ‘San Diego’
(Orchidaceae – the orchid family)
common name: Cattleya Orchid
Cattleya is named for William Cattley, who was one of the first people to establish an exotic orchid collection. The plant was brought from Brazil, and, when it flowered, he sent it to Dr John Lindley to be analysed. Dr Lindley described this orchid as Cattleya labiata, thus establishing the new genus of Cattleya in 1824.
There are about 50 known species, all native to the New World tropics, but an enormous number of hybrid forms have been produced, both by crossing different Cattleya species with one another, and by crossing Cattleya species with other species in related genera.
Cattleya blossoms were the go-to flower for formal corsages, when these were the fashion. When I was in my early twenties (early 1950s), it was de rigueur to present a girl with a corsage based on a single orchid flower, when escorting her to a formal dance or a ball.
A typical Cattleya flower consists of three narrow sepals, and three larger petals. The bottom large petal is the lip, marked with various specks and a fringed edge folded into a tube-like shape. The number of flowers a Cattleya produces varies from one to ten. The flowers come in a wide variety of colours, but not in black or blue. The flowers are showy and long-lasting, and often very fragrant. The flowers of the largest modern hybrids can exceed 20 cm in diameter, while the smallest hybrids have flowers just 5 – 10 cm.
Cattleyas have thick, leathery, dull green leaves. There are two categories of plant, monofoliates (having one leaf) and bifoliates (with two). The former produce 1 – 4 flowers, and the latter many more, though they are smaller in size.
In the 1920s, Cattleyas became an important source of cut flowers for florists in the U.S.A., as they had been for some years in Europe. In the 1930s and 1940s they replaced camellias and gardenias as the classic flowers for use in corsages, but by the 1950s Cymbidium orchids were replacing the Cattleyas. They were longer-lasting, smaller and more compact, yet still large enough to make a corsage that was much cheaper, and the use of Cattleyas for the purpose gradually faded away. However, Cymbidiums became so cheap that their glamour quickly faded, and the market for orchid corsages in general declined.
Spectacular and reasonably tough plants, Cattleyas are easy orchids for beginners. Most require some warmth in winter. They like bright, lightly shaded conditions. The pseudobulbs give them reasonable drought tolerance, and they prefer to dry out between waterings. The plants can be grown in porous pots or hanging baskets with coarse fibrous compost.
Propagation is by division They should be divided when dormant, into clusters of 4 or more pseudobulbs.
Photographed in Picnic Bay 2009
Page last updated 8th February 2017