It Had to Start Somewhere - Cattleya Species

An extraordinary form of Cattleya skinneri

As an avowed and recovering orchid addict, I have grown a huge array of orchids, always trying to learn how to grow them and about the myriad flower types available in the orchid family. I am especially partial to large flowered Cattleyas; in my mind it is the quintessential "orchid". There are thousands of hybrids, in a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, textures and fragrances. I have an old-fashioned hybrid called Lc. Crispin Rosales, and when it is in flower, I never miss a chance to inhale the fragrance until I get dizzy. Its rich, clove-spice-gardenia fragrance is irresistible.

After growing hybrids for many years, I discovered the simple elegance of several of the species in the genus, and 2 of the species have accounted for more hybrids than any others. The trends in orchid breeding are interestingly cyclic; there is a trend toward species, then primary hybrids, then miniatures, then allied species, and then back again to the start. Each "cycle" runs for a few years, then a new set of articles will arise in an orchid journal, or a leading orchid company will promote a new line of breeding. 
C. skinneri 'Heiti Jacobs' AM/AOS

C. trianae
an excellent selection with round flowers
and great overall shape

As with all plant breeding, the wild species start the process. As plant breeding goes, orchids are fairly recent in the hybridizing world, starting actively in the late 1800s. Modern orchid breeding really got going in the 1960s, and has accelerated ever since. The Royal Horticultural Society diligently records orchid hybrids and the latest tally of orchid hybrids numbers over 100,000, with some estimates as high as 200,000 hybrids ! All this started with wild species; yet they produced a conservative estimate of  4000 Cattleya hybrids. The species pictured here account for the bulk of the modern hybrids, although C. trianae and C. mossiae are the acknowledged studs of the Cattleya world.               

Many plant enthusiasts rail that modern hybrids are an abomination of the wild species. To a point, I agree, but only if you are an avid grower of species. But, the analog to that idea is that modern life is an abomination of the "good old days". Should we all drive Model T automobiles, live without electricity, indoor plumbing or anything of the digital age ? Is a modern car not just an evolution of what consumers want ? I feel the same is true of many modern-day aspects, wherein producers create what consumers want.Such is true of orchids; hybridizers refine and create characteristics in plants to suit consumer needs and wants.  

I happen to like growing species orchids and their primary hybrids to show the range of "what was and what is". I don't feel modern hybrids are an abomination; they are just another range of plants available to collectors and growers. In the end analysis, many hybrids are made to make money for the grower so he can continue growing plants. Whether the grower's work starts out as a hobbyist or as a commercial grower, many people breed plants to make a change or make an improvement on a species by line-breeding it to make a larger, fuller flower, or by using the best aspects of each parent to produce better progeny. Many Cattleya species flower just once a year, with thin-textured flowers and short bloom life . Some are notoriously hard to grow or need specialized conditions. Modern hybrids have largely alleviated these problems, yielding plants with great vigor, repeat flowering habits and durable flowers that can last for weeks. One of the best things I like about some of the species is their vigorous growing habits and durability in our outdoor conditions. The same can be said of many wild plant species, and one friend said that some orchids  are equivalent to horses; wild horses are tough, durable, and long lived, whereas their thoroughbred cousins are not, not, and not.

C. warscewiczii

Whether you wish to grow wild species orchids or "thoroughbred" hybrid orchids, there is a plant for your needs, tastes, garden style and budget. I always counsel people to learn about what they grow. Knowing about plants helps reduce plant losses as well as increase your enjoyment of growing them.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens 

Lc. Crispin Rosales

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