By Lee Potts
DSBG Orchid Specialist
The Cattleya species has come a long way since being discovered by William Swainson in 1818. It soon became sought after for the large lavender flowers but had yet to be successfully grown and bloomed outside its native habitat. In an effort to try and grow the Cattleya outside of its habitat, Swainson shipped the Cattleya labiata orchids to English horticulturist William Cattley from Brazil in 1818.
At one point during the 1800s Cattleya labiata was thought to be nearing extinction in the wild due to Swainson's poor record keeping and in part to coffee farmers clearing land in Rio de Janeiro. It took 71 years before these orchids were rediscovered in Pernambuco, Brazil, but this was the beginning of an era that would change the landscape of orchids.
Cattleyas became known for their use in corsages but were only affordable to the very wealthy until Cattleya 'Bow Bells', registered in 1945, opened the doors for mass production of large, white Cattleya cut flowers. Through improvements in cross pollination, these cut flowers dominated the commercial sale of Cattleyas until the 1980s when orchid hybridizers improved tissue culture methods.
While still widely known as an orchid commonly used for corsages, the Cattleya would soon be known for the endless variety of sizes and colors they offer. Horticulturists and botanists have not only prevented the extinction of a number of Cattleya species, but also, through hybridization and tissue culture made it possible for all of us to enjoy the wide variety of colors, sizes and fragrance available today in the Cattleya alliance and earning the title Queen of Orchids.