Sunday, November 22, 2009

Labiata Lore

The picture on the left is a gorgeous flower from a C. labiata.  This image is one of over a thousand orchid pictures compiled by brothers Arne and Bent Larsen on Orkide Galleri.  Their site is informative and educational, but I need to warn you that gazing at pictures like this or this can generate serious orchid envy.

The C. labiata is one of the most famous plants in Orchidaceae because it was the first of the large-flower Cattleyas to be identified, and it has a compelling story of being "lost" in the 1820's and "rediscovered" in 1889.  (I put "lost" and "rediscovered" in quotation marks because I assume that some of the native peoples of Brazil saw this plant all the time.)

Cattleya labiata entered the Western botanical world after it was discovered by William Swainson in Pernambuco Brazil in early 1817.  In 1818, Swainson reportedly returned to England with over 20,000 insects, 1,200 plant species, hundreds of bird skins, and a goodly number of fish.  His apparent obsession with bugs might explain why he didn't marry until 1823.  Anyway, Swainson sent the labiata specimen to John Lindley and, in 1821, Lindley formally named the genus after his patron, William Cattley. 

William Swainson left for New Zealand and, without a high-speed Internet connection, the English horticulturalists (who were going bananas over the C. labiata) had no way to contact him.  Also, from what I've read, these explorer types were often reluctant to share their knowledge of where to find precious flowers.  Some people thought that the plant could be found in Rio de Janerio because Swainson made his shipments from Rio.  No luck.  So, this plant, whose flowers Lindley described as exceptionally large and beautiful, disappeared from Western view for over seventy years.

Chadwick and Chadwick's 2006 book The Classic Cattleyas, published by Timber Press, gives the definitive account of the discovery and 1889 rediscovery of C. labiata. (Chadwick and Sons Orchids, by the way, offer several rare C. labiata plants for sale on their website.)  Their account of the rediscovery of C. labiata is definitive, in my opinion, because they consider and reject competing explanations for why the plant came back into English society in the late 19th century.  They also examine why some of the tall tales became popular.  This is unique because other accounts I've read either champion a single explanation or they simply list the different theories and let the reader decide.

There are at least two apocryphal tales told about the discovery and rediscovery of this plant.  In the first, C. labiata was discovered because someone used them as packing material for a shipment of lichens sent to William Cattley.  Cattley threw them in a corner of his greenhouse and, with healthy neglect, they bloomed.  The true account is much more straightforward: Swainson sent a C. labiata specimen to Lindley.

The second tall tale is that the species was rediscovered when someone knowledgeable about orchids spotted C. labiata on a lady's corsage at an evening ball.  Again, the most likely and realistic account is also the most boring.  Some guy (who wasn't really into flowers) had some C. labiatas from his collector in Pernambuco.  Some other guy, who knew a lot about orchids, was visiting while the flowers were blooming, and he soon thereafter recognized them as the "lost" species.

Despite Chadwick and Chadwick's book, and despite informative site like Garden Notes, the dubious tales surrounding the C. labiata will likely persist.  I say this because both stories are repeated as established fact, with no accompanying references or citations, in Susan Orlean's best-selling The Orchid Thief (see pages 65 and 69).  Andrew Weil's blurb on the inside cover says, "The Orchid Thief provides further, compelling evidence that truth is stranger than fiction," but Orlean's bungling of the C. labiata story makes me wonder about that.              .

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