In 1974 I enrolled in horticulture at our local vocational technical school in Delaware County just west of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. The first year of Vo-tech was spent in the inner-urban suburb of Folcroft where we studied landscape architecture and floriculture. Our teacher was a very large man named Mr. Pleasant. He was. He encouraged our nascent interest and help steer us away from the rough-heads that occupied the majority of the courses. Folcroft, then and now, can not be classified as having reached the lofty heights of lower middle class. Many of the students were put in Vocational Technical School as they were scholastically challenged. I like to think my reasons for attending were because of interest. Because of my size, awkwardness and choice of career, it was not unusual for me to get beat up by Mike Albany, the biggest, strongest, meanest kid on the bus. He called me 'Burpee' as my favourite pastime during that first year was to memorize all the plants that occurred in the Burpee Seed Catalog. My right shoulder was constantly bruised that whole first year. I hated getting on the bus at my home high school and traveling the 1/2 hour to Vo-tech and then back again.
Second and thirst year were an absolute pleasure. Instead of being bussed to the inner suburbs we were transported through the forest to Ridley Creek State Park and the old Jeffers Estate (see below). The story goes that old man Jeffers went bankrupt and the state took over his property and converted it into a state park, namely Ridley Creek State Park. The state, making every attempt to utilize the facilities, transfered the Vocational Technical horticultural course from Folcroft to the old stable house at Ridley Creek. The gardens and greenhouses would provide just the right environment for young students studying plants. For me, apart from the wonderful plant treasures, was the relief of not having to be exposed to ruffians.
As you can see from the photo below, the house was monsterous with servents quarters and a ballroom. The gardens were magnificent with a woodland garden, a formal fountain garden, several walled gardens each containing either roses, peonies, herbs or herbaceous perennials. In the woods above the house, and just conveniently out of sight, was a greenhouse complex. These greenhouses were originally used to supply flowers, potted plants and winter vegetables to the main house. As was the custom of very wealthy estate owners, there were various collections of rare or unusual plants.
The greenhouses were of the type that were build around the turn of the century or slightly earlier. The foundations were approximately 4 feet high and composed of the local mica-schist rock, the gables of wrought iron. The size of the greenhouses matched the size of the house. A main greenhouse approximately 100 feet long, 30 feet wide and 20 feet high ran north-south. At either end and running west were to smaller houses about half as big as the main greenhouse. In the center and to the east ran a small greenhouse that connected the main greenhouse to the potting shed and boiler room. To the west between the north and south greenhouses were a series of 6 foot deep cold frames lined with the same local rock as the foundations.
The south-west greenhouse was set aside primarily for cut-flower roses and winter storage of the large pots of tender shrubs and trees, as well as Azaleas and Hydrangeas forced for winter flowering. The north-west greenhouse was for cutflowers as well, predominantly Carnations, Snapdragons, Bachelors Buttons, Gypsophila, Chrysanthemums and some Cymbidiums. The northern 2/3rds of the main greenhouse was used for potted seasonal plants, Easter Lilies, Poinsettias, Chrysanthemums. The southern third of the main house was for the tropical plants. This house was fascinating with huge pots of Coffee trees, Oleanders, Eucharis, Ferns, Bananas and of course orchids. My favourite orchid was a huge plant of Schomburgkia tibicinus (now Myrmecophila tibicinus) which sent out 3-4 metre flower spikes and always came out after we had finished school. Thankfully, I lived close to the park and could easily travel down to see it in bloom through the glass.
Mr. Bigler, our teacher, recognised that I had a penchant for plants and a particular interest in orchids. Each student had a section of the greenhouse that we looked after. Thankfully, the orchid benches and the cut flower greenhouse with the Cymbidiums were allocated to me. Now most of the Cymbidiums had obviously been there a long time and were mainly the early diploid hybrids. Interestingly, Cymbidium lowianum, and several that looked remarkably like C. Pauwelsii. I remember most of them being in the yellow, brown, green range with small flowers on tall spikes and flowering from easter onwards.
The fact that most of the Cymbidiums in the Jeffers collection were C. lowianum and its hybrids is not surprising. The flowers of C. lowianum itself can last 3 months if you periodically wash the dirt and dust off the flowers and keep the slugs and bugs off. They are easy to grow and produce long arching sprays of 20-30 or more, modest sized flowers that cut well.
Boxall, a plant collector in the mid to late 1800's collected plants of the species we now know as C. lowianum in 1877 in the hills of Myanmar. It was not originally thought to be a distinct species and was given varietal status under Cymbidium iridioides (giganteum at the time). A couple of years later it was finally recognized as distinct and given the name Lowianum after the men who had contracted Boxall to collect plants for them, Messrs Low. The original form was green with brown tinges on the petals and sepals and a bright yellow and white labellum accented by a bright to dark red patch shaped like the letter V and a central pencil line of the same colour. It was in many respects similar to the plant pictured below.
Amongst populations of the normal coloured form, albino forms occasionally occur. These have been, in the past, been given the varietal name concolor. As these rare albinos appear in populations of otherwise normal coloured forms it is not appropriate to call them varieties, a designation usually assigned to wild plants that are reproductively isolated from other forms. It is even doubtful that these albinos should even be given a cultivar name as they are not all derived from the same plant and vary considerably. Early horticulturalists recognized several distinct albino sorts and named them var. viride and var. flaveolum. The form commonly found in cultivation at the moment goes under the name 'Concolor' and is a pleasant clear green with a yellow and white lip. The bright red patches found on the labellum of the normal coloured form are, in 'Concolor' replaced with a bright yellow patch.
The hybrid Cymbidium Garnet was made in 1915 using a normally coloured C. lowianum var. lowianum crossed with C. sanderae (syn. C. parishii var sanderae) The first of the next three pictures shows the results of this original cross.
In more recent times, Andy Easton and several other noteworthy hybridisers have been using 'superior' forms of the wild species to remake some of the early hybrids. Here are the results of more recent breeding.
'Orange Glow' has as it's parents Cymbidium lowianum var. i'ansonii, sometime recognised as a the distinct species C. i'ansonii. Variety i'ansonii differs from var. lowianum in that the base colour of the flower is yellow-brown and the V-shaped patch is orange-red.
The result when you use C. lowianum 'concolor' with C. sanderae is basically a flower with green sepals and petals and an essentially white lip with red patches. 'Greenie' is the 2N version of this cross. Other forms, some of them 4N, of this same cross also exist but were not in flower this weekend when I took the pictures! The 4N forms are the same colour, some clearer, but the flowers are better shaped and larger.
Cymbidium Pauwelsii was registered in 1911 and has as its parents C. lowianum and C. insigne. The range of possibilities of crossing the many forms of both of these parents has resulted in plants that range from brown through pinks to peach and yellows. Below are just a couple examples of different forms. One of the most spectacular of the recent remakes of this hybrid is the albino form of Pauwelsii called 'New Horizon'. The 4N version is a very shapely and bright yellow, rivaling some of the more complex hybrids. The two below hold their own charm with tall arching spikes and free-flowering habit.
Both of the above forms of C. Pauwelsii are the result of crossing a C. lowianum 'Concolor' with a pink form of C. insigne. Both came from the same cross and seed pod but responded differently to the chemical used to convert them from diploid to tetraploid. The first one did not respond but the second did. Increasing the ploidy levels of plants can increase the size and intensify the the colours. This is exemplified in the two plants above.
If we change the variety of C. lowianum used in C. Pauwelsii to var. i'ansonii the result is very different. This cross was originally registered in 1919 when var. i'ansonii was still recognised as a species. The name given to C. i'ansonii with C. insigne is C. Ceres. The two forms below came from two separate crossings using different forms of C. insigne.
When C. lowianum was crossed with C. tigrinum (a miniature species) the result was the delightfully small but remarkably perky C. lowgrinum. Cymbidium tigrinum brings down the size of the hybrid plant but also reduces the flower count. More recent introductions of more robust forms of C. tigrinum have overcome the massive reduction in flower count of the offspring bringing it back up to about 10-12 for modern C. Lowgrinum.
Probably one of the most famous of the primary hybrids of C. lowianum is the very first Cymbidium hybrid ever made - C. Eburneo-lowianum. This hybrid took the multi flowered arching green C. lowianum and crossed it with the single flowered, fragrant, white-flowered C. eburneum. The offspring were variable but basically resembled the C. lowianum parent for shape, but changed the flower colour to a dirty white with the prominant red V-shaped patch and severely reduced the flower count (usually no more than about five). Several forms of this hybrid were made using different forms of each parent. Cymbidium Eburneo-lowianum 'Concolor' was an albino form that had C. lowianum 'Concolor' as one of its parents. C. Eburneo-lowianum 'Concolor' when crossed with C. insigne 'Sanderi' produced C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' the most famous parent of all time and the feature of a previous post.
In more recent times additional species have been brought into breeding programs to create new and unusual hybrids. A top hybrid registered in 1985 is Memoria Geoff Laird. Geoff was a renown orchid grower in New Zealand. Cymbidium madidum is an Australian native species that forms huge plants but has small flowers. Thankfully, it produces long spikes that have many flowers! When C. madidum is crossed with C. lowianum the result is a truly huge plant with modest sized flowers produced on pendulous spikes well over a metre in length. Talk about a gigantic hanging basket plant!!! The good aspect of this hybrid is that if flowers for me from November right through until January. Thank goodness I have plenty of room to house it as it is definitely not a plant for growers with small greenhouses or little space.
Another pendulous hybrid results when you cross C. lowianum with C. devonianum. The plant resembles the C. devoniaum parent which has short, wide leaves and strongly pendulous flower spikes. The colour of C. lowianum clearly shines through and increases the size of the flowers. Below is a form of C. Langleyense made using the normally coloured form of C. devonianum and C. lowianum 'Concolor'. The plant pictured is a form converted to a tetraploid. This is a magnificent plant that gets multiple spikes per bulb and flower spikes half a metre long with upwards of 35 flowers.
In 1902 a hybrid was created using C. lowianum and the near-monopodial, few-flowered white species C. mastersii. Cymbidium mastersii is a special species in that instead of producing normal pseudobulbs like other Cymbidiums continues to grow from one stem for several years, flowering progressively up the stem. The flowers don't open widely, are a bit small but this apparent shortcoming is more than made up for by the species elegant growth and superb fragrance. In the 1980 more interesting forms of C. mastersii became available, some being treated to increase their ploidy level. These select forms were crossed with select forms of C. lowianum to produce very beautiful offspring. Below is one of these modern crossings. The parents of this one are C. lowianum 'Concolor' and C. mastersii 'Geyserland'. The seedling were converted to tetraploids. The colour of these plants is very hard to capture as it is an ice green/white and the lip has an almost magenta-red patch on the lip. When it flowers next year I will get a much better picture. I am still learning the finer points of photography. Some colours still give me curry. So does focus.
Cymbidium Lowio-grandiflorum, like C. lowio-mastersii, was registered in 1902. In many respects this is the type of hybrid that you would expect to see in the wild. Both C. lowianum and C. grandiflorum (hookerianum) grow near to each other but are normally prevented from cross-pollinating as their flowering time does not overlap. Both species are green with red on the lip. C. grandiflorum has spots on the front part of the lip and stripes of the sidelobes. C. lowianum only has the V-shaped red bar on the edge of the midlobe of the lip. Crossing the two combines all the best features of both parents but also removes a couple of others. C. grandiflorum is highly fragrant, C. lowianum and C. Lowio-grandiflorum completely scentless. The stems of C. lowianum are strong and arching, C. grandiflorum thin and pendulous. The hybrid is somewhat in between, not strong enough to be arching but too strong to be pendulous. Cymbidium lowio-grandiflorum is however remarkably strongly and clearly coloured. Unfortunately, it is most commonly identified as C. lowianum, its unique qualities and identity being subsumed into its more common parent.
Below are two hybrids that show very strong C. lowianum influence. The upper photo is a hybrid between C. Pauwelsii and C. eburneum and is called C. Sybil. This plant came to me from a deceased estate in Sydney and still had the brass, embossed label on it when I inherited it in 1983. Cymbidium Sybil was registered in 1916, the year my father was born. Interestingly enough, while the colour of the C. Pauwelsii parent is washed out, the strong fragrance of the C. eburneum parent is only slightly diminished. This is one of my favourite plants. It is hard to portray exactly how beautiful this plant is. I know that most people go for the beauty of the individual flower but in some cases the production and configuration of the whole plant, leaves, flower spikes and individual flowers come together to make one magnificent whole. The flower spikes produce only 5 or so flowers and they barely make it beyond the leaves. However, each bulb produces, on average two spikes per year and will flower for 2-3 years from the same bulb. The leaves are thin and arching. The pseudobulbs are long and narrow and tightly clustered. I have never divided the plant in all of the time that I have had it, only removing dead pseudobulbs and refreshing the potting mix. It grows happily in a 12 inch pot. This year it has 17 flower spikes, it would have had 18 but I broke one off after it came out and gave it to a friend.
This last plant is the problem child of my collection. I bought it many many years ago as a seedling. I actually have several from the same batch that look similar. It was sold to me as C. lowianum from a reliable grower who had inported a flask from an even more reliable grower in California. It look for all the world like a C. lowianum and the plants and flowering time are identical. The other alternative is that it may be the hybrid between Golden Cascade and C. lowianum 'Concolor' . Cymbidium Golden Cascade is half C. lowianum 'Concolor' so this would make the hybrid pictured below 3/4 C. lowianum 'Concolor'. It is one of those plants that i will never really know for sure what it is, but hey, some plants are just so stunning that you keep them anyway. This one is a keeper.
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