Monday, July 6, 2009

The mystery of the Grand Monarch

Cymbidium Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum'
(RHS image)

Cymbidium Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum'
In real life.

In the early years of orchid registration by the Royal Horticultural Society all new crosses were treated as horses are today; all crosses had their birthday as the 1rst of January of the year of their registration. One other little quirk of these early years of registration was the order in which the parents were listed. Unfortunately, in the early years species used in a cross were put in alphabetical order, regardless of their contribution. In recent times the Pod Parent (Mother) is listed first and the Pollen Parent (Father) is listed second.

Cymbidium Grand Monarch was registered in the same year it received an award, 1931. On the 24th of November 1931, McBean's exhibited a plant of C. Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum'. At this November meeting, the judges decided to give it an Award of Merit. Interestingly, the plant was a first-flowered seedling and had one spike of 10 flowers. One wonders what award this plant would have received if the grower had waited a year or two. The flower count on an individual spike would not have increased, due to the influence of the 1-flowered grandparent C. eburneum, but it may have had several spikes that would have made an impressive display.

It always amazes me what qualities make a plant worthy of keeping in cultivation. Many apparently fine plants are seen for a couple of years and then disappear from showbenches and collections. Cymbidium Grand Monarch has been in continuous cultivation since its introduction and has actually increased in popularity as the years have gone by. From 1931 until 1956 C. Grand Monarch was completely ignored by the hybridizers but gained popularity in its own right. Why? Here was a large flower on a compact plant that had interesting colour and fragrance. Why did it take 25 years for the first hybrids to be made using this fascinating plant?

Between 1956 and 1989 a total of 25 hybrids were made using C. Grand Monarch; 11 times as a pod parent and 14 times as a pollen parent. Surprisingly, not many of these hybrids have gained any recognition. Where they bad? Did they come in a period when clear, bright colours were the flavour of the day? Probably the most famous of the progeny of Grand Monarch is the beautiful green C. Sicily (C. Baldur x Grand Monarch). Other potentially interesting hybrids that I would love to see are Grand Azi (C. Alexanderi x Grand Monarch) and Grand Vizier (C. goeringii x Grand Monarch). Some of the hybrids, judging only by the parents, where obviously very speculative crosses and were probably not well thought out (read ugly).

The origianl plant of C. Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum' proved very popular with particular groups of people. The English and Scottish treasured the plant because of its hardiness, compact growth, free flowering nature, large flowers and fragrance. A powerful combination. The Californians liked it equally well, for the same reasons the English and Scots liked it. Australia, being part of the Commonwealth came under the spell of C. Grand Monarch after plants found their way here in the 1950's.

Although plants of C. Grand Monarch were introduced before the 1950's by the 'Brits', it was actually plants introduced by the Italians that most strongly influenced the popularity of C. Grand Monarch here in Australia. Mass migration of Italians to Australia in the 1950's brought many cultural changes to Australia, particularly the finer things in life like food, wine, plants and a well developed sense of fun and continuity of culture. Many of the migrants brought reminders of the 'Home Country'. One of these reminders was the plant under discussion here. This strong emotional tie ensured that not only was the plant treasured by the original owners but passed on to others in the same community as an attempt to re-establish a the old country in a new homeland. Amongst the general public, C. Grand Monarch has gained the rare honour of being one of those plants that has actually retained its cultivar name in the common name. It is called The Grand Monarch Orchid, just as Rosa 'Peace' is called The Peace Rose or Acer platanoides 'Crimson King' is called Crimson King Maple. For an orchid to be identified by the wider community by it actual cultivar name is a very rare and special occurrance.

My first encounter with C. Grand Monarch was while studying at the Royal Horticultural Societies Garden at Wisley in England. The collection of plants in that orchid collection had some very fine plants, many of them old hybrids and species. Three of the plants that I fell totally in love with were C. elegans, C. Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum' and Cymbidium Caroll (C. Alexanderi x eburneum). It was such a disappointment to have to leave the orchid collection at the RHS. Thankfully, my move to Australia meant that a ready supply of C. Grand Monarch was available. But was it? Many of the plants I came across in Australia were not the same as the plants seen in England. Occasionally, a plant would appear that matched the English plants. At one local orchid show there were three distinct plants all exhibited under the name C. Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum'. Being a botanist, this situation was intolerable and bothered me to the core. Never one to shirk a challenge, I set about working out what was what.

Lets start with what goes in to making C. Grand Monarch. The parentage of C. Grand Monarch is C. hookerianum x C. Wiganianum. Now, C. Wiganianum is a primary hybrid between C. eburneum and C. tracyanum. This is good, there are only three species involved; hookerianum contributing 50% of the genes, eburneum and tracyanum 25% each. Problem 1, there are various forms of each of these species, with one of the forms of hookerianum being particularly spotty (var. punctatum). The variety punctatum of C. hookerianum is not recognised as a true variety but is still recognised as a cultivated variety or CV. This would mean that it is written as C. hookerianum 'Punctatum'. First challenge? Get a plant of C. hookerianum 'Punctatum'. Thankfully, this was relatively easy. There are some fine correctly labelled plants in choice collections around the world. My plant was sourced from a very reputable grower in Tasmania. When the plant flowered I realized that one of the spotty green plants I saw around the traps was C. hookerianum 'Punctatum. One spotty green Cymbidium down several more to go.

Cymbidium hookerianum 'Punctatum'

Photo by Dr. Susan Bevan

Two more hookerianum things turned up at different shows at opposite ends of the state of Victoria. The first one was exhibited by Lois Barber at the Ararat Show. It had a Blue Ribbon on it by the time I saw it. It was the centerpiece of her display. The plant was large and well grown, half a dozen spikes each with about 20 flowers. I was in love. It was green and a little spotty at the base of the petals but a bit more wavy than what I knew as Grand Monarch. Not being one who is shy, the question 'have you got a division you are willing to sell, came out of my mouth right after she served me tea and scones in the cafeteria. She sent her husband home to get one. A few dollars later and two plants heavier, I was the proud owner of C. Erica Sander (hookerianum x Pauwelsii). Oh well, not Grand Monarch but a stunning plant none-the-less.

Cymbidium Erica Sander
N.B. The identity of this plant has been questioned by an international authority. Proceed with caution!

The next plant to turn up was not a Grand Monarch either. It was the very common C. Lowio-grandiflorum (C. hookerianum x lowianum). Again, a very beautiful plant but not the green I was after. It was sold to me out of flower as C. Grand Monarch 'Equisetum'. Now the true name should be 'Exquisitum'. The name Equisetum is the generic name of the Horsetail plant. An easy mistake to make. Putting the wrong name on the wrong plant, unfortunately, is also an easy mistake to make.

Cymbidium Lowio-grandiflorum 'Clearview'

Ok, lets get back to the spotty C. hookerianum hybrids. Now that we have C. hookerianum 'Punctatum' out of the way and a couple of unspotted green hybrids, that leaves us two potential candidates. The first is easily disposed of as a potential candidate for Grand Monarch status. Then again maybe not so easily disposed of. Cymbidium Rosefieldense is a primary hybrid between C. hookerianum and C. tracyanum. This plant is by far the plant most commonly sold as C. Grand Monarch. Rosefieldense regularly appears on ebay and at many orchid shows as Grand Monarch. Nice as it is it is not the genuine article. Rosefieldense was registered and awarded an AM by the RHS in 1912. More recently, improved forms have been made. I have way too many plants in my collection of Rosefieldense, all but three purchased as C. Grand Monarch. Thankfully, the plant is extremely popular, a rampant grower and flowerer and is easy to sell.

Cymbidium Rosefieldense

We finally get to the genuine article, C. Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum'. As mentioned before this is a hybrid between hookerianum and Wiganianum. Let us finaly look at the species that make up this hybrid. Cymbidium hookerianum we have already seen. Cymbidium Wiganianum is a rarely seen but beautiful plant in its own right. The one parent of Wiganianum, C. eburneum, is the well known Lilac-scented Cymbidium. This refined species usually produces but one flower on a stem but that one flower is a stunner. Mostly white, or with a blush of pink, and the most intoxicating fragrance. Cymbidium tracyanum on the other hand is the real 'Masculine' member of the Cymbidium genus. Robust, chunky leaves and spikes with big, bold, dark flowers and a deep rich fragrance. Cross these two divergent species together and you get a delicate green with some spotting and three-day growth on the lip and reeking of cheap aftershave. I have to thank Ed Merkle for supplying me with the wonderful pictures of C. Wiganianum and the description of him having to drive for hours with the car air-conditioning on refresh to keep the smell of C. Wiganianum at bay.

Cymbidium eburneum crossed with

Cymbidium tracyanum 'Atlantis'

Cymbidium Wiganianum Photo Courtesy of Ed Merkle

Now you would think that the story would end here. This all makes sense and it is all very straightforward. When you deal with humans nothing ever goes to plan. You can argue until you are blue in the face and some people will just keep coming back and saying 'no you're wrong, my plant is a Grand Monarch'. Well for those who do not believe there is only one thing to do; put the plants next to each other and take a photo. So here they are, Rosefieldiense and Grand Monarch, cheek to jowl.

Cymbidium Rosefieldense (top flower) Cymbidium Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum' (lower flower)

There are some real and clearly visible differences between Rosefieldense and Grand Monarch. The main differences are:

Darker Green
denser/smaller spots
all segments narrower/shorter
flower about as wide as tall
Calli white with long hairs
Grand Monarch
Whitish Green
Fewer/larger spots
All segments broader/longer
Flower wider than tall
Calli yellow with short dense hairs.

Just so you can see for yourself, there are a series of photos of the labellums and calli of all the species and hybrids involved in the hybrids Rosefieldense and Grand Monarch. The key here is to look at the calli on the labellum. There is no way to get yellow calli from a direct cross of hookerianum and tracyanum (Rosefieldense). Alternatively, you can only get a yellow callus with short hairs by introducing eburneum into the mix.

Cymbidium hookerianum
crossed with

Cymbidium tracyanum

Cymbidium Rosefieldense

Cymbidium eburneum
crossed with

Cymbidium tracyanum

Cymbidium Wiganianum Then crossed onto

Cymbidium hookerianum produces

Cymbidium Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum'

The definite genuine article.

Cymbidium Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum'

For years I have been trying to find genuine, disease-free plants of C. Grand Monarch. There are plenty of the genuine article around but not many of them are disease-free. Thats what happens when Stella gives a plant to Rose, who gives a plant to Mariska. I did manage to get a sprouted backbulb from a local grower after pestering him for 5 years. It lived exactly 5 months in my collection before being taken out by 47 degrees Celsius on the 7th of February. I resigned myself to another 5 year search. When I was wandering around my friends greenhouse on the weekend a plant caught my eye. He said, "what is that flowering, another Rosefieldiense?"I took one look at it and knew what it was. Cymbidium Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum'. It was in his son's section of the greenhouse. Not only was it the genuine article it was correctly labelled. After testing, it proved to be virus-free. When we talked to his son he mentioned that he probably had a few of them. Wow, going from desperation to winner in a matter of seconds! Now there is a small plant of C. Grand Monarch 'Exquisitum' sitting alongside some of my other 'Vintage' beauties. What a lucky man I am.


Since writing this blog, I have taken a couple of more photos that clearly illustrate the difference between Grand Monarch and Rosefieldense. Hope you like them!

Cymbidium Grand Monarch

Cymbidium Rosefieldense