Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cymbidium Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'

Some plants are just steeped in mystery and romance. There is the legendary Rafflesia arnoldii that purportedly has the largest flower in the world. This giant flower, up to 1 m across and weighing in at 10 k grows in the deepest darkest rainforests of Malaysia, Sumatra and Indonesia. Rafflesia adds to its mystery as it is parasitic, living its life inside the stems of the grape relative Tetrastigma. The flowers burst through the sides of the plant stems in the same manner as the alien emerged from the humans in the movie Alien. As if this plant did not have enough weirdness about it the flowers just had to smell of rotting meat and be pollinated by blowflies.

The orchid world is resplendent with stories of fantastic plants that have been found once in some far-flung jungle and never to be seen again. Paphiopedilum sanderianum was found in 1885 in Borneo but the specific location was never recorded. This bizarre flower has twisted hairy petals that grow up to a metre in length. Imagine a flower stem with 6 flowers with long, flowing hairy tresses. The plant equivalent of Medusa! Some plant freaks go so far as to suggest that these long hairy petals are ladders, up which the insect pollinators climb. It was not until 1978 that it was rediscovered. The only proof that this plant existed was a beautiful drawing. Some botanists went so far as to think and, God-forbid, say that it may have been a hoax. The plant still grows in a highly protected national park in Borneo. Oh, you can also buy a 2.25 inch pot for $125.oo.

The genus Cymbidium is not immune from both real and imagined mysterious plants. Cymbidium sanderae , or Cymbidium parishii var sanderae as it is more widely known, is a classic. It is not really clear where the plant actually comes from. The location on the original label does not exist. The specimen sheet that represents the type specimen is a mixture of flowers from different plants, giving the impression of a hybrid swarm. Cymbidium sanderae was lost to cultivation and in the wild until it was discovered in a greenhouse in California. That original plant was propagated and colchicine treated to convert some of the progeny into tetraploids. The diploid and tetraploid forms are now grown widely throughout the world but have still not been relocated in the wild. The plant freaks starting to question the validity of C. sanderae as a species as they are wont to do with long 'extinct' plants.

Anyone that has had even a passing fancy for Cymbidium hybrids and their parents would know that C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' is by far the most famous stud plant, having sired or carried literally hundreds of progeny. Most of the large-flowered Cymbidium hybrids and an increasing number of the more modest-sized hybrids can trace back to C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'. I won't go into the history of this plant as this plant is probably the most written about Cymbidium. Suffice to say it has it all, beauty, fertility, fame, fortune, it was breed on the estate of a famous aristocrat and awarded a First Class Certificate by none other than the Royal Horticultural Society. No story is complete without a bit of skullduggery and a few questions about breeding!

So lets get to the parents of C. Alexanderi. The listed parents are C. eburneo-lowianum x insigne but things are never as straightforward as what they seem. Getting more specific we find out that the parents are C. eburneo-lowianum 'concolor' x insigne 'Sanderi'. Now you ask, 'Why does the insertion of 'concolor' make a difference?". Well, you see, C. eburneo-lowianum 'concolor' is a hybrid between the species C. eburneum and C. lowianum 'concolor'. 'So?', you ask. This is where the dodgy breeding comes in. Cymbidium lowianum 'concolor' is a freak wildling that has a problem. It has faulty chromosomes that don't go through meiosis properly. What this means is that some of the progeny may have twice as many chromosomes. This is what has happened with C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'. While most of the C. Alexanderi grex where diploids, several turned out to be tetraploids. Tetraploids tend to be larger overall compared with their diploid siblings. C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' created an absolute sensation when exhibited at the Royal Horticulture Societies orchid committee and was immediately awarded.

But lets back up a bit here. The grex C. Alexanderi was made many times using slightly different parents. Siblings were also crossed with each other. All this breeding resulted in a wide range of colours from pure white albinos through yellows, pinks and murky reddish browns all using the same 'species' in the same proportions. Several of these alternative C. Alexanderi were also awarded. All went quiet on creating C. Alexanderi until recently when Andy Easton tried to repeat the cross using improved parents. His results are spectacular but nothing has resulted that approaches C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'.

Why would anyone want to re-create C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'? Put quite simply, the original plants were held quite tightly by the original owner in England. Unfortunately, most of these original plants became infected with virus and had to be destroyed. Now I am not one to look for the benefits of war, but the Second World War may have saved the life of C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'. With the likelihood of the destruction of London and the rationing of all things during the war, some of the large estates sent their prized plants to friends in far-flung regions of the British Empire. C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' was one of these plants. Thankfully, some of these pre-war plants were virus free.

A few of these plants went to a grower in Canada. From there, divisions were sent to Australia and found their way into the collection of a very wealthy and very private gentleman. His gardeners were very meticulous and kept this mans collection of awarded plants in very good condition. Near the end of this man's life, he passed on divisions of his prized plants on to another wealthy and, interestingly enough, very private man. Neither of these men had the slightest interested in the commercial orchid trade having made their fortunes through business for the former and by being a surgeon for the later. The surgeon, a good friend of mine, called me up last year and asked me to come over. Normally, it is me that rings him! This got my mind thinking he had gotten a new lot of plants that he wanted me to see. The truth was much more exciting.

When I arrived at my surgeon friends house we had the obligatory cup of tea, chocolate biscuits and chat. He then started to talk to me about his health. He is well past his seventieth birthday. He mentioned that his heart had been playing up and that the doctors had to 'zap' him a few times to get the beat regular again. This had encouraged him to think of his future, his much younger wife's future and what was going to happen to his plants. He was kind enough to say that he had written me into his will. I was to have first dibs on his collection of species. This was a very nice gesture and I must admit, slightly overwhelming to be told this before someone's death. I felt honoured that he would trust me to carry on his legacy. I had seen his plants many times and his collection of species contains almost all awarded clones. The greenhouse is meticulously clean and the plants are well grown and virus-free. Any new plants are quarantined and tested before they are allowed into the main greenhouses.

What happened next shook me. Did I mention this surgeon is a very private person? He keeps a lot of secrets and the one he was about to reveal was a stunner. He took me to a greenhouse way down the back of the property that I had never been to. Actually, I did not even know it was there. He unlocked and opened the door. What was inside was amazing. There were three long benches running the length of the greenhouse, the one in the middle double-wide. It contained only Cymbidiums, all grown to specimen size except for a small group of a few dozen smaller pots on one of the side benches. It was like going back in time. The plants were all grown in terracotta pots and meticulously groomed. The floor was covered in clean algae-free concrete creating an almost surgical cleanliness. As we walked down the edge of one of the benches, I asked him what these Cymbidiums were. FCC's he said. Yep, he had made a collection of only FCC Cymbidiums. and had been doing so since he was a young man.

One particular plant caught my eye, a plant I had only seen in pictures. Yes, it was C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' . I asked him where he had gotten it. He told me the out of England to Canada to Tasmania story. He had inherited his older plants from the Tasmanian man in the 1960's. Then he mentioned that Dr. Don Wimber had seen the plants in the 1960's or 70's and had confirmed its identity. This shocked me as I didn't think he was social enough to have known many people in the orchid world. This helped me to believe him that this C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' was the real deal.

More recently, my friend has had another turn. Unsurprisingly his first priority was to ensure that his wife will be well looked after. More surprising is that he is almost equally concerned about his collection of awarded Cymbidiums. I visited him this weekend to catch up. Again he rang me not the other way around. No Tea and biscuits today. He was in the mood for a good chat. He even berated me for being fifteen minutes late. A quick pass through the species house and straight to the Cymbidium house. Door unlocks and in we go. This time bypassing the specimen plants and right to the smaller plants. There it is, C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' in full bloom in an 8" pot. He reaches down, picks it up and hands it to me. He repeated this with half a dozen other famous plants. I still have not come down from the excitement. I ask him if he was trying to give me a heart attack.

Now I have a dilemma. I have to build a greenhouse like his. I would like something with a concrete floor, brick base and aluminium and glass top. Oh, and a lockable door. My finances are nothing like my friend's. For the moment, my new plants are locked in my potting shed.

When I got home I had to quickly get a photo of C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'; partly to prove it was real and partly to capture it for posterity. I had never seen a real plant and I could touch and look at this one to my hearts content. Most, if not all of the pictures I had seen, looked nothing like the original painting done on the day it was awarded at Greycoat St. London, SW1.

The first photo below is reproduced courtesy of the Royal Horticultural Society, London (Orchid Committee) . It shows a painting of a single flower of C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' on the day it was awarded, 14th march 1922. The other three are photos of plant in my potting shed. Have a look at the upper flower in the photo with two flowers. Remarkably similar to the drawing from the RHS. Even the petals are folding in just the same way. I wonder how long it will take me to settle down?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cymbidium devonianum primary hybrids

People grow plants for all sorts of reasons. When just a teenager I had the pleasure to work for a nursery woman named Florence Bertermann. She was an eccentric old cuss. In 1936 she graduated from Bryn Mawr college near Philadelphia where she had majored in horticulture. Shortly afterward she met a nice serviceman and planned to get married. A Bryn Mawr graduate getting married at that time was a highly unusual occurrence due to the politics of the day. Did I mention that Bryn Mawr College was a women's only college? Thankfully, or maybe not, Florence's fate intervened and she did not get married. The war took her servicemen. She was so 'broken-hearted' (her words) that she never again even dated a man. Interestingly, she kept of picture of her serviceman, I never did know his name, on the wall above her television.

Florence, being a woman of means, did however hire an African-American man-servant named Lee who took care of her until the day she died in 1976. There was an uncanny resemblance to the story portrayed in Driving Miss Daisy going on between these two. Florence and Lee set up a nursery business together near to Bryn Mawr in the then rural Newtown Square. She grew and hybridized a great many hardy shrubs and trees and maintained some beautiful glasshouses full of exotic plants. By the time I met Florence most of her outdoor nursery was overgrown and more like a jungle. She did still sell plants though. My job was to look after the greenhouses.

The greenhouses were just magnificent for a 12 year old boy. On either end and along the back of one of the 'tropical' greenhouses were exotic creepers that she harvested the flowers from to sell to florist shops. Most of the back wall was covered in the amazingly fragrant Stephanotis (Stephanotis floribunda), a beautiful pure white Hoya-like flower 4cm wide with a long floral tube, the flowers being produced in clusters of 20 more. Stephanotis is a classic, or at least was a classic, flower for wedding bouquets. At the far end of the greenhouse, climbing all the way to the gables, was an intermingled mass of Scarlet Passionflower (Passiflora racemosa) and Bleeding Heart Vine (Clerodenron thompsoniae).

The cooler greenhouses were less interesting, basically used to house plants that were just outside their range of hardiness and of course for the seasonal bulbs that would be hoisted out of the cold frames just in time to flower for Easter or Mothers Day. One bench of the greenhouse contained a large number of Cymbidiums, again used for cut flowers. It is interesting that even to this day I can remember the name of one that I particularly loved. This stunner of a Cymbidium was Lowell Swisher, a clear buff colour with red spots on the lip. Florence taught me the value of Cymbidiums with this plant. Even in 1970 she was getting $1.50 apiece for the flowers. Lowell Swisher commonly produced 15+ flowers per spike and her bigger plants had 6-8 spikes. That is $130 - $180 per year per plant and she had dozens of plants! This was big money in 1970. I was lucky enough to inherit the Cymbidiums and other orchids that Florence had and luckily by then I had my own greenhouse to put them in.

So what has this got to do with Cymbidium devonianum? Hanging in the corner of the cool greenhouse were several redwood slatted baskets filled with a Cymbidium much different to the others sitting firmly on the ground in their terracotta pots. These hanging cymbidiums had leaves about 4-5cm wide and about 30cm long shaped like long bent spatulas. The upper half of the leaf was broad and rounded on the end, flopping over slightly. This wide section tapered abruptly into a narrow petiole-like section that was bolt upright and held the broad section well above the basket giving and impression of a bunch of green banners on sticks. Even stranger, the flowers did not rise up above the foliage like their terrestrial relatives growing on the benches under them, but plunged through the osmunda fibre in which the plants were growing and out through the slats at the bottom of the basket. The flowers were not very pretty to a 12-year-old but held a strange somewhat creepy fascination. There were basically green, spotted with brown on the sepals and petals with two purplish-red spots on the sides of the lip. I am not sure if it was the flowers or the particular spot where these plants were growing but I distinctly remember the not overly pleasant smell. This smell could of course have been the deposits of one of the numerous cats that would spend their time in various spots in the greenhouse, especially this shady corner with a thick growth of Holly Fern (Crytomium falcatum).

Many years later I learned that this hanging Cymbidium was indeed C. devonianum a relatively rare, highly distinctive Cymbidium. Unlike many of it's relatives is primarily grows on rocks (lithophytic) and only occasionally on trees. It sends it's unusually thick roots through the thick covering of moss on the rocks and spreads its flowers spikes along the top of the moss. It grows in mountain areas in nepal, north-east india, through to Thailand, Vietnam and the very western parts of China (Yunnan).

Unfortunately, my plants are not in flower at the moment, it will be a month or so before they open. You can easily find pictures of Cymbidium devonianum on the net. It almost seems as if there is a competition on the web to get a picture of a plant with as many flower spikes as possible. It is a habit of this plant to flower it's little head off.

What got me started on the subject of this post is that my friend Sue is giving me lessons on how to photograph plants properly. You can see her pictures of my plants here. My pictures have a way to go before they have the finesse of hers but I am getting better at it. My task this weekend was to take pictures of the many Cymbidiums that are flowering at the moment. I like to keep a record of all my plants.

My collection, as I have mentioned before, is of the 'not the usual' type of Cymbidium. Although beauty does come into the equation when selecting plants for the collection, my interest is heavily focussed on species and primary hybrids. I actually find the species, primary hybrids and less complex hybrids much more interesting than the highly bread types that are much of a muchness. I am fascinated how character traits are passed on in primary hybrids. Below are a few of Cymbidium devonianum primary hybrids (hybrids between two wild species). All of the pictures below have been taken by myself this weekend except for the picture of Cym. Tiny Tiger that was provided by my friend Julian. If you click on the picture it should bring it up to a much larger size. Notice that the cell structure is clearly visible on some of the flowers. The speckling of C. devonianum flowers and pendulous flower spikes are pretty dominant as well. I hope you enjoy!

Cymbidium Devon Parish
(devonianum x sanderae)

Cymbidium Tiny Tiger (photo by Julian Coker)
(devonianum x tigrinum)

Cymbidium Miss Muffett
(devonianum x floribundum)

Cymbidium Vogelsang
(devonianum x insigne)

Cymbidium Cricket
(devonianum x madidum)

Cymbidium (not yet named)
(devonianum x faberi)

Cymbidium Jean Brummitt
(devonianum x eburneum)

Cymbidium Langleyense
(devonianum x lowianum)