William Cattley (1788-1835)

Cattleya labiata 'Marina'

Cattleya labiata ‘Marina’

In the year 1819, Mr. W. Cattley from Barnet, England, received a shipment of tropical plants from South America. He was an avid collector of ferns and other tropicals and was successful in bringing these bare-rooted plants back to growing well. He had even suggested to the plant hunters who provided his material to send orchids – they were becoming popular at that time. So, after potting up all these unusual looking treasures, he was much exited when a year later a flower opened up that nobody in England had ever seen. It was rather large, lavender with crimson and gold, had a frilly lip and sweet fragrance – it was an orchid! Later on, John Lindley, doing some work for Mr. Cattley, decided to name the orchid after this man – adding the species epithet ‘labiata’, to acknowledge the impressive labellum of the flower and ‘autumnalis’ to let people know this plant flowers in the fall.

This Cattleya labiata was by no means the first Cattleya (nor the first orchid) ever to reach England and bloom. In 1817, Mr. Swainson had sent several similar plants to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens, where they flowered later on. Still, the name which Lindley had penned in recognition of his friend W. Cattley was kept for the whole genus. However, these large orchid flowers probably had the most significant influence on the orchid frenzy which sprang up in England and in Europe. Orchid nurseries and private collectors sent out plant hunters to look for more of these plants. As was customary, Mr. Swainson had kept the area of his discoveries secret. It was only in the year 1836, that a Mr. Gardener thought that he had re-found the plants. What he really had found was Laelia lobata in the area of Rio de Janeiro. It took another 18 years to spread the information of the whereabouts of the supposed C. labiata. Unfortunately, the Brazilians had been ‘developing’ much of the wild countryside, creating coffee plantations. Plant collectors found several similar orchids, like C. mossiae, C. trianae and others, but the C. labiata had become a ‘lost’ orchid, preserved only in paintings. Then, fifty years later, another colony of C. labiata was found near Pernambuco, Brazil; that is why we can now again delight in these lovely blossoms.

The tale of Mr. Cattley saving the orchid from the dust bin as packing material is incorrect, as explained by Mr. Ernest Hetherington. In 1992, a memorial to Mr. William Cattley was erected in the church yard of Barnet, England, through the efforts of Mr. Hetherington and others.

Ingrid Schmidt-Ostrander – Canadian Orchid Congress