It all began in an isolated, flea-infested hut, tucked away in the Ecuadorian mountains near the sleepy town of Vilcabamba. This town had developed a reputation for a clean environment, which keeps people healthy, resulting in unusually long lifespans. At least that is what the villagers like to believe, but in fact, according to a health department study performed years ago, one hundred percent of the population used to carry a plethora of intestinal parasites.
One morning my host Dennis D’alessandro was weak from a nasty parasitic worm. While he was in this weakened state, I decided to try to talk him out of a piece of an exquisite orchid, a white form of Cattleya maxima. Unusual color forms of this species are rare and jealously treasured by orchid growers in Ecuador. The species used to be widespread along the coast, where it appeared as a sturdy epiphyte with up to one-meter tall stems, carrying numerous pale pinkish flowers. It also occurred at slightly higher elevations in the mountains as a much more compact plant with fewer but darker purplish colored flowers. Plants of Cattleya maxima are no longer common in nature and have vanished completely from much of its historic distribution. There are still isolated populations surviving here and there in the southern part of the country, but you need to search far and wide to find them. Somehow, a white- flowered plant was discovered near the town of Cariamanga in the south and ended up in a private collection in Loja, closely guarded by a proud and protective owner. Dennis talked the owner out of a small division, which he proudly exhibited. The plant did not look very healthy, and I had tried for days without success to persuade him to split his treasure in case something happened to it
Anyway, the worm incident seemed to mellow Dennis’ resistance. I managed to bring up the Cattleya discussion again while he was in a vulnerable state of mind. It turned out relatively successful. He agreed to part with a portion of it which consisted of two tiny back-bulbs, the size of my little finger. I figured that was better than nothing and handed the plant over to my travel partner Thomas Höijer, who had a better chance to nurse the little runt back to life at the Botanical Garden in Stockholm.
A few years later, the seemingly impossible was a fact. Thomas had not only been able to keep the tiny plant alive but also to nurture it to the point of exploding with new growth. The plant looked and acted weird though, and instead of producing a single growth that would increase in size and finally flower, it put out a multitude of little growths in all directions. The good part was that this made it easy to divide and produce more plants. The bad part was that it was exceedingly shy aboout flowering. When it finally did flower, it revealed a beautiful and well-shaped, single white blossom per inflorescence. Eventually, a division was given to a professional German orchid grower who added some magic to the treatment and soon had a large and impressive plant that he displayed at a show in Germany. He was rewarded with a silver medal for the effort. The orchid was given the clonal name “Königin Silvia” in honor of the Swedish queen. A second division of the Swedish plant was also donated to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. The plant liked the Florida sun so much that it soon became a huge ball of stems and leaves but only occasionally displayed single blossoms during flowerings. Despite its reputation as an orchid that is both finicky and difficult to flower, Selby Gardens’ excellent orchid grower, Angel Lara, has mastered the cultivation and reveals that this plant needs to be placed in very bright and warm conditions in order to show its full potential.
The survival of the puny bulbs of Cattleya maxima ‘Königin Silvia’ is a rare success story. Not only did the plant survive in cultivation, it has been propagated and widely distributed in several countries, including a return to Ecuador. This also demonstrates the importance of sharing rare plants when possible since both the original plants in Loja and Vilcabamba have perished.