Fall is the time of year for delicate clusters of lavender flowers to appear on Guarianthe bowringiana, an orchid in the Cattleya alliance. Because of its seasonal blooming, it once was called Cattleya autumnalis. It is festooning the Conservatory’s epiphyte tree and display room.
A beautiful fall-blooming orchid,
Gua or guadia is from the Aztec language and it means tree. Anthe is from Greek meaning flower. So understanding that, said Tom Mirenda, orchid collection specialist at the Smithsonian Institution, the name Guarianthe, meaning a flower that grows in a tree, is easy to say and use. But for many long-time orchid growers, it’s still hard to use Guarianthe instead of Cattleya.
Mirenda was among the orchid experts at the recent Speakers Day hosted by the South Florida Orchid Society. He prefaced his talk about colorful Cattleya hybrids by explaining some of the name-shuffling resulting from DNA analysis as scientists try to untangle the evolutionary background of these most diverse of all flowers. A handful of cattleyas from Central America have been given the new name, including another old favorite that flowers in the spring, Cattleya skinneri, which now is Guarianthe skinneri . When you see the lovely clusters of lavender flowers on these orchids, you can connect them to the people who once lived among the tree-dwelling orchids of the region.
Guarianthe bowringiana is a bifoliate cattleya, meaning it has two leathery leaves atop a pseudobulb. Bifoliate cattleyas produce many small flowers in a cluster, whereas unifoliate, or one-leafed, plants bloom with one, two or three large, showy flowers. In Vol. I of his series The Cattleyas and Their Relatives, Carl Wittner describes Guarianthe bowringiana as “a good species for the beginner…as it is tolerant of heat, sun and poor humidity.’’
Now, if only the heat would give us a break, it would make us more in the mood for autumn, no matter name we give it.