About six years ago I was able to acquire a small back-bulb division of Laelia purpurata v. werkhauseri, a “blue flowered” orchid of the Brazilian coast. I didn’t know at the time the history of this plant, nor much else about this species in general since it was an unforeseen gift from a friend. Nor did I realize this species was soon to be placed into the genus Sophronitis (known for their small, round, and red flowers), only to be transferred into Cattleya a year later. All I knew was that I had a “blue orchid” plant that looked like a big Cattleya. By the time I had it up to flowering size, all the name transformations were already said and done.
First, a little bit about this species. It was described in 1852 by Lindley and placed into the Central American genus Laelia based on its 8 pollinia (masses of organized pollen grains) instead of the usual 4 found in Cattleya, a trait of all the large flowered Brazilian Laelia species. Because of their similarity to Cattleya (and dissimilarity to other Laelia) they became known as “Cattleyode” Laelia or the Cattleya-like Brazilian Laelias.
Recent DNA research has proven that they are in fact quite distinct from other Laelia in the Americas, and are in fact simply large flowered Cattleya. The first name change for this group happened in 2008 from Laelia to Sophronitis until that genus, lock stock and barrel, was transferred into Cattleya a year later. So, though this plant is still mostly known by growers as Laelia purpurata (and some doggedly defend that position), it now is officially in the the genus Cattleya.
If that weren’t enough story telling for you, there is an even more interesting back story to v. werkhauseri. Back in 1904 this blue flowered form was found in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil by Karl Werkhauser. He found two clones labeled I and II. The first was a not so great flower but the second was wonderful, so he called it ‘Superba’. Anyway, plants were never sold or given to anyone except at his death in 1914 – his son got the poor flowered plant and his daughter the good one. The son apparently got off his division quickly, but the daughter kept the other under lock and key for another 40 years! After some crazy negotiations with local orchid lovers she finally sold the plant for serious money. Apparently all the plants we know as v. werkhauseri today are descended from that original 5 bulb division (she kept many more for herself). Because of her selfish attitude this form got the nickname, “The Witch’s Jewel”.
In nature this species is found in the coastal forests of southern Brazil in the states of São Paulo, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. It’s distribution is somewhat disjunct starting in the north between Rio de Janeiro and Porto Novo, picking up again around Praia Grande south to Cananéia (São Paulo State), skipping Paraná State, and starting up again south of Joinville (Santa Catarina State) to the vicinity of Tramandai (Rio Grande do Sul State).
It is said to grow on rocky shores close to the ocean, especially on big fig trees, in nearly full sun conditions. These coastal rain forests have undergone vast changes since people have been living in them for a long time. It is said that Ficus trees are favored by some native people, not only for their fruits, but for cultural reasons, and are left uncut. For this reason, many large fig trees grow to massive size, and it is here that the orchids find a home.
The plant is typical looking for a unifoliate Cattleya, with elongate-clavate (club shaped) pseudobulbs growing up to 30 or more centimeters long and each boasting a single, leathery, elongate succulent leaf (itself up to 20-35 cm long). The flower sheath, itself quite long, emerges as soon as the new growth matures with flowering commencing sometime from late spring into autumn (mine has always flowered in late May/early June). Each growth can hold anywhere from two to five flowers.
Now the flowers are the obvious attraction of this variety. C. purpurata is known for its large flowers (reported up to 8 inches in some forms!), but v. werkhauseri is best known for its lovely, yet odd blue-violet tubular lip. The blue is strongest at in the middle part just before the lip flares out while deep within its tube is pure white (including the column), yet still heavily striated. Otherwise the flower is pure white throughout with a slight hint of green in the sepals. They also have a lovely sweet, floral scent, and are long lasting.
I grow my division in coarse perlite mixed evenly with orchid bark in a plastic pot. The plant is given ample water while in growth and is kept in very bright, hot conditions, but not full sun. It is said that after flowering it should be given a dry rest, but under my conditions the full summer monsoon hits soon after flowering. It doesn’t seem to have a bad reaction to this treatment, however it is grown very well drained. In winter it is subject to far cooler conditions. In summer it has to contend with highs in the low to mid 30s C (low 90s F) and in winter it can go as low as 8 C (high 40s F), but usually stays closer to 10 C (50 F). During the coldest months it is given far less water (December thru March). By April temperatures increase and this is when the flowers are initiated. I’ve had no problems with this regimen, but I can’t say that it is optimal for this species.
C. purpurata is closely related to C. tenebrosa. A favorite flower in its native Brazil, it is in fact the national flower of that country, and whole societies are dedicated to growing it. C. purpurata is well known for its great variability with flowers ranging from nearly pure white, to white flowers with purple lips, some with yellow throats (rarely orange), purple suffused flowers, the cherry pink lipped form v. carnea, and so on. If you want to see an excellent review, check out the Perfil da Planta Blog page on this species in Brazil. Great stuff and a nice sound track as well. The page is in Portuguese, but there is a translate button for English.
I’d recommend any form of Cattleya (“Laelia“) purpurata, though this lovely blue flowered one is fantastic. It isn’t terribly fussy, and has been a reliable bloomer for me each year. So, go find a division of “The Witch’s Jewel” for your own collection!