Book Review: Cattleya walkeriana

L. C. Menezes, 276pp, 4 maps, 272 color photographs, hardcover (20 x 27 cm), 2011. Instituto Brasileiro de Meio Ambiente (IBAMA), Brasília. ISBN 978-85-7300-349-9. Portuguese and English parallel texts. Avaliable from the reviewer, see below.

Estimates place the number of orchid species at more 25,000 with new species described and published frequently. This does not count the thousands of man-made hybrids which are registered. Many of the species are small and found in remote habitats of the world but there are many species which bear large, showy and highly-colored flowers, although many are green. These are widely favored by hobbyists and professional orchidists. The unfortunate fact is that most of the species, small and large, are endangered because of habitat destruction, in many cases caused by man. The large-flowered showy species are endangered in addition by the hunger of growers who search them out and remove them from their habitat to sell on the markets of the world. Orchids have attracted specialists who focus not only on a single type of orchid, like the numerous ladyslipper or cattleya enthusiasts, but even a single species! Thus there are conferences and published proceedings devoted to Ansellia in southern Africa, a genus of one or two species depending on the taxonomist, and Dendrobium kingianum in Australia. Now to follow up on her last book, Laelia purpurata, the Queen published in 2009, we have a book devoted to yet another single species, Cattleya walkeriana, endemic to Brazil.

Cattleya walkeriana is called the Queen of the Brazilian savannah because the heartland of this magnificent species is the Brazilian central plateau and surrounding areas. The plants are relatively small, epiphytes, lithophytes and even semi-terrestrial in leaf litter. For over 30 years, the author has devoted much of her efforts with the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment (IBAMA) to protecting and studying the rich orchid flora of Brazil. I am glad the recent work in phylogenetics that has led to wholesale name changes among many of the orchid genera has not fallen on this delightful species. It was originally described as Cattleya walkeriana and so it remains.

You might ask why an entire book devoted to a single species, regardless of its attractive flowers and compact plant size? Cattleya walkeriana stirs a very special kind of passion not only in Brazil, its homeland, but in many other parts of the world. I must admit that Cattleya walkeriana is my favorite Cattleya species. The Japanese are especially fond of Cattleya walkeriana. In Brazil and in Japan there are large and very active clubs devoted to the species and its numerous varieties representing different color variations and markings. They hold monthly meetings and shows to display their passion for this wonderful species. Like potato chips, you can’t have just one. In Brazil this has led to a mystifying horticultural classification and confusing nomenclature for every possible nuance of color, patterning, and combinations thereof. Menezes tackles this near chaos and presents a logical and well-defined classification of the horticultural varieties. She also examines the strange "sports" that appear among plants of Cattleya walkeriana which supports her idea that the species is still young and in the throes of arriving at a stable form.

The book is lavishly illustrated with color photographs of the species, its horticultural varieties, habitat and pertinent material such as pictures of the pollinators. All of these effectively illustrate the application of this complex system of names.

Throughout the chapters on the history and description of the genus, Menezes does a wonderful job recording the horticultural history of the species in Brazil. Thus the people involved in collecting unusual color forms as well as those who propagated and subsequently distributed these are duly noted. All too often this kind of information is lost and we are left with little more than an initial date of introduction to horticulture. There is also much insider information that might be well known in Brazil, but is unknown outside the region. The remaining seven chapters delve into the literature, varieties, natural hybrids, habitats, conservation, pests and diseases and culture.

Lou Menezes, a forestry engineer with the Brazilian Environmental Ministry, has devoted her adult life to the protection and conservation as well as popularizing the orchids of Brazil. This book adds to that legacy and emphasizes the role of the Environmental Ministry (IBAMA) in preserving the flora of Brazil for its citizens and for the world. This book will more than whet the appetite of its readers, we’re talking possible addiction to the species. The book should be considered by all orchid judges, since the diversity in Cattleya walkeriana offers many challenges. The numerous variants have distinct aesthetic appeal, and I doubt a purely analytical approach based on measurements, and such, really does justice to this "Queen of the Savannah."

This book is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Eric A. Christenson who recently passed away. Dr. Christenson had committed to write the introduction for the book, but unfortunately he was unable to complete the task. Lou decided rather than seek someone else to write the introduction, she would dedicate the book to his memory which is a fitting tribute to a great orchidist and scientist.