This lovely, fragrant plant used to be found much more abundantly in various mountain forests at between 300 – 1600 metres in Central America, but is now believed endangered in the wild. Its naturally occurring colour variations range from deep orange to the warm yellow form I painted here and it can hybridise in the wild with Cattleya skinneri to create Cattleya guatamalensis.
Guaranthe aurantiaca –previously known as Cattleya aurantiaca – is so versatile in its habitat requirements that it can choose to live in low mountain and tropical rain forests, dry oak forests or in mixed evergreen and semi-deciduous forests – it can even be found along river banks at between 300 and 1600 metres in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. There, whilst hanging off trees and rocks, G. aurantiaca copes with temperatures ranging between extremely hot and extremely cold. Its extensive natural range may be in part due to the fact that it can, when necessary, self-pollinate.Most Cattleyas are melittophulus – G. aurantiaca is an exception, probably being pollinated by bees only now and then and most of the time by hummingbirds. If necessary it can even self-pollinate all of its anywhere between one to eleven flowers per umbel. In El Salvador, for example, flowers rarely open fully, so, there it can rely on cleistoglamy. It has the smallest flowers of all Cattleyas yet has the widest range of naturally occurring forms which flower from December to May.
All Cattleys are endangered primarily by over-collection for the horticultural trade. I was shown this gorgeous plant growing in the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where the stems had reached a height of 15 cm. The gardeners who take so much care of the plants at Kew are such fun to be around that I was very happy to paint it over several weeks in the gardener’s mess room at the Lower Nursery.
G.aurantiaca first reached England from Mexico in a hoard gathered for Joseph Banks by that most determined collector, George Ure Skinner – a collection which also included Epidendrum aromaticum, Oncidium cavendishianum, Oncidium leuchilum, and Odontoglossum bictoniuense, amongst other treasures. Bateman described it in his c.1845 classic of orchid literature, Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala. Inspiration for the naming of its latest taxonomic move has come from the Costa Rican word for epiphyte, and the Greek word,anthe, meaning flower.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this tough little plant with its wide range of countries, potential host trees and other survival mechanisms would be safe from inclusion in any endangered plant listing. Sadly not. It has been over-collected so much for its usefulness in creating yet more hybrids that there it is – endangered. © Frances Livingstone 2018