Of the many thousands of cymbidium seedlings flowered over the last 100 years, a number have been so superior at the time that they have a permanent place in the story of cymbidium development and a place in the cymbidium ‘hall of fame’. Some are chosen for this article.
Hybrid cymbidiums have existed for over 100 years. Prior to 1900, the species pool was very limited and, because hybrids depend on the genetic make-up of the parent species for their own characteristics, hybrid variation was also limited. Cymbidium tracyanum, Cymbidium hookerianum, Cymbidium eburneum and Cymbidium lowianum (in its three major varieties, var. lowianum, var. i’iansonii and var. concolor) were the most important species available and these provided limited opportunities in hybridising. From 1900 however the scene was dramatically changed with the discovery of Cymbidium insigne (in its many coloured forms) and Cymbidium parishii or sanderae. Cymbidium insigne proved the vital key for the full development of the hybrid cymbidium.
Hybrids may be created by crossing any two cymbidiums that will produce seed. However, in serious programs, parents are selected carefully in an attempt to combine and complement desirable features in the progeny. It must be realized that there is considerable variation between different cultivars of the same species and with the vast numbers of plants being introduced by the collectors, there was ample opportunity for the major orchid houses of the time to select those that were superior. At this stage all species were diploid. Tetraploid hybrids only resulted later from chance chromosome doubling during their development. Currently Andy Easton is creating a gene pool of superior tetraploid forms of the species and is following the early breeding lines with these, so we will soon see new super varieties of the early primary hybrids and others.
In the course of cymbidium breeding, probably the greatest hybrid cymbidium of all time appeared in 1922 from the crossing of Cym. Eburneo-lowianum ‘Concolour’ with Cymbidium insigne ‘Sanderae’. It was of course Cym. Alexanderi ‘Westonbirt’, flowered by H. G. Alexander. It became the cornerstone parent for producing quality hybrids until recent times. It was the first chance tetraploid and owes many of its superior characteristics to this. We still grow Cym. Alexanderi ‘Westonbirt’ and although it is not up to show standard now, it is still a very useful cut flower and, by maintaining it in cultivation, we and others are preserving one of the greats from the past. There were many other crosses of Cym. Alexanderi made from the early 1900s, some of them albinos, and a number of clones from these also played an important part in the history of hybridising.
Of the Australian-flowered (English-bred) cymbidiums, one of the greatest was Cym. Girrahween ‘Enid’. With Cym. Flamenco as one parent and Cymbidium lowianum as the other it also set a standard of excellence in Sydney that was unsurpassed for many years. By today’s standards it is an ordinary, small, pleasantly conformed flower, but we must remember that sixty years ago when it first flowered, it was the best. Unfortunately, unlike Cym. Alexanderi ‘Westonbirt’, it was not a breeder and so it does not leave a line of progeny.
Also in the 1950s another great orchid appeared; Cym. Burgundian ‘Chateau’. It received the highest accolades then and still remains an orchid that deserves a place in any collection. Its parentage, registered as Cym. (Remus x Babylon) has been contested, but when well flowered, it is still capable of winning on the showbench with its flowers having a conformation and colour that is difficult to surpass. Unfortunately it is also a non-breeding triploid and so although hybrids were attempted with hexaploid conversions, no outstanding progeny has resulted.
Cym . Narela ‘Jennifer Gail’ (Cym. Balkis x Cym. Whyba) is another evergreen triploid that carried all before it in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Of perfect form and being almost concolour pink it was virtually unbeatable at shows when flowered well. It is another plant that should be in every collection, as its aesthetics of form and free-growing, free-flowering nature make it highly desirable.
Hybridising is a slow process with 5-7 years required between generations. Unfortunately few tetraploid clones were available until recently. When used, they were commonly crossed with diploids, so that much of the progeny resulted in infertile triploids. Recently, the farsighted breeding programs of Alvin Bryant, Andy Easton and others has provided a comprehensive pool of fast-growing, free-flowering, colourful tetraploids that will start a new renaissance in cymbidiums. These new seedlings, with their great diversity of form, colour, size and new features, can now be seen in leading cymbidium nurseries.
We can look back on the great parents and the great clones but how do we choose the greats of the future. Obviously we must look at the new seedlings appearing on the show bench throughout the year. Cymbidium flowers can now be seen in any month, given the expanded flowering season of these new hybrids. To mention parents is difficult, as with the pace of development, many of the very latest parents will be unknown to most growers. However a few that are proven large-flowered cymbidium parents include: Cym. Valley Zenith for greens; Cym. Coraki ‘Margaret’ 4N and its progeny, Cym. Tracey Reddaway, Cym. Atlantic Crossing and Cym. Autumn Crisp for yellows; Cym. Paradise Wonder, Cym. Stargard, Cym. Wonder Arc, Cym. Fancy Free, Cym. Baltic Snow, Cym. Solana Beach for whites; Cym. Red Beauty ‘Netty’, Cym. Hazel Tyers ‘ Santa Maria’, Cym. Radiant Harry, Cym. Sylvan Khan for pinks; Cym. Yowie Flame, Cym. James Toya, Cym. James Tee Kirk, Cym. Lancashire Rose for reds; and Cym. Pink Champagne ‘Featherhill’, Cym. Cronulla ‘The Khan’, Cym. Mighty Mouse ‘Minnie’, Cym. Red Beauty ‘Carmen’ 4N and Cym. So Bold ‘and Bountiful’ for other colours and combinations.
For intermediates, Cym. Dolly ‘Featherhill’ 4N is currently the most versatile parent, producing both coloured orchids and albino types. Cym. Golden Elf ‘Sundust’ 4N will become important for the ultra earlies. Cym. Vogelsang ‘ Eastbourne’ 4N introduces the Cymbidium devonianum line and the progeny of Cymbidium sanderae ‘Emma Menninger’ 4N, such as Cym. Anna Szabo ‘Geyserland’ and Cym. Music Box Dancer ‘Ballerina’, will lead to superior white development. In miniatures, Cym. Ruby Eyes ‘Red Baron’ 4N, Cym. Miss Muffet, Cym. Olymilum, and hybrids of Cym. madidum or Cym. suave will produce special progeny when complemented appropriately.
These clones and grexes only mention a few of the very special new parents. Other factors being introduced into hybridising at present include bizarre spots, stripes and splashes, dusting, perfume and characteristic new forms. Cymbidiums have a proud past with special clones including those mentioned previously. We are now entering an exciting new era that will result in an ever-increasing number of these special clones, so be part of it. The opportunity has never been so exciting.