My father, Art Chadwick Sr., turned 90 last week and he credits his longevity to orchids. Since the age of 13, he has been collecting cattleyas and, to this day, he can’t wait to wake up in the morning and see what’s in bloom. His lifelong interest began rather innocently, as a teenager walking home from school.
Growing up during the corsage era of the 1940s, young Arthur was exposed to orchid greenhouses at every turn. Commercial firms, estate growers and hobbyists were all raising cattleyas because the demand for cut flowers far exceeded the supply. A single corsage was selling for as much as $20 and women everywhere were wearing them.
Arthur’s neighborhood of Elkins Park, Pa., was particularly active in orchids and the second and third presidents of the American Orchid Society lived there. Each day, Arthur would walk past the fancy estates and admire their greenhouses. Eventually, he befriended the growers, who took him under their wing.
Over time, Arthur was given their extra orchids to experiment with. Initially, it was just a plant or two — perhaps the back pieces that occur when a specimen is divided. But it wasn’t long before Arthur was carrying boxes full to his parents.
Arthur’s father, a builder, soon realized that he had to construct a greenhouse for the expanding collection. The two Chadwicks bonded one summer and erected a redwood structure with top and side louvers and manual openers. This design would serve as a prototype for all of Arthur’s greenhouses over the next 75 years.
The following summer, Arthur took a job at a commercial orchid nursery, Fetzer Greenhouses, in nearby Warminster, Pa. Their fertilizing technique was legendary and involved collecting sheep manure from an owner’s front yard and soaking it for a week in burlap bags. The “tea” was then poured onto their Cymbidiums, which produced enormous heads of flowers. Arthur was glad that he wasn’t responsible for collecting the manure.
When Arthur went away to college, his parents took care of his orchids but eventually the plants were sold. A single cattleya was spared — a wild collected species from Venezuela — and it survived on windowsills for several more years. Ultimately, Arthur named the variety after his father and C lueddemanniana “Arthur Chadwick” AM/AOS remains one of the best lavenders.
Arthur graduated from Pennsylvania State Unversity with a degre in Agricultural Economics but, much to the dismay of his parents, he went into the cut flower cattleya business with a friend. Like any new venture, there was considerable risk and Arthur was more interested in the nuances of each plant than the actual day-to-day production of blooms. Arthur sold out to his partner but not before selecting the very best Cattleya Bow Bells for himself.
In 1960, he entered the white hybrid in a big orchid show, where it won top honors. He was recently married so he named the variety after his new wife, Anne, and both the orchid and his bride were pictured on the front page of their local paper, The Orlando Sentinel. “She, of course, was hooked on orchids from that day on,” he said.
After work and on weekends, Arthur began breeding cattleyas and took details notes of the process. He was fascinated in the genetics and photographed each flower, amassing an enormous library of Kodachrome slides. He was not deterred by the length of time it would take to raise the plants to maturity — typically seven years.
The tricky technique of planting seed or “flasking” was mastered on his kitchen table using a pressure cooker and glass beakers. Few hobbyists attempt this step, given the absolutely sterile conditions required for germination, but Arthur’s mother was a nurse and had taught him the fundamentals of strict cleanliness. The newly planted flasks were promptly moved to a special incubation chamber in the basement.
Arthur made new hybrids, remade old hybrids, and did sibling crosses of his favorite species. His earliest recorded hybrid was in 1951, but he is known for his 1990 Laeliocattleya Powhatan (Princess Margaret x C dowiana), which produced some stunning white with purple lip varieties.
An avid reader, Arthur explored all the old orchid journals and was intrigued by the earliest primary hybrids dating back to the turn of the century. Unable to find examples in circulation, he simply remade the long forgotten yellows — Lc Ophir (L xanthina x C dowiana) of 1901, C Triumphans (rex x dowiana) of 1904, and C Prince John (Hardyana x dowiana) of 1913, among many others.
He was particularly fond of the spring blooming species, Cattleya mossiae, which is the National Flower of Venezuela and can produce up to five flowers on a spray. He made sibling crosses of the best varieties and bloomed them all, creating quite a show in the greenhouse each March in every imaginable shade of lavender.
Arthur’s love of orchids was apparent in the dozens of articles he wrote for the American Orchid Society. He was a natural storyteller, and the editor suggested that he write a book. “The Classic Cattleyas” was introduced in 2006 and landing him on the Martha Stewart Show. The book sold out and is now in its second printing.
In 1989, he lent his name and hard labor to a startup family business, Chadwick & Son Orchids Inc. The Virginia-based company began modestly with the construction of three of those old fashioned, hand built, redwood greenhouses with upper and lower louvers and hand cranks that his father had shown him 50 years earlier. The company just celebrated its 31st year, and Arthur continues to consult on the nuances of cattleyas.
Through it all, Arthur has held on to his prized cattleya orchids — the corsage type, now numbering over 800. His wife of 60 years, Anne, has had a seemingly endless supply of colorful flowers with which to decorate their home with and they both credit orchids for their youthful spirit and longevity. Future generations of Chadwicks have their work cut out for them in the quest for the continuation of this encompassing orchid legacy.