As the anniversary of Georgia O’Keeffe’s birth on Nov. 15 approaches, we are reminded of the impact the artist had in the horticultural world with her 200-plus flower paintings.
She lived nearly a century, from 1887 to 1986, and created a genera of botanical art in which the subjects are larger-than-life. Two pastels, in particular, have had orchid fanciers chatting for decades.
The first work, “Narcissa’s Last Orchid, 1940,” shows a white cattleya against a swirling pink background. The humorous title references an orchid given to O’Keeffe by her friend Narcissa Swift King, a Chicago socialite. Apparently, the gesture was not acknowledged, so the orchid gift was the first and last from King to O’Keeffe.
The flower is portrayed realistically but cropped to focus attention on the detailed lip. Most cattleyas have a lip of contrasting color (to attract pollinators), but Narcissa’s orchid is pure white. Florists referred to this type of orchid as a “Royal,” and it was popular in corsages at the time.
The exact name of the O’Keeffe orchid is not known, but it is surely of C intermedia breeding, as there are few alba species with little or no coloration in the lip. This spring-blooming Brazilian species has modestly sized pure white flowers and needs to be combined with a larger parent in order to be a usable cut flower. Possibilities include C gaskelliana (C Lady Crossley, 1904), C mossiae (C Undine, 1906) and C warneri (C Holdenii, 1911).
Just a year after the “Narcissa” painting, O’Keeffe’s released a second orchid work, “An Orchid, 1941,” featuring a frilly lipped, greenish-yellow blossom on its side. The subject is close and somewhat abstract, so it’s not easy to distinguish the individual flower parts. However, growers know what the general breeding line is.
The blossom closely resembles that of Brassavola digbyana, a prized species in any collection whose ethereal lime green flower is punctuated with hundreds of inch-long hairs radiating outward from the lip. It is the national flower of Honduras and also is found in Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize. The blooming season covers nearly half the year, from December to May, with individual flowers lasting several weeks.
Growers can identify this species strictly by its foliage, which is short, stiff and of a silvery matte finish. The plant produces only one flower per lead, but large specimens can be covered with blooms.
Hybridizers have been using B digbyana since the earliest days of orchid breeding to impart large frilly lips in the offspring. There is a word for this type of cattleya: If a flower has a “Brasso lip,” that means it’s extra-frilly and of B digbyana lineage.
As with the “Narcissa” painting, the botanical name of the flower in “An Orchid, 1941” is not known. However, there are only a handful of possibilities, given the recessive color genes of yellows and greens in cattleyas and the limited combinations of this time period. The most likely pairings with B digbyana are C dowiana (Bc Mrs J Leemann 1902), L tenebrosa (Bl Helen 1904) and Lc Ophir (Blc The Baroness 1913).
The orchids in the two O’Keeffe paintings are very different — a cut flower “Royal” and a wildly colored “Brasso” — but the acclaimed works have numerous similarities. In both cases, the flowers are tightly cropped to focus attention on the intricacy of the lips. They both have swirling backgrounds and refer to cattleyas simply as orchids.
The artist goes further into the abstract with “An Orchid, 1941” by selecting an ethereal flower, turning it on its side and weaving the background into the petals.
O’Keeffe’s two orchid paintings are just a sampling of her lifetime of innovative art. Called the “Mother of American modernism,” she was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 1985. Her works can be found at major art museums across the country. Learn more at www.okeeffe museum.org.