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Vol. 7(2), pp. 4-7The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalFebruary 2006

A Westonbirt Mystery

Greig Russell

In the Cotswolds of West England, in the county of Gloucestershire, there is a hamlet famous in the minds of people interested in the history of Cymbidium breeding. This hamlet is Westonbirt. Here, in the first half of the twentieth century, some of the most notable cymbidium hybrids appeared. Quite a large number of cymbidium hybrids were registered from the Westonbirt stable over the years; about 220 hybrids in the Sanders' List up to 1946. Being interested in the stories that the names of hybrids may reveal, I have often wondered where some of these names originated.

The earliest hybrid I can trace from Westonbirt is Cymbidium Pluto--a synonym of Cym. Woodlandense (mastersii x tracyanum)--registered in 1910 by Lieut. Colonel Sir George Holford C.I.E., K.C.V.O., the wealthy landowner who towards the end of the nineteenth century commenced growing cymbidiums amongst many other types of plants at Westonbirt.

Fig. 1. Cymbidium Alexanderi 'Judith Karleen' AM/AOS. 1957.

The most famous Cymbidium of all to appear at Westonbirt was Cym. Alexanderi (Eburneo-lowianum x insigne) registered in 1911, and named for Herbert George Alexander, Holford's grower (Fig. 1). This was followed by other cymbidiums which like Cym. Pluto had names derived from classical references; Dryad, Merlin, Nada, etc. From about 1920 until his death in 1926, Holford's hybrids were mostly given the names of birds; and thus we have Cym. Flamingo, Cym. Petrel, Cym. Dotterel and Cym. Guillemot, amongst a large number of such names.

On the death of Sir George Holford, the orchid collection was passed to Alexander as a bequest, and he proceeded to commercialise it, trading as H.G. Alexander, Ltd. Initially Alexander continued with Holford's "bird tradition", but was rapidly running out of good names. I consider Cymbidium Marabou of 1928 as particularly unfortunately named, having known some of these scavengers on a personal level. Why anyone would have named an attractive flower after such an unattractive bird is hard to imagine! Perhaps it's a case of scraping the bottom of the barrel. Thereafter, Alexander went back to names in the classical tradition; Cym. Apollo, Cym. Babylon, Cym. Cassandra, but there was a period in the early 1930's when some of the hybrids were given women's names.

Cymbidium Rosanna is one of these, also Cym. Gillian, Cym. Jessica and more. Cym. Rosanna is a plant that has interested me for many years; the beautiful Cym. Rosanna 'Pinkie' being a plant of legend, which aside from the useful Cym. Balkis, never performed as the parent it promised to be. I've often wondered who the Rosanna was who deserved this commemoration.

Fig. 2. St. Katherine's Church, Westonbirt, England.

Fig. 3. St. Katherine's Church, Westonbirt, England.

In 1993, following the Glasgow WOC, I travelled widely in Britain in a camper I had bought in London at the beginning of the trip. Westonbirt was on my itinerary. Although no cymbidiums are grown there any longer, it is a place of such historical significance that it deserved a visit (Fig. 2) (Fig. 3). I also wanted to see the stained glass windows in the Westonbirt Chapel that H.G. Alexander had put up in memory of his two sons, both having been lost in the Second World War.

Fig. 4. Gravestone in churchyard at St. Katherine's Church at Westonbirt. Inscription:
SACRED
To the memory
OF ROSANNA
WIFE of Job Lambert
Who departed this life July 28 1843
AGED 25 YEARS

Having parked my camper behind the churchyard, I wandered up the path towards St Katherine's Church, between the gravestones. As is my usual habit, I read the inscriptions, at least all that were legible, as I walked along. I started as my eye caught one which said "Rosanna" in big bold letters (Fig. 4). I immediately thought to myself that Alexander himself must have walked this way countless times in his life, right past this stone. Could this be the origin of the name he gave to one of his crosses?

The advent of the World Wide Web in my life has served as a means of delving deeper into this mystery. I have not been able to find any Rosanna of classical significance and "Rosanna" appears to have been quite an uncommon name in the early 20th century.

I looked through H.G. Alexander's family to see if there was any Rosanna there. His mother, a dressmaker, was Sarah, and his sisters were Florence and Ada Louise. His wife was either Annie Georgina or Hilda, or both, in either sense. His daughters were Nancy, Doris and Vanda. It is interesting to note that he never named any Cymbidium hybrids after any of these women, not even his wife (wives)!!

Fig. 5. Cymbidium Rosanna 'Pinkie' FCC/RHS. 1931.

Rosanna Lambert (née Slade) was the 25-year old mother of two boys, Sidney (7) and James (5) when she died. After this her husband Job (about 28) seems to have disappeared and the boys were raised by her parents. It is also interesting to note that the right-hand side of Rosanna's gravestone was never inscribed. That is all I can discover about her. Perhaps this sad story's happy ending is that something of great beauty was later named for her: our Cymbidium Rosanna 'Pinkie' (Fig. 5). I like to think so.

Fig. 6. The stained glass windows within St. Katherine's Church, Westonbirt, England.

The other Great Sadness of Westonbirt is, of course, inside the church itself. The two stained glass windows (Fig. 6) reveal the great heaviness that was felt in the heart of H.G. Alexander when his two boys were taken from him in the War. Had this not happened, perhaps I would have been visiting a great orchid nursery in Westonbirt, on that day in 1993.

Pilot Officer Edwin Holbrow Alexander died aged 19 on Monday, 27th May 1940 in Bristol Blenheim #R.3624 of Squadron 254 based at RAF Sumburgh in the Shetlands, during an armed reconnaissance mission over Norway. His aircraft (with crew of three) was attacked and shot down by a Messerschmitt 109 piloted by Lt. Deuschle from 6.Staffel/J.G.77 (or Staffelkapitaen, Hauptmann Franz Heinz Lang from II/JG77, or Uffz Vogel of 4/JG 77. There were a lot of claimants!). There were no survivors and no remains were ever recovered.

Major Stanley George Alexander was killed in action in North West Europe (Arnheim?) 26 September 1944, whilst active with the 61st Reconnaissance Regiment, RAC.

Thus the history of Cymbidium breeding was rewritten.

If ever you are in that neck of the woods, I advise you to pop in to see the stained glass windows, stroll through the churchyard. Find and stop at Rosanna's grave. While you're about it, see if you can find the graves of a Jessica, Gillian, Letty, Lorna, Mollie, Myrna, Prudence, Rhoda, Rosalind, and others.

For more information on Pilot Officer Edwin Holbrow Alexander, refer to the page: http://www2.bc.edu/~emerypa/famtree/TomHammond.html; and if you read this, you may need a fitting piece of music. I suggest a midi version of the Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations would do well.

Copyright © 2006 Greig Russell