Cattleya nobilior the noblest of the Cattleyas – Its history in Brazil and Japan

Nobody knows exactly what Reichenbach was thinking in 1883 in “Illustration Horticole” – book 30 – plate 485, when he described the Cattleya nobilior.  What we do know is that he described it as “the noblest” of the Cattleyas.  It would have been difficult for us not to believe his statement, since over time, that plant has always been among our favorite and for that reason we made it popular in Brazil and in Japan. It seems that in that same passion, orchid collectors have followed suit.


Over the years, maybe due to the difficulties in obtaining them, we have always been in touch with very interesting people such as truck drivers that used to travel to the region that at the time was called State of Mato Grosso – a trip that used to take three days to go and three more to return, pilots of small commercial airplanes and farmers from that same region.  Among them, it is important to mention the airplane mechanic and friend Mr. Bertran Leupolz, a German descent who rediscovered the C. nobilior Amaliae while taking apart an airplane that had fallen in the State of Goias.  It was with the help of his information that in 1983 we made our first and ill-fated trip to Taguatinga, suffered an extremely serious accident and never made it to our final destination.  Around that time, several friends that managed to make it there sent us about 300 plants.  Among the plants we had received from them, we found what was at that point in time the best C. nobilior in the world, the C. nobilior v. amaliae “Perfection”.  That is exactly where the history of the C. nobilior started in Japan.  A well known Japanese orchid collector saw the plant and fell in love with it.  I was already thinking about getting married and decided to sell the plant to him for 4 million Cruzeiros – the Brazilian currency at the time.  That amount was enough for me to buy everything I needed for my new house from furniture to refrigerator, etc.  Even though later on that Japanese man would disappoint me, I am still thankful to him for that reason.


In 1985 or 1986, I do not remember exactly when, I was invited to participate in the AOSP orchid show – São Paulo Orchid Association, better known as the orchid society of the Japanese community in Brazil that had at the time a friend of many years as its president, Mr. Jorge Kawasaki.  Back then that orchid show used to receive several visitors from Japan, among them somebody who would become the pioneer of the popularization of the C. nobilior in Japan, Mr. Yoshihiko Ichikawa.


It is not necessary to mention that the Japanese man that had purchased the Perfection never told anybody from whom he had acquired the plant, but nothing stays secret in the orchid world – because it is an extremely small world.  I had a small picture album on me in that orchid show with photos of my C. nobiliors and was showing it to another client when Mr. Ichikawa from afar saw it and asked to look at it also.  We tried to communicate with each other – he with his broken English and I with mine, which at the time was even weaker than his.  Despite the initial communication difficulties, it became a great friendship thus leading to the first nobiliors being sent to Japan in the following year.


In 1987, one of the best years of my life, on the 12th of August, my first son Rafael Augusto was born and in September a simply FANTASTIC C. nobilior (Mato Grosso) flowered – which was brought by a truck driver friend and we logically named it after my first born Dom Rafael Augusto.  The Dom part of the name was given to the plant after my mother Rosita and my wife Carmen, both Spanish descent and obviously to give the plant an added charm.


In that same year, AOSP was also celebrating its silver jubilee and everybody seemed very busy and preoccupied.  Supposedly, there was going to be a team from NHK present, who would do a journalistic piece on the event, but until this day I still do not know if that was true.  However, a NHK team did come to the orchid show and everything was prepared for somebody from the Brazilian Japanese community to win the maximum prize offered at the exposition.  After all, in AOSP’s entire history, never had a non Japanese descent ever “stamped the Hawk” – the maximum prize of the orchid show, even though we had tied for that maximum prize in the previous year’s voting and lost because our plant was a hybrid and the winner orchid a native species.  However, history was about to change.


Here in Rio Claro, the Cattleya nobilior “Dom Rafael Augusto” was in flower.  However, we already knew that it would be difficult to win the maximum prize.  After all, we did not have the Asian eyes necessary for the candidature to such prize, specially knowing that there was a group of Japanese visitors that probably would be seeing the glory of their own people living on the other side of the world.  We are left with two mysteries that were never solved from that orchid show.  I do not know if for the influence of the visitors or for fear of being partial in the judging, the ‘Dom Rafael Augusto” came out the winner that night and the probable winner (the runner up) would never again participate in an AOSP orchid show.


In that same orchid show, the same Japanese man that had previously purchased the “Perfection” and that at the time was no longer a client of our company, sent a third party to purchase a division of the Dom Rafael Augusto and without knowing it of course, I sold him the plant.  Later I found out that the third party had purchase the plant for him, the already owner of the Perfection, and sent it to Japan for cloning.  Profoundly irritated and disappointed with what took place, I called an old friend of my father’s, Mr. George Suzuki who suggested that we took the plant to Hawaii for cloning.  A month later, George Suzuki and I landed in Hawaii with the “Dom Rafael Augusto – at that point I had already renamed the plant “Dom Rafael Wenzel” following my father’s suggestion that there were many Rafael Augustos, but only one Rafael Wenzel.  This part of the story serves to clarify once and for all that the plant that had been sold to Japan to Mr. Isao Tsuji was nothing more than the Dom Rafael Wenzel.


In March of 1988, I embarked on an airplane by myself to go the “Land of the Rising Sun”, and after a 23 hour flight, there was Mr. Ichikawa waiting for me.  I believe that it would not be necessary to mention the dazzling excitement that took over the 25 year old young man from the countryside of Brazil from landing in a country with such a high level of technology and industrialization compared to my small City of Rio Claro.  Mr. Ichikawa received me with open arms as we started our marathon of visits to Japanese orchid growers.  We drove on a marvelous bridge – Yokohama – and our first stop was at an orchid house called Hirota International Flower.  There we were received by a young man slightly older than I, to whom Mr. Ichikawa introduced me – Mr. Hirota.  After a lot of ban-cha, many conversations, many laughs and business, we said our goodbyes.  The friendship and the business ties that started then live to this day.  The continuity of the history and passion for the C. nobilior owes him a lot.


After the pleasant conversation with Mr. Hirota, Mr. Ichikawa invited me to participate in a meeting of orchid collectors at a place that I still do not know the name or to what orchid club it belonged, but it was packed with people.  They were having a presentation led by Mr. Koichi Ejiri, an orchid expert recognized in the entire country of Japan for his weekly program on NHK.  I found that out because Mr. Ichikawa was translating parts of the presentation for me.  He had also told everyone that I was from Brazil and I was asked me to make a presentation after Mr. Ejiri’s.  I became scared and preoccupied because up to that point in my life, I had never made a presentation in Portuguese.  What would it be like for me to make a presentation for 200 people in English, especially after Mr. Ejiri, who was already famous and accustomed to making public speeches?  Luckily, the audience did not speak English either and if I made any mistakes, they would not find out.  I must have made many language mistakes.  I remember well that it was particularly funny when I tried to answer a question regarding the type of planting medium utilized by us in the cultivation of our orchids.  I did not know how to say tree fern fiber in English and chose to say it in Portuguese – xaxim.  Everybody laughed about it.  Mr. Ichikawa was also laughing hard while he explained to me that xaxim in Japanese meant photography.  Imagine that, we cultivated our orchids in photographic paper!


This presentation in Japan, I believe, was the most important one of my life.  It was my first public presentation.  Guess which was the last photo that Mr. Ejiri showed the audience?  That is right.  It was a photo of the C. nobilior Dom Rafael Augusto and Mr. Ichikawa told the audience at the end of my presentation:


The C. nobilior that you admired in Mr. Ejiri’s presentation belongs to the young man that just finished making his presentation.  Without knowing it, from that moment on, I had become a celebrity.  Mr. Ichikawa and Mr. Ejiri made me well known that night.


From there we went to Mr. Ichikawa’s home and were received by his wife with a delicious dinner.  I found out that she was a pianist and liked a Brazilian composer called Villa Lobos.  Next morning, I went to see Mr. Ichikawa’s orchid house and spent time talking and exchanging information regarding what could be done to improve cultivation, etc.  I remember Mr. Ichikawa’s facial expression; serene and smiling while showing me the different prizes that he had won with the nobiliors that we had sent him.


I still had two days left in Japan, so I wondered about what I should do with that time.  Mr. Ichikawa called Mr. Ejiri and asked him to have me over his place the next day.  Everything had been arranged between them, but how would I get to Mr. Ejiri’s house?  How would I recognize the person that was coming to pick me up?  Mr. Ichikawa took me to the train station with a piece of paper that had the name of the station at which I would be getting off the train and the time that I would be arriving there.  The name of the station was Kinscho and I was to arrive there at 11:19.  For a Brazilian such as I who is accustomed to the late arrivals of busses, airplanes and other means of transportation, having to get off the train at 11:19 somehow sounded extremely amusing to me!  There I was to get off the train and a young man would be meeting me.  However, how is he going to recognize me?  For a moment, I had forgotten that I was in Japan, but I realized that it was going to be easy.  At the Kinscho Train Station, I was the only foreigner.  Precisely at 11:19, the train stopped at Kinscho.  Much to my surprise, I was at the desired station and no longer than a minute later a young man was asking me if I was Mr. Wenzel.  The young man was Mr. Munekazu Ejiri, another great friend who is also responsible for our success in Japan.


During the following years, many were my trips to Japan and Mr. Ichikawa’s to Brazil to visit the natural habitat of the Cattleya nobilior.  I remember one of these occasions in particular, when gas stations in the State of Goias were only a few and far apart, especially around the region of the natural habitat of the C. nobilior v. amaliae.  Our car ran on ethanol fuel, which used to be even rarer in that part of the country.  We were still 15km away from our final destination when the car ran out of fuel.  Now what?  I remember that earlier on that trip I had purchased a bottle of 5 liters of cachaça – a typical Brazilian beverage that is a type of sugar cane liquor, which is particularly strong in that part of the country.  With no hesitation, I poured the cachaça into the fuel tank and we managed to drive to a gas station!


Many were their trips to Brazil, Mr. Munezaku, Mr. Hirota and later Mr. Masato, Mr. Wanaka, Mr. Kimura and others.  With the recession that afflicted the Japanese economy and his advanced age, Mr. Ichikawa stopped travelling to Brazil.  The difficulties and lack of information about cultivation made it seem as if the popularization of the C. nobilior was going to be challenging at best.  All of a sudden, the ACW was founded – the Association of the Cattleya Walkeriana in Brazil and in Japan, which was an institution devoted exclusively to Cattleya walkeriana in Brazil, but in Japan it included the C. nobilior as well and everything became easier.  Collectors began writing about their experiences with the cultivation of the nobiliors.  Here in Brazil, Mr. Kenji Sugimoto from the City of Maracaju, State of Mato Grosso, one of the most active members of the orchid society in the City of Sidrolandia was writing his articles in Japanese and sending them to the ACW of Japan.  A new golden era of the Cattleya nobilior had begun.  In 2005, Mr. Tetsuya Hirota, Mr. Nobayasu Sato and Mr. Akira Tanaka visited our friends in Sidrolandia.  In 2006, Mr. Yoshitane Ishino, Mr. Noboru Yamashita and Mr. Tetsuya Hirota came to Brazil for the Exposição Nacional da Cattleya nobilior (Cattleya nobilior National Exposition) in the City of Sidrolandia, State of Mato Grosso and for a few visits to the natural habitats around the City of Rondonópolis, MT.


Meanwhile, in Japan, United States and Brazil, dozens of Cattleya nobilior crossings and clones were made, with most of the special plants coming from C. nobilior v. amaliae “Perfection” or C. nobilior “Dom Rafael Wenzel”.


I am sincerely respectful and grateful to everybody who contributed or contributes to the cultivation of the Noblest Cattleya, but everything started with a certain Mr. Yoshihiko Ichikawa.