In 2009, orchid grower and connoisseur Arthur E. Chadwick, owner of Chadwick & Son Orchids, arrived at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia. He was there to meet the then-First Lady Michelle Obama at a private reception. In his arms, he was juggling an arrangement of five gorgeous orchids with blooms in hues ranging from lavender to fuchsia.
The plants, cultivated by Chadwick himself, were a specialized breeding of the hybrid Cattleya Mini Purple and the species Cattleya trianaei to create a new variety that would be known as Cattleya Michelle Obama. The orchids were to be presented as a gift to Obama, the 14th consecutive First Lady to have a cattleya orchid named in her honor.
But to Chadwick’s dismay, Secret Service agents would not permit the flowers into the reception without first scanning them for explosives, and worse—no scanning equipment was available. After much negotiation, a compromise was reached. Chadwick was permitted to select two of the blooms for the formal presentation to the First Lady. Though the two blooms were comically spare in contrast with the original bouquet, Obama was delighted. “She thought it was great, she really did,” says Chadwick, who also presented the First Lady with a certificate from Royal Horticultural Society, declaring the flower’s official international registration.
The orchid Michelle Obama takes a full seven years to grow from seed to a mature plant, but the flower lasts several weeks. “The color is really spectacular—just a beautiful, glistening magenta, and the fact that the flower just lasts forever, that’s unheard of for cattleyas,” says Chadwick, adding that the flower is accessible as well as elegant, much like the first lady herself. “It’s a compact grower, it’s something that anyone could put on their windowsill.”