South Coast Orchid Society

The Kay Francis Archive

Kay Francis in her greenhouse, January, 1965

In her lifetime, Kay Francis (1907-1996) seems to have been hard to categorize. In the local press, she was "the orchid lady of Pasadena", perennial winner of so many ribbons at the San Gabriel Valley fall flower show. She had no recognizable professional career, and at the time, that made her a "housewife". The leaders of the orchid world were struck by how modest she was about her accomplishments. Yet there she was, accompanied by her husband Fred, at all the orchid club meetings, tracking down the best orchid plants she could find, both the latest award winners and the important stud plants from the past, bargaining and trading her way to an excellent collection that inspired her work in creating new hybrids.

She was, in fact, one of many enterprising "housewives" of her time who turned to orchids as an outlet for their interests and talents. Along with her fellow orchid hobbyists, she had mastered the technical details and skills of orchid culture and hybridization. She became part of a far-flung network of orchid lovers who worked together to create a new landscape of orchid hybrids. There was no internet, but there were monthly meetings of at least half a dozen orchid clubs across Los Angeles County as well as several annual shows, there was the telephone, there was the US Postal Service. So it was that numerous orchid enthusiasts leveraged their time and resources in pursuit of new discoveries. Unique among these, however, Kay left us a sort of time-capsule from that bygone era, the present archive.

At that time, too, some of the professional growers, and even those who benefitted from it, remarking on her generosity, found it quaint, somehow anomalous. Kay had limited greenhouse space and limited time. Why shouldn't she let other growers have some of her crosses? She could not possibly give proper attention to all of them. When an orchid cross is successful, there will be more than enough seedlings to go around. The plants were more important to her than accolades.

What we know about how Kay shared her crosses comes from an article by her friend Frank Fordyce, as well as from her notes, and especially from her notations in several nursery catalogs, where she wrote "Mine" next to the crosses that she had made and had given to the nursery proprietors.

The network was a great success, but its existence is nearly forgotten today. We know the names and some of the accomplishments mainly of those participants who worked at large nurseries, or whose publications were especially significant. The model of generous collaboration with other growers survives, but on a smaller scale. Today, the orchid industry is dominated by mass production (cloning) and mass marketing: far more orchids — and thus far more money — , but far less variety.

Kay turned out to be an excellent photographer. Over 2,600 color slides as well as a trove of incomplete, disorganized, but nevertheless informative notes and memorabilia attest to her self-created career. It was our privilege and pleasure to study this material, with a view toward finding a permanent home for it.

As presently constituted, the archive is organized into a dozen sections. Most sections have been inventoried at the item level, and most of the information concerning her hybrids and awards has been abstracted in detail. Over 100 crosses have been documented, including many examples where Kay definitely made the original cross, then gave the seedpods or plants to other growers, and where, eventually, the resulting hybrid was registered without crediting her as the "originator". Links to the main inventory and to the separate inventory of the slide collection are provided below.

Beyond the inventory itself, information from several sections of the archive has been combined to document what is known about the individual hybrids. This analysis, however, has to be regarded as preliminary, until it is possible to examine nursery catalogs, correspondence, and other memorabilia from the other Southern California growers with whom Kay shared her crosses.

Finally, a selection of her slides has been organized into a series of "galleries", illustrating her life with orchids and documenting a number of hybrids and cultivars where no other photos are known to exist.

Overview of Kay's work with orchids
Kay Francis Archive Inventory (pdf)
Kay Francis Archive, Section XII / A, Inventory of Color Slides (pdf)
Kay's Hybrids: Concordance of References in the Archive (pdf)
Kay's Hybrids: Analysis, Background, and General Notes (pdf)
Kay Francis Photo Gallery

Access and Copyright for the Kay Francis Archive

Unless otherwise noted, copyright of photos in the archive itself, whether or not shown in these web pages, is attributed to Kay Francis. Copyright attributions of photos from other sources used in these pages are noted where known. Access to materials in the archive is unrestricted. Inventory and other materials derived from the archive are presently considered Copyright South Coast Orchid Society, Inc.