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Hibiscus Around the World

Letters to J.W. Staniford 1963-67
from Ross H. Gast

December 1963

Auckland, New Zealand
December 5, 1963

Dear Joe:

Our arrival in Auckland was enlivened by the discovery of a stowaway-in­reverse, and we were held up on the dock until he was found. I say "in reverse" because the culprit was a passenger who went into hiding before the ship docked so that he would not have to go ashore. You have probably guessed who he was none other than young Prince "Ammie", who, faced with the prospect of entering a strange New Zealand school, tried to hold out for a return trip to Nukualofa and the easier life in Tonga.

As we approached the dock, with New Zealand's largest and most beautiful city as a background, we noticed several cars lined up at the gangplank, practically blocking the approach to the ship. These, we soon learned, were waiting to take Queen Salote and her entourage to her Auckland home. In the group, too, were official cars of the New Zealand government, for protocol demands that Queen Salote be met in a style befitting her station.

The Queen, epitome of graciousness and charm, soon moved down the gangplank, acknowledging the greetings of her subjects temporarily residing in Auckland, and was met by New Zealand dignitaries in a formal manner. She entered her car, but the party did not move off the dock. Minutes went by, with the Queen trying to retain her composure and the New Zealand officials standing by, obviously with some embarrassment. Activity on the dock came to a standstill, and soon the reason filtered through the crowd and on to the ship - the young Prince could not be found.

The situation became rather tense. One could sense that Queen Salote was quite concerned - she seemed to be having difficulty in concealing her feelings as a grandmother and at the same time maintaining her queenly poise.

However, after about fifteen minutes, young "Ammie" came down the gangplank, guided firmly by his tutor, and entered the car. From the expression on his face, one would think that he was approaching the gallows. Then the entourage moved off the dock and we lesser people were able to find cabs and go to our hotels.

Like Rome, Auckland is known for its hills, and like Los Angeles, it is spread all over the map. It is a clean city and from all outward appearances, a happy one. In all of our trips around the town we have seen no evidence of poverty - nor of great wealth either. New Zealand is, of course, a welfare state, and in such a limited geographical area it probably works out. But I rather sense that some of the people resent the economic controls placed on them and that they would rather risk being very poor if they were given the opportunity of becoming very rich. It is not possible to be either in New Zealand.

Hibiscusly, Auckland and the North island in general are "hot" - the interest in our hobby flower is quite intense at this time. Most nurseries are increasing their production of hibiscus, and several towns have announced plans for community hibiscus gardens. And a few nurseries and a goodly number of fanciers are importing new hybrids from Hawaii. However, except in the case of a few "old timers" there seems to be no real knowledge of the background or possibilities of the flower, or the rather restricted commercial range of modern hybrids.

We had good reason quite early in our visit here to believe that Auckland had become truly hibiscus conscious. We had just set our bags down in our hotel room and were having eleven o'clock tea when we were paged by a Mr. Massey Wood. I did not recall the name, but asked him to join us.

When introducing himself and Mrs. Wood, Massey explained that he had heard from a friend in Fiji that I was headed toward Auckland, so planned to meet the "Tofua". He missed us, however, perhaps due to the confusion created by the young prince. He has a large greenhouse tomato operation in one of the suburbs, and is also interested in ornamental plant production. He has decided to go into the business of growing hibiscus for sale on a wholesale basis and has already begun to build a special greenhouse adjacent to his tomato ranges for the propagation of hibiscus under a very modern mist system. He confessed that he knew little about the business, and wanted to take me on as a consultant. I did not want to do this on a job basis, but I have tried to be helpful. We've spent a lot of time together touring the area and visiting his beautiful modern home.

We started our touring the very first day we arrived. It was Sunday, and after our morning tea the Woods invited us to take a drive down in the country to visit a friend - his former commanding officer, in fact. We assumed that this would be a few miles away, but it turned out to be a 60 mile drive into the hill country where his friend operated a 1400 acre sheep ranch. On the way out we were able to get a very good picture of the North island area, and on the drive back, after a New Zealand afternoon tea - which is in reality a heavy meal - Massey took us over another route, one from which we were able to look down on the city of Auckland at sundown, a glorious view indeed.

I called Jack Clark, our retired nurseryman friend, after I became established in the hotel, as he had lost track of us. As you know, we had first planned to fly to Auckland an pick up the "Tofua" there, but when I learned that we could board her in Suva, we decided to wait for her in Fiji. However, I had neglected to advise Jack of our change in plans.

When Jack was in California last year, he told us that he had retired from the nursery business. However, after spending a day with him, I decided that he has retired like I have. He has leased his nursery to a very competent young nurserywoman, and she is raising a large number of varieties of hibiscus, many of them from wood brought in from Hawaii by Jack. Apparently the cuttings he got from us, and shipped to his son for grafting in, arrived in poor condition. Most of the scion wood I shipped you from here are from Jack Clark's collection.

We have visited a number of nurseries, and also stopped by the home of Harvey Turner, the man who was responsible for getting us a berth on the "Tofua.' He lives on Mount Albert, one of the really warm spots in the Auckland area, and has quite a collection of Hawaiian hybrids, many of them purchased from Nii in Honolulu. I had also sent him seed and scion wood, both of which are becoming established.

As nearly as I can determine, weatherwise Auckland resembles Los Angeles and Southern California in its treatment of hibiscus. It appears that cultivars which do well in our area are best adapted to this section as well. Apparently on the hills and slopes there is little if any frost, and one can see many old plants of the common varieties of hibiscus in park and dooryard plantings. Also, few places in the central or northern section of North island are far from the tempering influence of the sea. Yet there are many lower areas where temperatures do not permit the growing of hibiscus. We have not gone north of Auckland where the climate is even warmer than Auckland, and where we were told hibiscus grows at its best.

As for varieties, most of those seen in park and dooryard plantings are "oldies", particularly the older varieties which I saw in Fiji from where New Zealand nurserymen secured most of their stock in earlier years. However, I have seen some interesting cultivars - apparently older hybrids or sports which displayed characters which, if they prove to be dominant, may be helpful to us in our breeding program. I hope that you receive the wood I sent in good order.

H. flora plena, the double red said to have been brought into the Pacific by the Polynesians, is very much in evidence, but as I have said before, there is no record of its having been brought as far south as New Zealand in the Polynesian migration days. Also very popular is a light pink single from Australia, called Mrs. Thompkins, said to be a sport introduced many years ago by a Sydney nurseryman, a strong, low grower, which is what we need in Southern California. Another outstanding variety secured at Harvey Turner's place is a large single red called Simmonds Red, said to be a good seeder.

Despite the interest locally in sophisticated modern hybrids, those I have seen did not look very happy here and I predict that they will survive only in the warm hill areas. They may persist for awhile, but climatically this area would seem to demand the same characters in hibiscus that we require in Southern California.

Early tomorrow I have an appointment with Harvey Turner at his office to see his produce operation and to thank him for his assistance in helping us arrange our "Tofua" cruise. While my time with him will be short because he is a very busy man, and also because we are scheduled to leave on a tour of North Island quite early, I suspect that there will be much talk about hibiscus and little about produce; I think that it can be said that Harvey Turner is New Zealand's most interested hibiscus fancier.

Our North Island tour takes us to the so-called "Thermal Regions" where the famous New Zealand geysers are being harnessed to produce electric power, and to several spots of scenic, but not hibiscus, interest. We will then return here, then take a plane to Christchurch on the South Island, where we are scheduled to take an eleven-day bus tour which will include such world­renowned tourist spots as Milford Sound and Mount Cook. As this section is practically hibiscusless, you will perhaps not have another report from me until we reach Sydney, some three weeks hence.

As ever,


Bluff, New Zealand
December 11, 1963

Dear Joe:

If you will look at a map of New Zealand, you will find this little port town on the southernmost tip of South island; it corresponds to Lands End in England, and is, in fact, just about the same distance from the northernmost point of New Zealand's North island as is Lands End from John O'Groats - which is the northernmost point of mainland Britain.

As this is a sheep country with not a hibiscus in sight, this letter will have nothing of hibiscus in it except several Cook Island hibiscus stamps which I neglected to send from Auckland. I think they are very pretty and, of course, they do give a hibiscus flavor to this letter.

We are told that there are 3-1/2 sheep to every person in New Zealand, and I think we saw most of them yesterday on the way down here from Christchurch. And this morning we visited a great loading dock where the remainder of them, properly dead and frozen, were being loaded on a refrigerator ship on an ingenuous conveyor which carried the carcasses on an enclosed belt system several hundred feet from the dock freezer to the refrigerated hold of the ship.

The shipment of frozen meat is the only reason for the existence of this little town; it is really a bleak and inhospitable area. Off the coast, in the dim distance can be seen Stewarts Island, the only land between here and Antarctica.

We are really enjoying this bus trip; it is the first time we have ever gone in for this sort of travel. It's a "no sweat" deal; Charlie Watson, our efficient tour manager and driver thinks of everything and we just go along for the ride, figuratively as well as literally. There are 26 persons aboard, and we are the only Americans; most of the rest are New Zealanders or Australians. Included on the passenger list are two young Chinese, one born in New Zealand, and the other from Hong Kong, but temporarily in school in Australia. They are the leaders of the younger members of the party - in fact, the life of the entire party. To them and to the other youngsters, I understand that I am referred to as "Alf" - short for Alfred Hitchcock, whom, they say, I resemble. Quite a comedown from Henry Kaiser, for whom I have been taken while Hawaii, but some improvement over being mistaken for Bert Lahr on the streets of Hollywood.

It seems strange to see all the Christmas decorations up, and Christmas merchandise in the stores, just at a time when everyone is on summer vacation. And along the road, late spring and summer flowers are beginning to appear. Yesterday we travelled through a stretch of country where the road was bordered on both sides with a carpet of gold - California poppies at their best. And the hill slopes in this area are covered with Scotch broom, great yellow masses of vagrant bloom, once a dooryard treasure in a bleak land, and now a troublesome pest.

I hope I have a letter from you on our return to Christchurch reporting on the conditions of the first Fiji grafts, and advising whether or not the Auckland shipment arrived safely. There are several excellent hibiscus in these shipments, and I hope that we are able to get them established.

We have not as yet had confirmation of our flight over the 1200 mile stretch of Tasman Sea to Sydney, but we expect that it will reach us in a couple of days.I am looking forward to our time in Sydney for several reasons, not the least of which is an opportunity to read in the famous Mitchell Library. I want to check some botanical and horticultural references, as well as some manuscripts of a strictly historical nature that can be seen only at Mitchell. They have many of the original papers of Sir Joseph Banks, dean of the English horticultural world in the last half of the Eighteenth Century, and of Dr. Solander, Captain Cook's botanist.

Charlie is sounding off "First Call" on his horn, so I will have to close.

As ever,




December 23, 1963

Dear Joe:

This letter will just report our safe arrival in Australia, and express our belated wishes for a happy holiday season for you and yours.

"Also, I want to pass along a South Seas Christmas story which appeared as an item from the Gilbert Islands, in the local paper, a story which, I think, deserves reading because it shows how all out these people will go to preserve their real interest in Christmas:

"Gilbert Islands, Dec. 22 - The Gilbert Island Colony vessel Moana Raoi was on its regular run last week, steaming about 20 miles south of Butaritari on passage to Marakei. Dusk was falling gently over a calm sea, reddening in the afterglow of the setting sun. Suddenly the horrifying shout of "pig overboard" was heard.

"The crew reacted with seamanlike alacrity to the news that Lulu the sow was swiftly vanishing astern into the darkening sea. The crimson shot waves became suddenly sinister.

"The helm was put over, the ship slowed. Men stood on the rail poised to leap over the side. Ropes were coiled handy.

"For a moment Lulu was lost to view in the dark blue swell, but was then seen swimming bravely - but away from the ship. With helm hard over and bare way upon her Moana Raoi slowly closed. With a splash, Tireri, OS, plunged overboard from the port side. The sow changed direction and swam round the bow with Tirerei in pursuit. The rudder was put hard over the other way. Tirerei closed and grasped Lulu who now struggled in panic, but he seized her and drew her towards the ship. Over the side went Tekeu, ship's cook, as the telegraph clanged slow astern. Then many willing hands helped rescued and rescuers back on board.

"Lulu clearly was in a bad way. Mouth to mouth resuscitation was mooted. However, two stalwarts, one one each side, grasped her hind legs and Lulu swung like a pendulum with water pouring out of ears, nose and mouth. An ear splitting squeal announced the treatment efficacious, and that Lulu felt the indignity not to say the immodesty of the position for a young lady of breeding. Meanwhile the vessel regained her course, engines were rung away and darkness fell, closing another episode of gallantry on the high seas."

"Very touching," you are thinking. "But what's christmas-y about rescuing a pig?" So I'd better add the last paragraph of the story:

"When your reporter complimented the captain on the bravery of his men, he explained that Lulu the sow was the crews' Christmas pig, and her loss would mean the loss of their traditional Christmas dinner."

Merry Christmas



December 30, 1963

Dear Joe:

Although we have been in Australia eight days, I have little to report, hibiscus-wise. We arrived on Sunday, and on Tuesday we flew 400 miles west to the little town of Griffiths to spend Christmas with an old customer and pen pal, Alfred Nugan. He came to Australia from Europe in 1939, went into the fruit and vegetable growing and shipping business and has been very successful. Over the years he has called on me for information on equipment and supplies, and as he is also a fisherman, we have swapped a lot of lies about our respective catches.

With their children and grandchildren, the Nugans made us really feel at home; Christmas dinner included roast pig and roast turkey as well, with splendid Australian wines. In the afternoon we toured the district, visiting orchards and orchardists, most of them Italian migrants. It seemed quite odd to be eating ripe peaches, apricots and nectarines off the tree on Christmas Day.

The population of the Griffiths area is mostly made up of migrants from Europe, people who have come in during the past twenty or thirty years. There are about 11 million people in Australia, more than a million of them post­World War II immigrants. Of that million, more than half are not British. Indicating the diversity of the peoples which Australia has brought to her shores, in 1962 there were 68,000 Germans, 65,000 Dutch, 45,000 Italians, 31,000 Greeks, 27,500 Maltese, and 16,000 Austrians in that country. The flow continues due to generous assistance schemes under the Australian government immigration program. But only under circumstances are Negroes or Asians allowed to settle permanently in Australia; Asians now form a smaller proportion of the Australian population than they did a hundred years ago.

Back here in Sydney I spent a half day in the Botanic Garden, which is a short distance from our hotel. There we saw many large plants of hibiscus, mostly old forms grown in Southern California, but under different names. Crown of Bohemia is Morris Scobie; Lillian Wilder is Dawn; and Jamaica is Conqueror. In one shaded corner there was a group planting of H. arnottianus twenty feet high.

Yesterday we took a bus tour to the north of Sydney so that we might get a general idea of the country hereabouts. We visited some of the Sydney area beaches - they have many of them - and saw a large number of fine dooryard and street plantings of hibiscus, again all "oldies" well known to us. Among them were Common Red, H. flora plena, Kona, Agnes Galt, Lillian Wilder, Crown of Bohemia, Jamaica, Orpa, Jigoro (Hawaiian Golden), Pink Versicolor, Peachblow, Apricot (old single orange-yellow), and Princess Takamatsu. One called Cameo Queen, a single light yellow, was also seen; I think it is the same as our Luna.

There is a hibiscus nursery at Warriewood several miles north of here, and I plan to go out this week. Kenneth Perks told me that it has the largest hibiscus collection in the Antipodes. Also, the owner, Lester Beers, is a member of the American Hibiscus Society.

From what I have seen, Sydney appears to be much like Los Angeles climatically. The older forms of hibiscus do well here, particularly close to the ocean, and many of the plants are huge, testifying to their longevity. But so far I have not seen any new forms or varieties that we have not grown at home at one time or another. In fact, this has been pretty much the case in every area we have visited, with the exception of Hawaii, of course.

As ever,


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