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Hibiscus Around the World
Letters to J.W. Staniford 1963-67
from Ross H. Gast
December 3, 1965
I could have spent the $700.00 which it cost me to visit Madagascar, more profitably at Las Vegas, insofar as tangible results are concerned. Tananarive is an interesting city, however, and seriously, I'm glad we did make the trip, even if it has not meant much plant-wise.
And as we have seen everything locally, I have changed our air and hotel booking and fly out tomorrow (Saturday) instead of Tuesday. This, perhaps, makes us the first tourists who have "seen" Madagascar in 4 days.
Actually, the reason why I moved up our departure date is first, I have accomplished all that I think I can here in the way of establishing relationships for our organization and the National Arboretum, and second, the monsoon season is early this year - we have had terrible lightning and thunderstorms with heavy rains each day, and flying conditions are rough. Another reason is the language barrier. Only one person at the hotel speaks English, and he can scarcely be understood.
Touring Madagascar means travel in small planes, as there are few good roads. And at this time of year, even the jet we rode on coming in almost flipped during a period of turbulence, so even if I had the time, I would hesitate before I did any flying on this island.
One must revise his geographical appraisal of Madagascar, at least, I have had to do so. I did not realize that it is 995 miles long, and 330 wide (average), and that it is larger in land area than France, Belgium and Holland combined. It is as long as the British Isles.
So, if I were to consider checking on the species I wanted to see, it would be just like taking a trip to Phoenix, Arizona (that is, the same distance as Phoenix) over winding dirt roads, with no hotels - at least, hotels as we know them. And the Great Red Island is really red; red mud roads begin just outside this capital city, except two main highways. These "main highways" are macadam roads, not engineered, 30-feet wide.
Yesterday I went out to a nursery seven miles out of town. After we left the highway, we had to travel 2 miles over almost impassable mud roads, with chuck holes a foot or more deep. A cloudburst occurred nearby, and while we did not get the full effect of it, we had a difficult time making the highway again.
Tananarive, from a tourist standpoint, is a very interesting city. It is said to have been founded by the voyagers who came from India at the time of the Polynesian migrations into the Pacific. These people, now known as Merinas, resemble the Polynesians, being quite large. They seem to have the same skills as the Polynesian people, except seamanship, for when they reached Madagascar they pushed up into the highlands and became "landlubbers".
The geological history of Madagascar is obscure. Hochruetimer, who published extensively on the flora of Madagascar, offers the suggestion that the island was the highest point of a sunken continent known as Lemuria, of which the Malagasy claim only Madgascar remains emergent.
Now, for plant talk:
Bosser, the only English speaking staff member at the Botanic Garden left some time ago for France. So on Wednesday, when I visited the Garden, my reception was not very warm, as the Director (or Acting Director) had not seen any correspondence as regards my prospective visit. However, his assistant did show me the only Malvaceae on the place, that is, the only ones that he knows about. As H. cameronii is said to be the native of Madagascar I asked if they had any plants in the Garden. He said that they did not.
After he had excused himself to take care of some visitors from France who, he said, rather pointedly, had made an appointment before they came out, we walked out to the car. I was then accosted by a large merina who, I had noted been following us around. Apparently he was grounds manager. In perfect English, he asked if I would like to see H. cameronii, then led us to a shady area; nearby where there was a very large planting of cameronii set as a ground cover! As with other South Indian Ocean species, it was subject to heteramorphism, with the juvenile leaves deeply cut, while the mature leaves were round.
I also gathered that they have had a belly-full of American orchid hunters, and in recent months new and more stringent regulations have been made by the Malagasy Government as regards collecting and shipping indigenous plants. I explained that our interest is simply propagating material and seed. But as I said, they have no budget for this sort of thing.
Today, I called at the American Embassy, and met the Ambassador himself. Not a very impressive character. However, he had an FAO man on his staff, James S. Reese, a graduate of Texas Aggie, and a man who could help us, and particularly Egolf. I'm sorry I could not spend more time with him - if I were alone, I'm sure he would take me up country with him, as he seems lonesome for some States-side agricultural talk.
I then went over to the United States' Information Service (yes, we have a large one here) and met Mr. Ross, the Director. He is a very pleasant chap, who calls Los Angeles his home. His wife is a native Angeleno. He was quite disappointed that I had not contacted him earlier so he could have us at his home - he had a dinner engagement tonight, and we leave tomorrow.
From the climatic statistics for this area, and from observation of the range of plants, I would say that Tananarive has much the same weather conditions as Los Angeles. There are not many hibiscus, but the ones I have seen are extremely large, old plants. So far, I have seen H. rubra plena, Single Red, H. lamberti and Toreador (Jamaica). I saw Lillian Wilder (or Apple Blossom) here, too.
We will remain in Mauritius until December 10, which was the original date set for our departure to Perth. This gives me a few extra days in Mauritius, to rest, and complete my arrangements. I will write you in detail about these. I can say, however, that we're in excellent shape as to future cooperation in Mauritius.As ever,
December 6, 1965
We arrived back here at 4:00 A.M. - note the "A.M." - and when we came to the dining room for a late breakfast, we found that Mauritius had been invaded by United States Forces and that their command headquarters had been established at the Le Challand.
Specifically, an American Air Force rescue crew, with a number of NASA specialists, and a U.S. submarine came in the other day to take station for the Gemini flight. After several days in the wilds of Madagascar, hearing nothing but French, it was nice to listen to a Texas drawl, a New England broad "A", or a Bronx-Harlem mixture! And last night, sitting on the veranda of the hotel, we saw Gemini overhead. So everything is A.O.K.
We had a rough time making it back to Mauritius, sweating out every one of the 500 miles in a plane that bounced and bumped all the way.
Our trouble started when we left the hotel at Tananarive. The plane was scheduled to leave at 4:00 P.M., but on our arrival at the airport, we learned that it had been delayed and departure time would be 8:00 P.M. Little detail regarding the delay was available to us, because no English is spoken at the airport. Also, there was no restaurant, and we thought we would have to go without our dinner.
After we boarded the plane, the pilot took off half-way down the runway and aborted and dropped back to the runway. He then brought the plane back and we were told to disembark as repairs were needed. By this time some food had been brought out to the airport and we were given a meal.
The second take-off, at 9:45 P.M., was successful, and after 2 1/2 hours during which the prop-jet motors wheezed and sputtered, and the plane tossed us around due to rough air conditions, we landed at Reunion Island, where we disembarked and remained for 55 minutes. After a 45-minute flight, we finally landed here.
We were the only passengers on the hotel bus. When we related our experience on the flight over to the driver, he said that his son who worked at the airport had told him that the plane we were on had been scheduled to go to France for overhaul six months ago - that it was in very bad mechanical condition!As ever,
December 10, 1965
We're folding up here this evening, prior to a 3:30 take-off across the Indian Ocean to Australia, so I'll catch up a few Mauritius matters not heretofore covered. However, as this letter will reach you sooner from Australia, I will hold off mailing it until we get to Perth.
Yesterday we hired a driver and took a drive around the Black River lowlands where Bojer reported that he had found the hibiscus later published as H. genevii on the grounds of M. Geneve, an early sugar planter in that area. I asked the driver to inquire as to the location of the Geneve residence, but no one could help us.
We then passed along the coast to a little park named for the famous Mauritius plantsman, Telfair. Just inside the gate I found a plant that fitted Bojer's description of what he called H. genevii. While I could be wrong, I took plenty of wood so that we could grow it and compare it with all printed references, and with herbarium specimens, which I have available at home.
Dr. Vaughn had us to tea this evening after we returned from Madagascar. He has a lovely garden and quite a large library. He is working on a book on Mauritius flora, but like myself, he is a dilatory writer.
I also neglected to tell you that through efforts of Dr. Weihe, Director of the Sugar Research Institute and a member of one of the wealthy "sugar families" here, there is a very fine collection of the older Hawaiian varieties on the Institute grounds. He also has some modern varieties from Hawaii at his home. He visits Hawaii frequently in connection with his work.
Insofar as I could learn from Dr. Vaughn, there has not been any hybridization carried out here. However, I am not sure he would know. These old French families, such as the Weihes, would not share their experiences with others - they're quite a close-knit group.As ever,
------------------------------------ Perth, West Australia
December 11, 1965
As I had not sealed my last letter written in Mauritius, I will add a few lines before I mail it to tell you of an experience we had before we left.
Just as I closed the above letter, I had a phone call from Dr. Vaughn. He told me that he had made an appointment for me with Dr. Weihe at his office at 2:00 P.M. As I had to be at the airport at 4:30, and as Reduit is 30 miles away, I demurred, but he was insistent, assuring me that I had plenty of time. So I hired a driver, checked out of the hotel, and took off for Reduit.
I think the trip paid off. However, at first Dr. Weihe was a bit distant, but noting that ribbon I wear on my lapel-the ribbon for the decoration given me by the French Government many years ago, he became quite friendly. I don't ordinarily wear this ribbon, but just happened to have it on the coat I chose to wear that day.
He expressed his deep interest in what I have accomplished in the rediscovery of the Mauritius species and promised to do everything he could to help us. As he is "Mr. Big" in Mauritius scientific circles he is, with Dr. Vaughn, an excellent contact in Mauritius. He is a C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire) earned for his work as a geneticist in sugar cane research.As ever, Ross
Perth, West Australia
December 12, 1965
We arrived here yesterday after a 3500 mile, over-night flight across the Indian Ocean from Mauritius. This was the one flight that I did not look forward to with any degree of pleasure. For the South African Airways do not use jets, and the prospect of flying 2500 miles non-stop to Cocos Island worried me some. After all, I had the responsibility of a 13-year old grandson.
However, we had a real, "no sweat" flight - at least Ella and Rodney did. I did not get much sleep.
As I usually do on a night flight, I told the stewardess that my wife was not feeling too well, and that I would appreciate it if she could turn down enough seats to make a bed - that is, if they were available. They were, and Ella slept all the way to the Cocos Island.
However, Rodney and I sat together on a three-seat section, next to the stewardess' pantry. Rod stretched out to sleep and took up all of two seats, and as the night progressed he pushed me out of half of mine. Therefore, my body protruded into the aisle. Now, South African Airline stewardess are not selected for their beauty. They are mostly middle-aged, and quite large, particularly in the posterior region. Accordingly, every time one of them answered a call, she woke me up with a bang - my shoulder, her posterior being the contact points. Thus I did not get much sleep.
We arrived at Cocos, a former British Air Force Base, just at sunrise. The airfield is situated on a very low island, surrounded by wide, sandy beaches-a beautiful sight from the air.
We were taken to the former headquarters of the British Air Force, and given a very hearty breakfast, a break of about an hour and a half before we resumed our flight to Perth.
We plan to stay here to two or possibly three days. I will not spend much time hibiscusing as I covered the subject after a visit last year. However, I am sending a shipment to you, which includes wood that I secured in Mauritius, but thought it wise to make the shipment from here.
We also want to go down to Fremantle, which is the port for Perth, and take a small boat over to Rotnest Island, for a day. We think Rodney would enjoy seeing and filming some of the quakkas which are native to the island, They are really very small kangaroo-like creatures. Tasman, the Dutch explorer, the first white man to visit the Island, thought they were large rats, and named the island "Rotnest", which, I suppose, means "rats nest" in Dutch.
The shipment mentioned above is listed on a separate page.As ever, Ross
12-13-65 - PERTH
Sp.? - This one is more like Hibiscadelphus
or Kokio Rockii, so do not graft
it on H. rosa-sinensis, but set as cutting in mist system
- and pray.
December 18, 1965
We are leaving hereon Tuesday (21st) for Fiji. We moved the date up a day to pick up an Air India flight - the only daylight flight out of Sydney for Fiji. This means a good deal to us, for on these night flights - say those starting at 5-6 pm, we must give up our hotel room at noon, thus have several hours at loose ends, and an inconvenient arrival hour. Also, in this case, will no doubt fly over New Guinea and other islands, which may be interesting from the air.
Our plans after Fiji are indefinite -we have a booking with Air France for Papeete to Honolulu, but as they would only put us on the wait list from Fiji Papeete, this confirmation does not mean much, for obviously one cannot leave Papeete if he never arrives there. It is possible that we may get a flight over to Papeete, but Air France says there are several ahead of us, and Ella does not like the Tahiti idea, anyway. She is about ready to head home, and Ross and Rodney feel much the same.
This morning we went out to see Les Beers at his Hibiscus Park Nursery in Warriewood. It is quite a long bus ride, and quite uncomfortable because it was cold and raining - not hibiscus weather by any means.
My first impression of Les Beers' salesmanship was his display room, where he had about 100 blooms affixed to a panel board. Les is really going to town, business-wise! He can't supply the demand for Hawaiian stuff -at $8.40 for a 2gallon size plant. He gets only about $1.25 for the average gallon on Cameo Queen, Mrs. Tomkins, Sabrina, etc., but has to buy 6000 plants a year from Alex Scott, at Brisbane, to take care of his retail and wholesale customers here.
Von Stieghlitz was wrong in saying that my stuff was still in quarantine. Les has Winn Doxie in full production, and it sells well. F.C. 15, he says, is a tremendous variety with him, with very large blooms - better than Miller's Bill Stayton - none were in bloom today. He is also enthused with 55-1354, which, he says, will be one of his best commercial reds. Others of note which he saved were 58-601 not yet in commercial production Ala Moana, F.C.1, Ruth Anderson (the blooms are 8"), Sondra, and a couple of others which I forgot to record. Also, he has about a dozen seedlings from my seed just about ready to bloom, and 50 more in 2" pots.
Les has a lot of better Hawaiians now, although only a few in actual volume production. He sells about 60,000 plants a year. I wonder if a highly specialized business such as this would go in Southern California?
He also has a few local varieties which appear to be rather desirable, but I did not get wood - I feel that we should begin to cut down on new ones, and try to be more selective.
As for names, some of those used here are interesting. Original White Wings is Wrightii, Versicolor is Rose Scott, Jahore is Fiji White (why, as it is not white). He has a poor specimen of Fiji #1 which he calls Lemon Gem, Common Red, with the dark eye, is Java (Javonica?) and H. flora plena is Lambertii, Lillian Wilder is Apple Blossom and Gerrit Wilder is Dawn. I have other notes which I will bring back with me.
Your letter - or letters, mailed under date of December 10, reached Cooks on the 16th and I picked it up on the 16th. I do appreciate all the news. As regards the cuttings you received - I am sorry to learn that they were a bit dry. I hope the larger shipment of H. liliiflorus, fragilis and genevii were better.
As regards H. liliiflorus, it is indigenous to all the islands in the Mascarene group, except Madagascar, according to Dr. Vaughn. However, he had never been told that it had been used for crossing, yet it has played an important part in the development of modern seedlings. Perhaps the reason is that it has not been in collections or yard plantings in Mauritius for 100 years.
Note what you have to say about our Madagascar experience. Joe, you just cannot imagine the deal we were up against there, and the utter impossibility of doing anything plant-wise, in less than a month or two months, and without a well organized expedition. As it turned out the extra time in Mauritius proved far more fruitful. Also, Rodney had the time of his life doing beach tours with the Air Force boys, who sort of made a mascot out of him.
As for grandparental responsibility, we are somewhat relieved since the long Indian ocean hop has been completed. Two years ago, cyclone activity in the area just about wrecked Mauritius and held up flights out of the area for-10 days. Flying in Madagascar is virtually at a standstill in December and January.
As for your comments on Versicolor - right now, it would be my guess that it is a very early cross - either man-made or natural, of liliflorus and the Common Red, with the dark eye - the single form of H. flora plena. I sent you a stick of the latter, and we will test out my theory if and when we get both into flower.
Still feel that January 15 is the date of our return, but if things are not to our liking in Fiji, and the Tahiti flight is not confirmed, it will be earlier. We want to get some clothes tailored in Fiji.
As for Christmas, we think we will celebrate it at Korolevu, about 150 miles from Suva, rather than going direct into Suva on arrival in Fiji. Thus, the Ken Perks and others will not feel obligated to take us in. I guess you know that the airport (jet) in Viti Levu is at Nadi, on the other side of the island from Suva, and we must take a feeder line over. Korolevu is a tourist spot close to Nadi.
As for seed - don't take your time with it - I'll plant it on my return. I'm bringing back some seed, too.
Your letters - they are a God-send, and I do appreciate receiving them. However, I can understand how it may seem trying to out-guess our movements and the mails.
That about does it Joe. I'll leave the rest of the page for tomorrow morning, in case I think of something else. The Cameo Queen goes into Monday mail and should reach you Friday.Sunday Morning:
Can't think of anything much. No word from folks up Brisbane way. However, definitely gave up the idea of flying up there when I learned that we could not do it on our ticket. Can't see spending several hundred dollars just to meet these nice people personally. I have plenty to do in Fiji. You will have noted in Dun's letter the mention of an old man named Simmonds, who, Dun says, has dabbled with hibiscus for a long time. that's the guy Perks told me about - but he was away from Fiji the last time I was here.
In addition, Rod thinks he would rather spend a few days at Waikiki, where he can surf. he didn't like the shark danger here.As ever,
--------------------------------Suva, Fiji December 26, 1965
While we miss the family and our friends this day, I must admit that seldom have I had a more restful Christmas or celebrated the season in such a beautiful setting. We are now at the Grand Pacific Hotel, where we stayed two years ago, but the place has now been completely air conditioned, and the spacious grounds developed into a typical garden, a large pool in the center. As the hotel is located on the shores of the entrance to Suva Bay, we can watch the ships coming in through the reef entrance. And in the distance, the jagged peaks of the Viti Levu Mountains, covered with a multitude of greens, is a dramatic background for the blue waters of the Bay.
As I recall, I wrote you last from Sydney as regards our trip to Hibiscus
On Monday, I spent almost all day at Mitchell Library, and still did not
anything of any great importance. I ran through the file of New South
Horticultural society for the period 1860-1885, and saw many old nursery
catalogues of the period. I learned that Governor Denison was a patron of
society and gave an award each year for the most outstanding plant
introduction, but while nurserys listed a dozen or more hibiscus
varieties, denisonii was not among them. Also learned that Baptisti & Son were
nurserymen near Sydney and introduced baptistii (now called Hawaiian
I did want Rodney to get some time in Bondi Beach, Sydney's famous surfing beach, but it rained both Sunday and Monday. As we were to leave Tuesday, I took him out Monday, hoping it would be sunny. However, there were only a dozen people on the beach - a beach which usually has 2200 people on a normal summer day. He was disappointed, of course, for the surf was too high, and the danger signals up.
Our flight over to Fiji was very smooth. However, as has so often been the case on this trip, we arrived at the airport early, to find that our flight had been delayed -12:00 pm instead of 10:00 am. As one must be at the airport an hour before flying time on international flights, this meant a wait of three hours. However, in this case, Air India bought us a breakfast, and then "hosted" us in a lounge, with free sandwiches and liquor.This was not bad, but they forgot to leave on the announcing system in the room, and we nearly missed the plane!
I called on Ken Parks on Thursday, at his office. His brother-in-law and sister-in-law with their three children arrived in Suva from Sydney the same day we did (by Pan-Am) so they are busy entertaining their relatives. We will get together on Tuesday.
On Friday, we took the so-called "Naselai Village Tour". This is a new, daylong trip that proved very interesting. We were driven about 30 miles up the country from Suva, to a river landing, and there we boarded small boats (outboard motor powered) for a 14-mile down river trip to the ocean. We landed just before the river reached the sea, and walked a short distance to Naselai, which proved to be a beautiful three-mile long beach, equal, I think, in grandeur to the famous Kalapana beach on Hawaii.
I should say that in landing, I had to take off my shoes, roll up my pants, and wade in. The natives carried the women ashore.
At the village, we were welcomed with a kava ceremony. I forgot to say that at the river landing, we were advised to buy a pound of yaquona root as a gift to the village. This is the root from which kava is made. Then a very creditable singing and dancing program was staged for us. Of course, it was the usual tourist deal, but much better done than usual.
My sense of narrative is a bit rough today - I also neglected to say that as we came ashore at Naselai, the native welcoming party hung hibiscus leis around our necks. Three kinds of hibiscus only were used - Kona, Floribunda and one which I thought was Painted Lady. This was the first time I have seen true Floribunda outside of Hawaii or California, although the one called Canary Island is close. I checked up on this one, asking a very nice little Fijian gal to show me the plant. I thought it was close by, but she took me through the village, and along a warm walk through the jungle. For a while, I thought I was being led down the garden path, but then I sensibly concluded that not even a Fijian girl would be that stupid - me with my grey hair and bald head. Finally we ended up at a small clearing, with a Bure (house) and alongside of this were two large plants of true Floribunda. Just to be sure, I took a cutting, and this will be sent tomorrow.
Then I looked over the plants in the village for seed, and found several plants of the one that looked like Painted Lady covered with ripe pods. I gathered about 150 seeds. The more I looked at the flower, the more I began to realize that it might not be Painted Lady, so I took a stick. I was glad I did now - and only wish I had taken more, for on Friday night, when I told Ken we had been at Naselai, he said that he wanted to go out too, as they had a hibiscus only there that he had never seen before. He had seen it pictured on a postcard (enclosed with sticks). I told him I thought it was Painted Lady, but he did not agree. As the postcard describes it better than I can, you will have to await arrival of this.
There are two varieties in this shipment, No. 1 and No. 2 No. 1 is Floribunda and No. 2 (2 pieces) is the one described above. The latter is rather soft wood, and I hope it does not dry out.
Last night, we had a big party at the hotel - dinner party, with dancing. Turkey was served, and while no cranberry sauce was available, we did enjoy ourselves. There were a couple of teen-age girls present, and Rodney proceeded to make use of his charms and had a nice evening. As I write this, in the hotel garden, he is sitting on a bench with one of his "conquests" - he has been with her all day, on tour of the harbor and reef, and later in the pool. After so long with his old grandparents, this is quite a break for him.Monday:
This is "Boxing Day", also a holiday in all English sphere countries. I cannot give you a full explanation of what it signifies, but I understand that it has something to do with exchanging presents.
We are taking it easy today - everything in town is closed, so I am getting caught up on some expense records, etc. Also helping Ella straighten out some receipts preliminary to going through Customs at Honolulu. This reminds me to advise you of our forward plans.
Our booking for Tahiti did not come through, and we all seem to be quite satisfied that the side trip did not work out. Rod has his girl friends here; Ella did not want to go over anyway.
Accordingly, I've booked out of Nadi next Saturday morning - New Year's Day. As we cross the Date Line and lose a day, we will land in Honolulu Friday night, December 31. Rod is quite intrigued with the fact that he will have two New Years Eves this year!
We will stay in Honolulu until Tuesday, January 4 and fly in on Pam Am, arriving 4:55 pm L A time (Flight No. 821). Rod will miss a few days of school in the new term, but as he has been pretty good about studying (until he picked up a couple of girl friends here), I think he will be OK. Ella is getting homesick for her dogs - and is especially anxious to see her new Betsy. Ross is a bit worried about the Bradbury place; so far, I have not had word from anyone about conditions there during and after the big rain. As you know, my neighbor is suing me over the wash down my canyon, and no doubt the recent rains did some more damage. Also, the big room in the new house floods, and if not taken care of, the bookcase will be damaged. So I'm a bit anxious to get home, too.
see Simmonds today, and Perks tomorrow. Meanwhile, disregard what I said
about a "shipment" of wood going out tomorrow - I decided not to send this,
for the reason:
The wood of that "unusual" one (card enclosed with this letter) was quite
soft, so I decided to get some more. As the father and mother of one of
I will not ship this, but bag it carefully, and carry it into Honolulu in my overcoat pocket. Then, on Monday, I'll take it down to the Department of Agriculture to have it fumigated, and thus get "legal" entry in L A. The Hawaiian authorities will not know that it is Fiji wood.
I'll leave the rest of this page for my report on the Simmonds' visit.Tuesday:
While I had a very nice visit with Simmonds, he could not add anything to my present knowledge of the history of hibiscus hybridization in Fiji. He is an entomologist and has been here for 35 years (he is 89). In 1929, he made a trip to Hawaii and while there picked up some Hawaiian varieties. With these, and with locals, he made quite a few crosses - he is still making a few. Some of his seedlings were in bloom, and they were very ordinary - no ruffle or even overlarge.
He says Mrs. Hedstrom here also made some crosses, as did the lady up in Taveuni, but his blooms, he says, were superior to theirs.
I'll close this off now, so I can mail it. As it is, you will not get this until a day or so before we get home.
This letter will conclude our correspondence for this trip. I plan to get in a lot of "beach time" in Honululu. Rodney will spend all of his time surfing - he really is good at it. See you soon.As ever,
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