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Hibiscus Around the World
Letters to J.W. Staniford 1963-67
from Ross H. Gast
February 2, 1964
Despite the fact that the newly formed Malaysian Federation has made the hibiscus their national flower, a four-day tour of this 142-square-mile island and the immediate mainland area adjoining it (Johore) has not convinced me that their choice was a reasonable one. For Singapore is practically hibiscusless. Outside of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, I have seen very few plants, and most of them have been hedge rows of the lascinated petalled red single, the name of which is still questionable in my mind. It is this hibiscus, by the way, which has been selected as the Malaysian national flower. My guess is that it is a schizopetalus hybrid.
We arrived in Singapore at sundown on Wednesday. Our flight was at 28,000 feet, and we passed over several islands of the Indonesian group, including Java and Sumatra. Looking down from such a height, these islands were in clear outline, deep purple in color, in a light blue sea. And the sun dropping below the horizon gilded the many rivers of the islands so that they looked like ribbons of gold.
Singapore was founded, as you will remember from your high school history, by Sir Stamford Raffles, who secured permission from the Sultan of Johore in 1819 to establish a trading post here for the East India Company. It was made a Crown Colony in 1867 and remained under this control until 1959, when it became a state with full responsibility for its own government. Last year Singapore joined the Malaysian Federation.
The geographical position of Singapore, astride the main trade route between Japan and China, and Europe, is such that it quickly became the trading center of Southeast Asia, and today Singapore handles the second largest tonnage of shipping of the world's ports. From our hotel windows we can see more than a hundred ships either docked or anchored in the roadstead.
This small island has a population of 1,800,000 people, of which 78 per cent are Chinese, who, as is the case in most Pacific areas, are now in financial control here.
Some of the population statistics for Singapore are frightening, at least to the local European colony, and should give the heads of the new government real concern. For instance, 55 per cent of the population of Singapore is 20 years old or younger. The birth rate is very high -we were told by our driver as we passed the State Hospital that a child is born every eight minutes. Most of these births are Chinese. With a low death rate, and the majority of the population approaching marriage age and therefore child-producing age, there is a real population explosion now. Of the future, what? The government, far left-of-center politically, is taxing business heavily to build housing and schools, and these taxes are expected to double or triple in ten years' time.
The row with Indonesia is being aired in Stateside papers now, so you are familiar with the problems - the publicized ones, anyway. But one aspect of this situation was brought home to me as never before when I looked out of my hotel window today across the Straits of Malacca to see some of the islands of Indonesia quite clearly in the distance. For only by visiting here does one realize that Singapore, at the tip of the Malayan Peninsula, is practically surrounded by Indonesian islands. And within an hour by jet from the Singapore airport, one can be in Saigon where we are trying to save Vietnamese from Communism, or in Djakarta, where Sukarno is ranting and raving at our expense. Bankok, in Thailand, is but an hour and a half away. We see quite a few American Army fly-boys here at the hotel, no doubt on leave from Vietnam.
We looked forward to our visit to Singapore primarily because of the Botanic Garden here, and its Director, H.M. Birkhill. We met him at the International Horticultural Institute meeting in Nice, France, in 1958, and have been exchanging seed of some annual type hibiscus since. Also, horticultural literature reported that some work in hibiscus hybridization had been done at the Garden many years ago, with H. liliflorus used at that time. Another consideration was the fact that the Garden has a fine horticultural library.
However, I have had no luck in finding any reference to hibiscus hybridization; according to Mr. Burkhill, many library records were destroyed when the Japanese occupied Singapore during World War II. Furthermore, no hibiscus recorded as H. liliflorus is now being grown in the Singapore Botanic Garden.
The Botanic Garden has a list of 19 varieties of H. rosa-sinensis which are propagated for sale. These include most of the old forms seen elsewhere, as well as several Hawaiian hybrids of the 1900-1915 period. There are no hibiscus plantings in the Garden proper; their entire collection is confined to the nursery area. It was interesting to note that the Garden nurserymen were producing a large number of standards for sale to the public, a form which we have never been able to popularize in the States.
On Friday we went out to the Botanic Garden early, carrying a large bag of bananas. These were not for our lunch, but for some friends we met there the day before - a colony of monkeys which has taken over a section of the Garden. It is the season when most of the females have young, and we spent a very amusing hour feeding the mothers and observing the care with which they carried their babies, both on the ground and in the trees. The males, each with his "harem", strutted about, demanding to be fed before their womenfolk, cuffing them into obedience. In fact, the firm manner with which they were able to manage their females was observed rather wistfully by one male visitor who decided that if humans really did descend from monkeys, something good has been lost along the way.
It goes without saying that Mrs. Gast does not edit my letters.
Today the Birkhils invited us to luncheon at their charming, 98-year-old residence on the Botanic Garden Grounds. As his father was at one time Director of the Garden, Mr. Birkhill has spent many years of his life in this house.
We're picking up the "Chusan" here tomorrow afternoon and will reach London on February 24. En route, the ship stop at Penang in Malaya; Colombo in Ceylon; Bombay in India; Aden in Aden Protectorate; Suez and Port Said in Egypt; Naples, Italy; and Gibraltar. I'll get off a few more letters to you as we go along, but I suggest that if you write us, address the letter to England.As ever, Ross
----------------------------------En route Penang to Colombo February 5, 1964
From Singapore on to England we will be real tourists, rushing through a series of one-day stops, busy sightseeing from the time the boat docks until she pulls away for the next port, usually late in the afternoon. This is not our dish insofar as travelling is concerned, for we like to stay a while in places which interest us so that we can learn to know something of the people and the country. But it is perhaps just as well that we move along at this time for there is a good deal of unrest, politically, in the areas we will be passing through.
After a day in Georgetown, which is the urban area of Penang Island, we saw too few hibiscus to even mention. Our visit to the highly touted Waterfall Botanic Garden failed to disclose any plantings whatsoever of hibiscus, but we did see some very fine specimen plantings of H. flora plena around the various temples we visited on tour. We also saw some plants of a small pink which appeared to be of Hawaiian origin, as dooryard plants. An official of the Waterfall Garden, with whom we visited briefly, told me that he had never seen a yellow hibiscus on Penang Island.
We pulled away from the dock in Singapore last night in a heavy rain - the first we have seen in weeks. Fortunately, we were already aboard, and were on deck watching the always fascinating sailing-day scene on the dock. The sun was shining brightly and people were gaily shouting their farewells when suddenly the sky seemed to open and the rain came down in torrents. With it came a strong wind which drove the rain into the covered deck area and we were drenched to the skin before we could gain the shelter of a companionway. Thus we learned about Asian weather - as unpredictable as its politics.
Toward sunset, the rain stopped and we again went on deck to enjoy a splendid view of the myriad islands of the Straits of Malacca. This famous waterway lies between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, and is 500 miles long, varying in width from 30 to 100 miles. Penang Island, on the Straits, is 377 miles from Singapore, and we arrived at Georgetown on Penang Island early this morning.
Like Singapore, with which it is linked by historical associations, Penang is separated from the mainland by a two-mile wide channel. Georgetown was founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, the island having been ceded to the East India Company by the Sultan of Kedah. It was incorporated with Singapore and Malacca in 1826, and in 1867 the three areas were created an English Crown Colony known as the Straits Settlements. Penang became one of the eleven states of the Malaysian Federation in 1959. It has a population of 350.000.
Penang is considered to be one of the most beautiful islands in the tropics, and although time did not permit us to drive around its 140-mile perimeter, or take the funicular type railway to the top of Strawberry Hill, 2500 feet in elevation, we were very much impressed with what we did see on our four hour drive around Georgetown and vicinity.
Unfortunately, the tour was not what it should have been, due to the lack of experience on the part of its sponsors, the Penang Tourist Association. This organization is typical of what one learns to expect in so-called "emerging nations" where nationalistic zeal replaces an established, experienced operation.
Newly staffed exclusively by native peoples, all of whom were generals, the operation suffered not only from the lack of privates, but also from the absence of planning of any kind. All of the physical facilities were available, but politics had apparently entered into the personnel situation, so each bus had four conductors - about one for every five people - and, fortunately, only one driver. However, he was constantly given orders by the four different conductors, as well as the "spieler", who, with a brand new bull horn, tried to find enough English to point out the various local attractions.
Mostly, we saw temples. They differed in appearance, but all smelled the same. The approach to all of these was lined with hawkers aggressively offering all sorts of cheap merchandise. This sort of thing is not new to tourism - the French do it, too, in a more subtle, but equally offensive manner.
The real problem, however, was that the Penang Tourist Bureau did not see fit to make available the most important requisite in tour operation. I refer to what is crudely but aptly called "Bladder Stops". As a result, many of the tour party spent the last hour of the tour with a strained expression on their faces, and took little interest in the scenery except to speculate whether or not it would be safe to step a few feet into the jungle to observe, maybe, the fauna and flora of Penang.
After departing from Penang, the "Chusan" left the Straits of Malacca and rounded the northwest corner of Sumatra. We passed the island of Pula Weh and as I write this (4 p.m.) we are entering the Bay of Bengal. Immediately to the north are the Nicobar and Andaman Islands which, on the Admiralty Charts, appear to be a continuation of the East Indian Islands. These charts, incidentally, are posted each day by the Navigation Office, with our position clearly shown on them and are quite revealing. For instance, all ordinary maps that I have seen of the area indicate one or two islands under the name of Nicobar and Andaman, but the Admiralty Charts shows hundreds of them!
We are now shaping our course direct to Ceylon, which is 870 miles away, and will stand off Colombo at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. We are looking forward to a day-long, seventy-mile and return drive to famous Peradynia Gardens, near Kandy, the capital of Ceylon. There is some question now as to whether we can safely make this trip in the time we have in port, but we shall see what we shall see.As ever,
----------------------------------------Off Colombo, Ceylon
February 7, 1964
We have just dropped the Colombo pilot and are heading on a north westerly course in the Gulf of Mannar toward Cape Cormorin, which is the southernmost tip of India.
Our day in hot, sticky Colombo began with the confirmation by the local P& 0 representative that it would not be wise for us to attempt the 144-mile round trip to Peradynia Gardens in the short day that was scheduled for our stop. I had arranged with the Chief Purser to have this man contact me as soon as he came aboard with the pilot. We were disappointed, of course, but from what we had heard aboard, we more or less expected that the trip could not be made.
I had also written the Director of Peradynia Gardens from Australia, advising him that I would have only six hours in Ceylon, and asked him if there were any private or public collections in or around Colombo that I might see. His reply was waiting for me; I advised that there were no private gardens of any kind, but suggested that I see the plantings at Victoria Park. He also enclosed a list of hibiscus varieties grown at Peradynia, and available for purchase as cuttings. A study of this list indicated that the varieties there were much the same as the collection shipped to the Brisbane Botanical Garden in 1955, which I saw there recently. There was also a second list - some new imports from Foster Garden, Honolulu.
The Peradynia list indicates that this garden drew on Hawaii during the early years of their hybridization efforts, perhaps during the period 1910 to 1925. The origin of each variety is given, and of the 90 listed, 16 were brought in from Hawaii and these were shown as being the parents of many of the hybrids originated not only at Peradynia, but in India and Ceylon generally.
The hawaiian varieties listed were the old familiar ones, such as Luna, Mrs Walker, Gold Mine, Wilhelmina Tenney, Prince of Japan, Anna Shaw; May Walker, etc. The names of the recent Hawaiian imports were not given.
So it is apparent that I did not miss much in not seeing Peradynia, especially with such little time, although the upland areas of Ceylon are much better suited to hibiscus than the coastal section, and we were told that street and dooryard plantings are quite varied and attractive.
There were a few varieties on the Peradynia list that interested me and, as the price and purchase directions were given with the list, I wrote the Director, enclosing the price of wanted cultivars, postage, a U.S.D.A. Plant Entry Permit, and some polyethylene bags and sphagnum moss, and asked that this material be sent through to the Arboretum marked to your attention. I hope the shipment comes through in good shape.
Ceylon has been called "Pearl of the Orient" and is famous for its scenic beauty and wealth of is native flora. The people are mainly Singhalese, who are said to have come from the Ganges Valley in India as early as 600 B.C. It was known to the Greeks and the Romans, and the Arabs named it "Serendib" and made it the scene of the Arabian Nights story of Sinbad the Sailor. However, it was the Portuguese who first established trading centers on the island, followed by the Dutch. and then the English who made it a Crown Colony until it was given its independence a few years ago.
With the Peradynia trip out of the question, we decided to hire a car and see something of the coastal area nearby, and also visit Victoria Park. First, we drove 24 miles north of Colombo to Negombo, a little fishing village. This was once a Dutch port, and the old fort and earthen ramparts are still to be seen. My reason for selecting this spot was that, as you know, I am interested in finding old forms of H. rosa-sinensis, and I felt that these might be seen in such areas as Negombo where the first trading ports were established by Europeans, and early contacts were with the Malabar Coast of India as well as the South Indian Ocean islands and the African West Coast. However, I saw nothing new in the way of older varieties - mostly varieties that I have found in almost every area I have visited, and, in fact, some that we have in our own collection.
Our rented car was a small Peugot and our driver a wizened, bewhiskered Singhalese. He wore an untidy wrap-around skirt common in Southeast Asia and a pair of floppy sandals which he took off when driving.
When an Indian, or any other closely related nationality, gets behind the wheel of an automobile, it is much like putting a beggar on horseback. The change is remarkable - and dangerous; no longer is he the small fellow, meek and submissive - he immediately becomes noisy, domineering, and a very wild driver. Our man today was no exception and our ride to Negombo and back was a series of turns, twists and sudden braking on a narrow road heavily congested with bullock carts, rickshaws, elephants, and latest model Bedford trucks. When I asked him to slow down so that we would not have an accident, he stepped on his brake suddenly and hard, and as we picked ourselves off the windshield he said: "Look see! I got the best brakes any car in Colombo. Even if I hit people, I no hit 'em hard so to kill - just hurt".
We were touched by his consideration for his victims, but were also happy when we paid him off at the wharf.
At Victoria Park we found a miserable planting of hibiscus, most of them cultivars on the Peradynia list, and some very unhappy Hawaiians. Undoubtedly the condition of the planting was due to the lack of water and care, although there seemed to be a gardener for every 100 square feet of park. However, most of them were making like statues, with the support of a hoe or rake handle; political leaf raking seems to be very common in the Southeast Asia.
While I did not see anything in the garden worth requisitioning, such would not have been possible anyway. For immediately on arriving at the Garden gate we were surrounded by a horde of hawkers, psuedo guides and child beggars. They followed us every step we took, so that even if I had wanted to open my cutting knife, the size of my audience would have discouraged any collecting.
In fact, in this area one does not dare set his camera or any other possession down even for a moment, as it will disappear. Another rule we soon learned was not to stray far out of sight of other responsible people; a few of our fellow-passengers have accepted invitations to be shown "a good picture view" by teen-aged youngsters, and have come back sans camera and handbag. Thus Americans make contributions to Southeast Asians, both personally and through Washington.
Later: No acknowledgement of the receipt of my order, no refund, and no
plants have been received from Peradynia, although months have passed. We
have written off the money as another American contribution to the welfare of emerging nations.
Of course, one does not learn to know what makes an area like this tick in a few hours visit It is apparent, however, that since Ceylon has been given its independence, the economic situation has deteriorated greatly and the government is practically bankrupt. An indication of this is the fact that the Bank of Ceylon representative who came aboard as we docked said that he would not buy back in sterling any Ceylon money except in amounts not exceeding that purchased before going ashore. The reason is that while the official rate is 13 rupees to the English pound, one can buy rupees ashore for as little as 33 rupees to the pound.
The great man-made harbor of Colombo was filled with ships of every nation, and more were standing in the roadstead, having waited as long as a month to come in and unload. The reason, we were told, is that some time back the dock workers went on a strike and their demands for higher wages were met. Now they come to work one day in the three, because they only work when hungry, and working every day at higher wage rates gives them more money than is required for subsistence. This situation has been quite common in areas where historically, even bare subsistence has been hard to achieve, and only time will cure it - time, and a few radio and television stations to first stimulate the sales of sets, then of the advertised products that these sets sell.
Hibiscus-wise, the most interesting garden feature in Colombo and Negombo was the very large plants of the variegated leaf types which we call H. cooperii and H. andersonii. We generally think of these varieties as rather low growing plants, but we saw many as tall as 15 feet. It is possible that there are several forms of the variegated leaf hibiscus, but that we have always referred to all with dark green, bronze tinted leaves as H. andersonii, or H. metallicus, as it should probably be called. Certainly the very large plants we saw today do not resemble in form the H. cooperii we have, for ours has trailing branches and makes a handsome hanging basket plant.
All of the variegated leaf hibiscus which I have seen have the same flower - a lascinated petalled red much like what the books say is H.archerii, said to have been developed in the West Indies. There was a great deal of social and economic-interchange on the part of both the French and the English between Mauritius, Madagascar and other South Indian Ocean islands in the early Eighteenth Century; the area was developed to sugar growing at that time, and some companies operated in both the Indian Ocean and the West Indies. It is easy to believe, then, that there were exchanges in ornamental plants.
After clearing Cape Cormorin we will turn sharply north and steam along the Malabar Coast famous in the early history of India. The principal port Calcutta, known in early days as Calicut, which was the first place in India to be visited be sea by Europeans. Vasco de Gama, the famous Portuguese navigator, landed there in 1498 after he had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the first European to take this route to India. Until the Suez Canal was built, Calcutta was the first port of call for European ships on their way to the East Indian and Chinese ports. Stops in South Africa, Madagascar and Mauritius were made on this route, thus there were very early contacts by Europeans with hibiscus-rich areas.
In one of my very first letters I had much to say about the pre-European history of H. rosa-sinensis and allied species; particularly did I enlarge upon the fact that the Polynesian people, supposed to have originated in India, had brought the species to the Pacific in the centuries of their eastward migrations. I also mentioned the fact that one wave of the peoples called Polynesian had turned southward to the islands of the Indian Ocean, followed by Indian, Arabian, and other early traders. Then, as I have just written you, this same water route was the first to be used by Europeans in opening India and China to trade. Somewhere in the history of these long sea voyages, hibiscus was distributed throughout the entire area and on to China and the Pacific. But because it reached its highest development as an ornamental plant in China, and as most early cultivars were collected there and shipped to Europe, the species was given its name -rosa-sinensis, or "Chinese Rose".
Actually, "Chinese Rose" was the name commonly used for H. mutabilis in pre-Linnaean literature, and there has been some confusion in this area of nomenclature ever since. This is particularly the case in England where, for some reason known only to the English, H. syriacus is referred to in the nursery trade as Rosa Chinensis, although native to Syria.
A good case could be made for a change in the general classification of what we call H. rosa-sinensis, for this term is now applied to all cultivars, despite the fact that most of the varieties we grow now are hybrids resulting from crosses between what Linnaeus called H. rosa-sinensis and H. arnottianus, H. kokio, H. liliflorus, and H. schizopetalus - and possibly H. denisonii and H. storckii as well.
The Malabar Coast, which we will pass during the night, is the generally accepted "home" of what is now called H. rosa-sinensis, but there is no definite proof of it. In fact, no one has yet identified the ancestral species; it could have originated anywhere along the early trade routes between Asia and Africa.
We do know, however, that it was first mentioned in European horticultural literature by Van Rheede, the Dutch botanist, in his handsome "Hortus Malabaricus", published in 1678. Van Rheede spent many years on the Malabar Coast. In his publication is reproduced a black and white print of a double hibiscus which he describes in such a way as to indicate that it is a true H. rosa-sinensis. He calls it "rose colored", but botanists of that day generally meant red when they used the term "rose colored". So in all probability it is the variety which was taken into the Pacific and to China, and later called H. flora plena rubra by English plantsmen. Van Rheede called the plant by its native name, Schem-pariti, and nearly a hundred years later Linnaeus designated it as H. rosa-sinensis. In India the early Portuguese residents called it Fula Sapato or Shoe Flower because its flowers were used to blacken shoes.
But perhaps the real reason why the species is supposed to be native to the Malabar Coast is a statement made by Gilbert Miller in his 1768 edition of "Gardener's Dictionary". He described this double red hibiscus and said: ".... this variety grows naturally on the Malabar Coast from whence came the plants in my garden".
call has just been sounded, so I must close - not that I need another
meal. I have regained 15 pounds of the 20 pounds I lost in preparing for
this trip; all of my trousers were altered in Fiji, and will have to be
altered again in London, I'm
------------------------------Somewhere in the Arabian Sea
February 10, 1964
Hibiscusly, Bombay was very disappointing; on a half day tour of the city's residential areas and its parks we did not see over a dozen plants, and these were varieties which you have in your own backyard! So if the Malabar Coast is the ancestral home of the species we call H. rosa-sinensis, as some early authorities claim, then one native seems to have suffered banishment.
We do know, of course, that there has been considerable work done with hibiscus in India, particularly at Lucknow Botanic Garden. Their publications indicate that some hybridization was going on as early as 1904, possibly much before this. Then, during the time that the Hawaiians were making their great contribution through the use of their own native species in crosses with H. rosa-sinensis, there is record of an interchange of varieties between Hawaii and India. Undoubtedly many of the thirty-three introduced varieties came to Hawaii from India, either directly or through Fiji, because at this time the first Indian settlers were coming into the Fijian group. And India had the native Hawaiian species in their collections as early as 1910.
However, from some of their publications it would appear that records of crossing were not always maintained. For instance, some early hybridizers claimed that they had successfully crossed H. syriacus and H. rosa-sinensis, at the same time admitting that no exact record of crossing had been kept. Furthermore, their early records show successful crosses with H. cameronii This indicates that they, like the early Hawaiian hybridizers, were possible not using the true H. cameronii, Knowles & Westcott.
My reaction to Bombay is such that I do not like to even write about it. There, in a city where Europeans ruled for hundreds of years, 300,000 people still live like animals, without homes, mostly on sidewalks or road margins, with little or no cover. If the British were not able to elimate this sort of thing in the centuries during which they drew on India's natural resources to build up their own great industrial and trading fortunes, then how can we, with our foreign aid program, military assistance and various do-gooder ideas, expect to make any progress? Furthermore, the money we send to these countries has been drawn from our own natural resources to a great extent, not from other lands, as has been the case with the true colonial powers. And these natural resources will not last forever.
One does not become a foreign policy expert overnight, so my comments must be weighed accordingly. I submit, however, that I am not without experience or understanding as regards the peoples whom we wonderingly call our friends, as I have lived with them much of the time during the past three years and made several extended trips to the Continent in the 1950's on business.
I would like to leave this bit of advice with you, to pass on to any friends who contemplate world travels: Americans travelling anywhere in the world should humbly recognize that their principal charm is their money and that their only virtue is a readiness to part with it.
Once this is learned, travel is less difficult, for an American knows just what is expected of him at all times, anywhere. If only Uncle Sam would learn this!
We are steaming on a course direct to Aden, on the Arabian Peninsula, a distance of 1650 miles from Bombay. Aden is the entrance to the Red Sea and is a British controlled port. We then go the length of the Red Sea to Suez, and through the canal to Port Said and enter the Mediterranean. We stop at Naples, then Gibraltar before reaching the Atlantic and turning northward to England.
Until this trip, and Red Sea to me has been only a small blue line on the map of the world - so thin, in fact, that it was easy to believe that Moses made a dry crossing. However, our steward tells us that to reach Aden we will be cruising out of sight of land for almost two days; the Red Sea is 1200 miles long and, at one point, 190 miles wide.
King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba used this great ocean fairway for it was a rich trade route in ancient times. It lost importance when the Cape of Good Hope was rounded, but again, when the Suez Canal was completed, it took on new importance. While ships of every nation may be seen in this area, they are really British waters due to the fact that Great Britain has regained its position as the owner of the world's greatest shipping fleet A recent English economic journal quoted R.G. Grant, Chairman of the Chamber of Shipping of the United Kingdom as follows:
"There are now over 20,000,000 gross tons of shipping under the United Kingdom flag, the largest trading fleet in the world. Furthermore, the average age of the vessels comprising it is well below that of the rest of the world. To replace these ships it is estimated that the cost would be something in the order of ten billion dollars. In 1963, British shipping earned abroad $1,574,000,000. This represented 95 of the total gross amount Great Britain earned by its exports, visible and invisible."
This is certainly quite a comeback over the past 20 years; the British merchant marine was practically wiped out during World War II.
As I write this, we are passing to the north of an island called Socotra; and will soon skirt Cape Guardafui in Italian Somaliland, which is the northeast "shoulder" of Africa. I recall that there is a species of hibiscus native to Socotra called H. scotti. I remember that I checked it our from printed descriptions and it did not appear to be close to H. rosa-sinensis botanically.
In passing this island and heading for the Red Sea I am reminded that we are moving out of the area which, traditionally, we have considered to be the home of the several hibiscus species which have been used to create our modern hybrids, the garden hibiscus and the show forms which we have loosely called H. rosa-sinensis. Accordingly, there will be little about hibiscus in any future letters that I may write.As ever,
---------------------------------------Aden February 13, 1964
We have just come aboard after a few hours in this steaming hot port town and will send this letter on the last ship-to-shore post, so that it will bear an Aden postmark.
As for hibiscus, we saw only a few "oldies" in the park. However, we did not get away from the main street for we were warned that there is a good deal of political unrest here and that we should stay in the city center. We noted that this area, too, is patrolled by many armed soldiers.
Accordingly, my lasting impression of Aden will be crowded streets, mostly carts drawn by camels, and sidewalks with veiled ladies. For this reason, I cannot vouch for the charm, or lack of charm, of the female population.
There are some fine shops, however, and we were able to buy some rather attractive cutlery quite cheap.
The ship's bulletin board tells us that we are going to get a bonus on this trip - an unexpected one. A tour to Cairo has been arranged, with visits to the pyramids and the Sphynx. Cars will meet us at Suez and while the "Chusan" goes through the canal, we will be driven 125 miles to see these tourist spots and Cairo. We will then be driven to Port Said where we will again board the "Chusan". My next letter will probably be from Gibraltar, where we stop for a few hours.As ever,
-------------------------------------En route Gibraltar
February 17, 1964
The long trip from Cairo to Port Said where we joined the "Chusan" would have been rather boring had it not been for our driver and his 1951 Plymouth. The road was narrow, and bordered the canal most of the way. Our driver, an elderly Egyptian, swerved from one side of the road to the other. We thought that we were going to end up in the canal anytime. When I cautioned him to be careful, he said that the reason was that he had such a headache that he could hardly see!
We really had a hassle on our quick trip to Cairo, although it was quite interesting. Ella was determined to see the Pyramids and the Sphynx on camelback. You can visualize what I looked like on a camel. All went well, however, except that our driver, hearing our American accent, insisted on shouting "Hi Ho Silver" all the way up and back. Ella's stirrups were short but she managed to stay aboard.
We then walked around downtown Cairo, had lunch at the famous Shepard's Hotel, tea at the Nile Hilton Hotel, then were driven down to Port Said, stopping at Ismalia for dinner.
While we enjoyed the role of a tourist for a day, I felt like I was playing hookey. Why? I did not even think of hibiscus. Perhaps the fact that I did not see any could be given as an excuse.
My next letter will probably be from Gibraltar, where we stop for a few hours.As ever,
-----------------------------------Mediterranean Sea February 18, 1964
This letter, if it reaches you, will come through the services of the most unique "post office" in the world. It will be placed with some money in an empty bottle (Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch) and tossed overboard as we pass through the Messina Strait which as you know, is the waterway between Sicily and the "toe" of Italy. We have been informed that it will be picked up by a Sicilian fisherman and mailed if the amount of money enclosed is enough to pay postage, with a generous "service" charge.
If found, the fisherman generally complete the job so as to encourage the use of the "Messina Bottle Post" and there bringing them new suckers. I mean customers.
Here's hoping that you receive it. However, it is just possible that you would rather have the original contents of the bottle.As ever,
[Later The letter was duly received and Joe values it very highly.]
Bay of Biscay
Our day in Gibraltar was not productive, even as a tourist stop. Most of the places I wanted to see, such as the underground caves, were military reserves and therefore restricted. As far as hibiscus is concerned, I saw only a half dozen plants, all of them single reds.
We arrive in England tomorrow. I received several letters from the Los Angeles office at Gibraltar which changed my plans drastically. However, I will explain why later; purpose of this letter is to sum up the results of our four months trip to the Pacific, Antipodes, and Southwest Asia insofar as its contribution to the furtherance of our project objectives.
Mostly the value of the trip has been that my observations have confirmed my belief that there is little we can learn in the way of hybridization techniques, etc., from other parts of the world which will help us in our program for developing hardier cultivars for Southern California conditions. We seem to have done our homework pretty well, and we are getting crosses and seed with no more difficulty than is being experienced in any area that I have visited. Of course, we are working in a greenhouse under controlled conditions - perhaps the primary factor in our success in this direction.
As for new species which are cross compatible with H. rosa-sinensis, the trip has not been very fruitful. The only known species with this character that we do not have - or at least, are not sure we have, are H. storckii and, as of now, I cannot argue against the expressed theory of Fijian authorities that it has been lost of cultivation. But it may show up in the material I have sent on to you.
As for H. Liliflorus and H. fragilis, native to Mauritius and other Mascarene islands in the South Indian Ocean, I have not seen either of these or found substantial information on them. It appears that the only way we are going to secure these species is to visit their native habitat.
Perhaps in the end, the greatest value of the trip will be the contribution to our "blood lines" of some of the old forms which I have sent back to you, and some of the local sports and hybrids that I collected which may be useful "as is" in Southern California gardens. Many of the older forms have been under cultivation for hundreds of years. They contribute what is called hybrid vigor when crossed. This statement might be challenged by authoritative people who would say that this vigor is possibly due to the fact that most oldies are primary hybrids themselves, or sports from original forms. However, our main interest is to try them out and see what they bring to our program.
Also, after seeing almost all hibiscus growing sections of the world, I am now fully convinced that we are selling hibiscus short in Southern California. Nurserymen tell us that the demand is falling off, and that they are propagating fewer plants than a decade ago. The reason, they say, is that there is a high incidence of frost and other losses, particularly in young plants. This may be true; our climate is a bit rough on certain types of garden hibiscus, particularly when the plants do not come from the nursery in the right planting condition, or are planted at the wrong season. Also, as you know, few of the Southern California nurserymen graft hibiscus, selling "own root" plants only.
I did find seed of true H. cameronii, as my letter from Brisbane indicates, and I am looking forward to working with this one. As for learning any more about the history and native land of H. denisonii, I had a dry run. But we do have it, any may find it useful.
When I get to England, I will visit Kew Gardens and check their collections again, but I have visited their greenhouses often in the past several years and found nothing new except, of course H. denisonii which I brought to our greenhouse. Also, I will read in the Royal Horticultural society library in the hope that I can run across references which will help us. But as I have spent a lot of time there, I do not hope to find much more. What I want to do is to see their collection of annual catalogues of old-time English nurserymen in the hope that these will give me some further line on H. storckii and others.
I have made one observation that should perhaps be qualified by adding that it was a seasonal one: As regards garden hibiscus, I note that they seemed at their best in subtropical rather than tropical areas, and where rainfall is ample but not excessive.As ever,
-------------------------------------------------Washington Hotel London, England February 20, 1964
We brought unseasonably warm weather to England - it is 60 degrees and quite pleasant. However, it appears that we will not be here long enough to enjoy it.
As I advised you in my last letter, I found several letters from Los Angeles waiting for me at Gibraltar. They indicated that the British Sugar Corporation has approved of our product and are ready to discuss an exclusive sales contract for Great Britain. This is what I suggest to my principals. The reason is that the BSC is a quasi-governmental corporation, with the government owning the controlling interest. In this way, they are able to assign acreage allotments to the individual farmer, so that over-production is seldom a problem. With an exclusive sales contract they can handle sales through their 17 factories in England and Scotland, and Germains can confine their responsibilities to manufacture.
My instructions were that I should immediately contact the director of production of the BSC, at Peterborough, and arrange an appointment with him as soon as possible. This is a must in England, for you just don't drop in on an executive here without writing for an assigned day and hour.
I was also asked to go to the office of our English attorney in Bloomsbury Square for legal instructions. For this reason, with the help of the purser, I cabled for a reservation at this hotel, which is within walking distance of Bloomsbury Square. The attorney's office is also the registered office of Germanis (U.K.) Ltd., of which I bear the prestigious title of Manager Director and member of the Board of Directors.
It was also suggested that when a contract was approved by our attorney I should return to Los Angeles as no more field work would be necessary. But before I returned I was to go up to Kings Lynn where I have made site selections for a factory and open negotiations for a lease. The property is owned by the city of Kings Lynn, and they will build a factory if a satisfactory long lease is signed for it.
Before I left Los Angeles I advised Germains that if I was successful in selling our product, and a site for a factory was selected, I would like to be relieved of my job. After all, I am 67 years old and want to retire (again) and devote my time to important things like hibiscus.
Before we return to Los Angeles, we want to go down to Southborough and bid goodbye to our friends at the Hand & Sceptre Hotel where we have lived for three years, and also the village. We want to walk across Southborough Commons, adjacent to the hotel, and through a small forest of Elizabethan oaks to the little village of Modest Corners and have a drink at the quaint pub, the Busy Bee, which dates back more than a hundred years.
I hope to get out to Kew Gardens again, and to the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society to bid goodbye to the staff. They have been very helpful to me.As ever,
March 1, 1964
I have taken care of the assignments given me by the home office and have made reservations to fly home next Wednesday.
I found the BSC people quite cordial. They had a proposal ready for discussion and agreed to make certain changes that I requested. This was sent on to Los Angeles, with a copy of our attorney here. It's his ball game from now on.
After spending two days in Peterborough, I went on to Kings Lynn where I again checked the site I had previously selected in company of the city rental official, then suggested that they submit a formal contract direct to Los Angeles.
Ella remained in London, spending much of her time shopping at the famous Harrods Department Store. She has several things on her list, including some woolen unmentionables. I asked her to get me some woolen longjohns as I have found them quite comfortable in the winter, even in Los Angeles.
We spent a day in Southborough, but I did not get out to Kew. Therefore I cannot close off my report on our hibiscus-oriented trip with any hibiscus talk.
It is quite probable, however, that I will see you personally not long after you receive this letter.As ever,
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