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Hibiscus Around the World
Letters to J.W. Staniford 1963-67
from Ross H. Gast
Johannesburg, South Africa
November 2, 1965
Just a note to tell you that I received your letter of October 27 this morning.
Yesterday, we went up to Pretoria and visited the Botanical Research Institute and Botanic Garden. A dry run, as far as hibiscus is concerned, and I'll give you a full report in a letter from Durban. We leave here tomorrow.
Spent all morning completing my forward arrangements, and we are now completely booked for our entire South African stay. This is quite a load off my mind.
Incidentally, it occurred to me that I better check back on Cooks and see if I had to have visas for Mauritius. Sure enough we do, and again Cooks had failed to advise us. If I had not thought of this, we would not have been able to land there. And as these visas could only be obtained from the British Consul in Joberg, had I not thought of it today, we would not have had an opportunity before taking off for Mauritius. So, at the expense of $4.50 and three hours of time, we got the visas. I wonder what happens to trusting travellers under Cook's "guidance"?As ever,
Durban, South Africa
November 4, 1965
We arrived here late yesterday afternoon, and as my postcard, mailed today, shows, are comfortably situated in a very modern beach hotel. However, it has been raining - the FIRST rainy day we've had since we left England!
Now, as for a wrap-up on my Joberg stay, and additional comments on your letter of October 27.
As I premised in my previous letter, the Pretoria visit, while interesting, did not prove helpful in our hibiscus research. Dr. Codd was very gracious - these Africanders are really friendly and go all out for visiting firemen.
Dr. Codd turned me over to the man in charge of the Herbarium, and I spent an hour there. However, the Institute is entirely devoted to work on South African flora - they had no Mascarene Islands species - no H. rosa-sinensis or H. schizopetalus, or anything which remotely resembled ornamental hibiscus.
Incidentally, in discussing H. schizopetalus with Dr. Codd, and also with Greensmith, at Nairobi, I have learned that this species is not South African, but supposedly native to tropical East Africa - that is, Kenya and Tanganyika. Even there, it is difficult to find in the wild state. Exell says, in "Flora Zambesiaca" that it "may also be native to Mozambique".
I found Dr. Codd also interested in the horticultural side of South African plants; although he cannot do any work in plant breeding, he is sympathetic and unlike most of the pure botanical scientists, he appreciates the importance of this work.
The very large (400 acre) Botanic Garden is devoted exclusively to plants native to South Africa. Dr. Codd took us through both the Garden and the Nursery. He then drove us to his home for a cold drink, and then across town to the Transvaal Museum, where Rodney spent some time and took notes for his report on South Africa.
At Dr. Codd's home, I took seed of H. calycinus; at the time, I thought it looked very much like H. rockii, so I checked in the new Bates work on "Cultivated Hibiscus" in Baileya, and he says they are very close. So maybe we can do a little hybridizing in these species.
However, my last experience in Herbaria at Pretoria convinced me that as a source of background data on species which may be cross compatible, they have little to offer. Furthermore, the personnel (with exceptions like Dr. Codd) have little or no appreciation for the horticultural development side of plants; they are taxonomists. When I ask permission to check their sheets, and spend only an hour or so, they seem insulted. Apparently, one is supposed to spend two hours on each sheet, making measurements, calculations, etc.
I am sure that I did not miss anything when I did not contact Mendonca. Undoubtedly, he is a botanist of world-wide stature - he is one of the authors of "Flora Zambesiaca". However, I am sure that the only plus I had in the Mendonca reference is what you compliment me by calling my "dalliance" with Senhora Perriera. Incidentally, the Madame Secretary has not yet accepted my version of the visit with the seductive Portuguese widow.
A Mrs. Dorothy Ryersbach just phoned. Sima Eliovson, a well known South African horticultural authority had written her that I was visiting Durban. She is just dying to meet me, she said, and will be glad to drive me around the area tomorrow, or any other day, also make arrangements for me to meet hibiscus and other people, including doggy people for Ella.
As I said above, the Africanders sure are hospitable.
I have seen very little hibiscus here, but just across the Marine Parade, there is a row including Lillian Wilder, H. subviolaceus, Common Red, and H. rosa flora plena rubra. The flowers were huge - I have never seen this size in the same varieties. I made a requisition of the Lillian Wilder, and a single orange, which I mentioned seeing in Joberg, but failed to collect there. These will be sent along in due time. Wilders were 7 inches across - no foolin!
There is also a lot of Common Red here, as there was in Johannesburg and Pretoria. In these two last mentioned places, at least 95% of the hibiscus seen were single red, and almost all were planted close to the house walls. The red grew to 15 feet high and many plants appeared to have at least 50 blooms.
I checked this red closely, and I think that instead of being our Brilliant, it is one that we used to call Spanish Shawl. It has a dark eye zone, and some crepe and ruffle. I will send back a stick for checking.
I did not mention the fact that both Joberg and Pretoria feature Jacaranda in their street plantings and they were in full bloom that week. We were driven to a high point in Pretoria by Dr. Codd, and looking down over South Africa's capital, the city looked like a purple carpet.
It's time for dinner - I'll write again from here.As ever,
Durban, South Africa
November 10, 1965
This letter is to advise you that I am going to be only a tourist during the remainder of my stay in South Africa. Reason: this country has nothing to offer us in the way of either new species cross compatible with our hybrids, or cultivars which areof any interest to us. So far, all I have seen here are the usual oldies, to be found in any part of the world.
Furthermore, insofar as the Natal Coast if concerned, hibiscus has become quite unpopular due to the ravages of the hibiscus borer, which I mentioned in earlier letters.
As I told you - on our arrival here, I was called by Dorothy Reyersbach, a friend of Mrs. Eliovson of Johannesburg. She offered to take me to the Botanic Garden to call on Dr. Ernest Thorpe, the curator, I found Dr. Thorpe to be a dedicated orchid man, with some little interest in hibiscus - but not much. However, he gave generously of his time and showed me their hibiscus collection, and through their nursery where they propagate for public sale.
They have the usual "oldies" plus a collection of Hawaiian hybrids, sent them recently by Paul Weissich of Honolulu, which, though small plants, are doing quite well on their own root.
Thorpe's assistant, who is in charge of the nursery, was much more interested in hibiscus than Dr. Thorpe, and asked me to explain just what we were doing in the way of hybridization. Of course, it is just a question as this which triggers a 30-minute explanation by me. Strangely enough, it was Dr. Thorpe who seemed most interested, and when I finally ran out of verbosity, he said:
"I don't know why you are here, looking for information on hibiscus; I've been in most parts of the world, including Hawaii, and I do not recall of ever hearing so much detail on hibiscus, or hibiscus breeding, that is, on a project basis. You won't learn anything on the Natal Coast. No one in this area has ever hybridizided, to my knowledge, and I was born here."
He then told me of the ravages of the hibiscus borer, which is quite a stinker, apparently, and pointed out two varieties which seem resistant. One was Lillian Wilder, which is widely planted here, and the other is Wilders White, or H. arnottianus. Dr. Thorpe did not know that Wilders White was a true species.
Later, it occurred to me that the fact that Lillian Wilder, a first generation H. arnottianus hybrid, and H. arnottianus itself, were both resistant to the borer, suggested the possibility that H. arnottianus and its F1 and F2 hybrids might be inherently resistant to the borer. I dropped a note offering this idea to Dr. Thorpe and said that I would send him some of our F1, if he thought my theory was valid. He phoned this morning, and said that he thought I had something, and asked that I send him material for trial. I promised to do this.
Accordingly, I would appreciate it if you would check over our can yard, and see if we have small - or reasonably small rooted plants of Ross Estey, Jim Hendry, Roddy Boy, 58-601, Ruth Anderson, Hawaiiana, or any other varieties that are F1 hybrids of H. arnottianus. If so, I would like to have you discuss with Glen the possibility of the Arboretum picking up the tab on the postage. I would wash the soil off the roots, pack the roots in spaghnum, bringing the roots and the spaghnum into a tight ball, and trying it closed in the bottom of a poly bag that is big enough to hold the entire plant. The leaves should be reduced, and the entire plant closed in the bag.
The shipment should be addressed to:
I have written Dr. Stewart today as regards this matter, and I think he will be sympathetic, as it may mean the re-establishment of hibiscus as a landscape plant in this area.
Whenever I asked about hibiscus in this town, everyone suggested that I go on down to Margate, 90 miles south. There, I was told, is the place to see hibiscus. It is called the "Hibiscus Coast", and they have a Hibiscus Festival each year, choosing a Hibiscus Queen to preside.
Although our "Garden Tour" route, which we begin next Sunday goes to Margate, I decided to rent a car, and go down for the day. We chose yesterday for the ride. We travelled 186 miles at a cost of 25 cents per mile, and did not see more than two dozen hibiscus plants! What a disappointment.
Furthermore, I ran into bad luck in trying to get information on the Festival, or as regards collectors in this area. The man who promotes the Festival was on holiday, as was the Agricultural Officer of the area who is the advisor. I visited a nursery, but the proprietors were away and the lady in charge said that the finest collection of hibiscus on this Coast was at the Botanic Garden in Durban - the collection I had seen the day before!
The only hibiscus I saw were single red Brilliant or close to it, and a few yellow, much like California Gold. All were ratty; the nursery lady and others I talked to said the borer had wiped out most of the hibiscus on the Coast.
This morning, my local gardener friend called to tell me that she had heard that a Mrs. Vernon Crookes, of a very wealthy sugar planter family of Scottsburg, halfway between here and Margate, had exhibited some fine hibiscus at a flower show last year. I have written Mrs. Crookes, but don't expect to hear from her. If she still has hibiscus, no doubt they are some Hawaiian imports; these sugar cane growers in Africa work very closely with Hawaii; many of them have been men trained in Hawaii in charge of their field or mill operations.
You will be interested in one observation made on the 90-mile trip to
Margate: the road runs close to the ocean most of the way, and when the
is not cleared for cane, the national growth is mostly Strelitzia Nicolai!
Ella has made some "doggie friends" down here - two sisters, who are the only Yorkie breeders in Natal. We have visited them a couple of times and last night we had them in to dinner. The husband, George Barrows, is just my age. He was born in South Africa as were his father and grandfather. He speaks English, Afrikaans, and seven African dialects. He is retired, but during his active years was in the theatre business, and met and managed tours for many of the theatre greats of England and America. He's very much the out-going type, and has given us a great deal of background on things South African.
Between Ella's doggie people and my gardener lady friend, we have been busy nearly every day and evening.
I am writing this before breakfast; today, we plan to go up to Pietermaritzburg, 50 miles inland. They have a fine Botanic Garden there. Yesterday, the local paper carried a story about a white jacaranda coming into bloom for the first time - a tree presented to them by the "Director of the Los Angeles Arboretum in 1962." I cut this out and sent it to Bill Stewart. Today, I hope to photograph the tree.
Yesterday, I received confirmation on my hotel in Mauritius, but not a word from Tananarive, Madagascar. I am beginning to get worried about our arrangements there, particularly the plane reservations from Mauritius to Madagascar and return. Yesterday I talked to the local representative of Air France, and was advised that space is very limited; they fly the route only twice a week, and use small planes.
Mention of Mauritius reminds me that so far, I have not seen, or even found anyone who has even heard of any of the species which I hoped to locate on Mauritius or Madagascar. All of the Herbarium specimens that I have seen at Kew, Edingburg, Lisbon and Pretoria were collected 50 or more years ago, and in the case of H. liliflorus there were at least four different forms among the specimens studied. So I may not too optimistic over the prospects of finding anything of any importance. What we don't realize, I think, is that in setting up or project, we have developed far more background, in the way of live material and bibliography as well, than has been the case with any other institution. True, the Hawaiians and the Indians have accomplished a great deal, but in the case of Hawaii, the work has been carried on by individuals with no records kept.
Before I leave here, I hope to put in a half-day on my notes on H. liliflorus and set down all of the data I have, so that I will have a better perspective when I reach Mascarenes. I'll send a copy of this to you.
My gardener friend, Dorothy Reyersbach, has taken us to several gardens. Her interest in plants is very wide, and as she lectured to gardens clubs, etc. she is inclined to monopolize the conversation by emphasizing the good points of various plants. I could care less about most) of the things she shows me, and I guess my lack of attention bothered her. Finally she said, rather testily, "You don't seem interested in these unusual plants I am showing you."
I asked her to forgive me, and explained that I am so involved in my own hobby plant that I have lost interest in other members of the plant world. In fact, I had developed the bad habit of saying to myself - and to others - that "if it ain't hibiscus the hell with it".As ever, Ross
A few weeks after I returned home I sent Mrs. Reyersbach some pictures of
my seedlings and in her reply, asked that I send her some seed. I wrote
back, promising to send her the first seed I had available, but only if
she wrote "if it ain't hibiscus the hell with it" 50 times on a sheet of
paper and send it to me. She took me seriously and complied. I sent the
November 12, 1965
Just received yours of 10/28, addressed to Johannesburg.
In spite of the fact that I had fully intended to be a tourist in South Africa from here on out, I hired a car and went up to Pietermaritzburg yesterday (52 miles) and visited the Botanic Garden. Nothing new - neither H. rosa-sinensis nor other species there. Never heard of H. liliflorus. However, they did advise me that a local nursery - Carter's - had quite a few hibiscus and were getting in more. We drove out and met the proprietors, Schofield & Son. They were very cordial, and showed me everything they had - a very great surprise to me.
They had just received a shipment from New Zealand - not Jack Clark, but another large Auckland nursery. Among those received were Crown of Bohemia, under that name, Ballerina, Mrs. Thompkins, Bride, Kona (as Mrs. Rose Davis) and several others, mostly Peradeniya hybrids. He was also shipped - under another name - most of the "oldies" that he already had - much to his disgust.
He also grows Agnes Galt, and the Wilders, and Madelaine Champion. In yesterday morning's mail, he received Monrovia Nursery's catalogue, and I was able to boast as regards the number of mine on the list - Ross Estey, and the new ones out this year.
I have enclosed a news clip on the local Herbarium, which I have not, and will not visit. However, what the Director has to say about plants being lost to cultivation is very much to the point. I think we should realize that the species I will look for on Mauritius and Madagascar were last observed in 1900 by Hichreutiner - and we have no assurance that he actually saw live material, but made his revisions based on Herbarium specimens collected at a much earlier date. Thus we are rather naive in expecting to find them, at least under the same names. As far as H. Liliflorus is concerned, I checked this morning, and find that I have four different descriptions of this one.
In spite of the fact that H. schizopetalus is native (or so they say) of Central Africa, I have not see a single plant of this either in Kenya or here.
This is the second rainy day we have had since we left home, which is quite a remarkable record. This is supposed to be the rainy season here.
Quite possibly I will not write again before we reach Capetown, on November 20, as we will be on our bus tour of the "Garden Route". If I had it to do over, I would have allotted less time here and more to the Cape - Mrs. Eliovson advised this, but I had been told that this was the hibiscus center of South Africa. It may have been before the borer took over.
Roddy is getting a bit of beach-time. He is more interested in biology than botany. Here, he is making a study of a species known as "homo-sapiens bikinienisis", particularly the female of the species. I'll admit that there are some very nice specimens on the beach here. Ella has to remind me to pull my eyeballs in, or, she fears, they will be sunburned! It is difficult for me to convince her that my interest is purely scientific - that I am just studying their anterior structure for academic reasons.As ever,
Capetown, South Africa
November 21, 1965
After six days by bus from Durban, travelling a thousand miles of South African coast which borders the Indian Ocean, we arrived here last night.
Our first half-day (we started at 2:20 pm) of the tour took us only to Margate, where, as I told in a previous letter, we had visited by car. Obviously, this part of the trip held little interest, particularly as it rained the entire way. I am glad that we had gone down before, as there would not have been any opportunity to check on hibiscus as we got in at 5:30. As a matter of fact, the entire tour down to the Cape was one of early starts and late arrivals. Furthermore, hotels chosen for us were mostly in city centers, or on remote beaches away from plantings of any kind, so I was not able to see very much in the way of hibiscus, except at St. Johns, where I collected several oldies. All but two of these were sent to Egolf; two will be mailed to you in the same mail as this letter. They are as follows:
Natal #6 = This is a large double cerise, very much like Orpah, but with a heavier bloom, and a large distinct maroon eye. It may be regional variation of Orpah, but I think it well worth testing.
Natal #8 = Is a double orange, much like Crown of Bohemia, but the eye zone (maroon) is large and distinct.
After we left Margate, we passed by one beach resort after another for about 50 miles, resorts with fancy names like "Leisure Land", "Portobello Beach". We then crossed the Umzimvubu River, and entered Pondoland, the northern limits of the Transkei, the great Bantu Reserve. Abruptly civilization seemed to fall away - white villas gave way to Bantu conical huts - hundreds of thousands of them, as far as the eye could see in every direction.
The Transkei - menaing "Across the Kei River", comprises 16,450 square miles, where 1,300,000 natives have been given their own rule, with the legislative and administrative headquarters at Umtala where we stopped Tuesday night. With the exception of a few traders, missionaries and advisory officials, no Europeans may live in the area, or own land there.
The Transkei is divided into four seperate, mostly tribal divisions. The natives are what are called Xhosa people, to distinguish them from Hottentots or bushmen, of the southern part of Africa. However, all natives here are called "Bantus" - once they were called "Kaffirs", but this term is resented, the people preferring to be known as "bantus".
They are basically subsistance farmers, with some cattle and horses, and they live in much the same way as did their ancestors. Tribal customs and superstitions are basically unchanged, and while fine new schools and hospitals have been built in recent years, these have made little impact on the Bantus way of life, apparently. We are told that they prefer their old ways to the so-called European, civilization; while most of the men go out to the Transvaal Mines or the Natal cane farms on six-months contract to earn cash income, they always return to the Transkei. While they are away, their wife or wives - till the fields, and the youngsters take care of the livestock.
Note that I included the plural of "wife". We were told that one of the reasons why the Bantus prefer their own area, and their own (supervised) rule is that in the Transkei, a man can have as many wives as he can afford. This could be a mixed blessing in our own way of life, but Bantus can secure a wife for 12 cattle or $50 cash, and wives are kept not for ornament but for their contribution to the growing and preparing of their staple -"Mealies", or maize.
There are exceptions, of course, and we met one - Mr. Khotsi Sethuitsu, a pure blood Bantu, who is reputed to be worth $9 million dollars. He is herbalist-patent medicine manufacturer - who lives in a beautiful villa outside of Lusikisiki, the captial of Pondoland, with his 14 wives and 22 children - 20 of them daughters - to his very great sorrow. However, he is comparatively young and frankly expressed to me the hope that his next 20 grandchildren will be boys.
His home, a unique structure of blue ceramic tile and leaded glass, stands along the road. It is not a regular tour stop, but our driver pulled up and asked it we wanted to visit. We thought it was just another tourist trap, where another contribution would be made for some corny purpose, but we were not only very wrong, but delightfully entertained.
It seems that Khotsi is a very outgoing individual, and likes company - the more the merrier. Also, he loves publicity - and one wall of his house is covered with newspaper clippings and photos and other evidence of visits of many writers and notables. Our driver had phoned in advance the hour of our arrival.
We were greeted by two natives in tribal dress, who announced our arrival with a series of sharp blasts on a trumpet made of the horn of some animal. The 14 wives, dressed in blue full length dresses, were lined up outside the door, and sang a song of welcome. Next, two natives brought huge tubs of water, and carefully washed the soles of our shoes. We were then allowed to enter a long room, where we were seated along the wall. The trumpet sounded again and "The Man" entered - a small, cheery-faced fellow dressed in a worn alpaca suit, much too large and much too worn for a multi-milliortaire. He greeted us warmly, shaking us each by the hand, and asking each tour member where they called home. He made much over us, as we were the only Americans. When I introduced Rodney as my grandson, he asked me how many children I had fathered, and when I confessed that it was only two, he chided me for my lack of productivity. I did want to reply, "Well, Buster, how much help did you get from those big male retainers of yours? But I did not do so, being a guest, and furthermore, those big retainers all carried big knives.
We then were served tea and scones by the multi-wife "crew", and then had a tour of the premises. The rooms held untold treasures in ceramics, jewelry, etc. He is reputed to have a diamond as large as his fist. We were urged to take pictures, which we did, and when we had seen the house and gardens (no hibiscus) Khotsi escorted us back to the bus with his 14 wives trailing him. We left with them all waving goodbye, and wishing us "Good Luck" in both English and Pondo. Quite an experience.
There seems to be no doubt that Khotsi is a multi-millionaire. He is the son of President Kruger's coachman, who some say, inherited part of Kruger's millions. however, it seem more probable that the money comes from his huge sale of patent medicines and native remedies to the Bantus.
In his garage I saw a late-model Cadillac, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala, and a Chevy truck.
He is said to have paid $2,500,00 for building in Durban, paying cash which he carried in a suitcase to the office where the transaction was completed.
However, the average Bantu is housed quite differently than the villa of Sethuitzu. The dwelling unit is a round hut, walls about ten feet high, made up just about like our adobe structures, but of indigenous clay bricks. It is covered with a conical roof, made of thatch, supported by sturdy rafters. There is no opening at the top. There are no windows in the average hut, and the single door always opens to the East.
When a Bantu marries, he is given a building site, with small plot of ground adjacent to it, for his primary food crops. Mostly this is maize, but many are now planting vegetables, at the urging of the agriculturally trained native or white advisors. In addition, he receives from seven to ten acres of land, often as far as five miles away, for farming purposes.
As the family grows in size, additional huts are built; most family units, called "kraals" by the Bantus, have from three to six dwellings, separated by about 20 feet of open space. This is because of the danger of fire; while most of the cooking is done outside, the Bantu has a fire going in the center of each hut, and all too often, the thatch catches fire, and the dwelling room is destroyed.
After we left the Transkei, and skirted the coast again, I began to realize why the Margate people had called theirs the Hibiscus Coast". Apparently the borer had not traversed the Bantu Reserve, for we were soon seeing hibiscus on every side - huge bushes, and beautifully trained and pruned hedges. And as Henry Ford said about his Model T - "You can have any color just so it is black" - ninety-five per cent of the hibiscus were single red.
At Port Elizabeth, fully half of the residences were bordered by thick hedges of single red, some of them ten feet high, and four five feet thick. Some owners have a security problem in Southern Africa, and the hibiscus is really playing its part in this.
These hedges are usually started from "cuttings" about 3/4 to l" in diameter and 20" to 30" long. They are set in the soil about 6" deep in a criss-cross pattern. They are trained so that eventually the hedge cannot be penetrated by a dog, much less a human.
More about hibiscus later. Must close now.
November 24, 1965
I received your letters of November 10 and 17, both addressed to me here. As I read these letters, it is apparent that you will address another letter to me here; it will have to arrive tomorrow, as we leave tomorrow afternoon, for Joberg, where we take off for Mauritius on Friday.
We will be in Mauritius until December 10, and you might just reach us with a letter to "Hotel Chaland, Mauritius", if it is written on receipt of this. But I have my doubts of a letter addressed to American Express, Tananarive, will reach me.
We will be in Perth December 11-12-13, then on to Adelaide for only a day, so our next best address after Perth will be Sydney, c/o Thos. Cook & Son.
Yesterday, I rented a car and driver, and went down to the Cape of Good Hope, stopping at Kirstenbosch Gardens on the way. As you know, this is a National Botanic Garden, with only South African species. I checked, and found that they had only three hibiscus species - H. diversifolius, H. pedunculatus, and H. ludwigii. Both their diversifolius and ludwigii are the same as ours - as you know, we have quite a planting of the latter in the African section. However, I have always wanted to see if H. pedunculatus, and yesterday, I not only had the opportunity to do so, but also to collect a generous supply of seed. Although only one badly bug-chewed blossom was available, it is apparently quite close to H. cameronii - the leaf is exactly the same in shape and texture. Also, it is a small woody shrub, only 3 feet high. The flower is pinkish to blue, only 2 inches in diameter, although the plant was not exactly vigorous. The staminal column was much like H. rosa-sinensis, insofar as I could determine. I think that this one will give us some fun in crossing with both H. cameronii and H. rosa-sinensis.
I had a letter to Dr. Rycroft, the Curator of the Garden here, but he was out of town. However, the hibiscus were in a section taken care of by an old Kew man, Harry Hall, and we had a very nice visit. I could have taken the Garden with me, insofar as he was concerned, but I settled for almost all the seed in his one plant of H. pedunculatus.
We're just about ready to leave the hotel for the airport, to go to Joberg, so I'll finish off here.
On the Cape Tour, I visited Cape Province Nurseries, which produce all the trees, shrubs and plants for public plantings in the Cape Town area. They had only Common Red, Apricot, Lillian Wilder (they call it Apple Blossom, as they do in Australia), Madeline Champion (a reflexed orange single), Peach Blow and Canary Island, which, except for the leaf, is much the same as our Floribunda. It may be the original H. genevii.
Everything seems OK for the Mascarenes, but the closer I get the more stories I hear about the lack of knowledge, interest or cooperation in connection with native flora.
Will close now.As ever,
November 27, 1965
We arrived here yesterday and are comfortably established at the Le Challand Hotel on the beach, close to the airport. The Le Challand was formerly the headquarters of the British Air Force. It consists of a main building, now used as a lobby and dining room, and about 25 bungalows, scattered around a large, beautifully landscaped garden. We were quite pleased to see that the long driveway that led to the hotel was lined with H. schizopetalus, heavily laden with bloom. At least a dozen hibiscus plants form the main planting around the headquarters. I noted several different forms of what we call Versicolor, were in bloom - pink, red, and orange. Many of these were seeding profusely.
We had a smooth, scenic flight over from Johannesburg. The route took us over the south end of Madagascar, the "Great Red Island", and as it came into view below the coloring of this heavily eroded terrain gave reason for its name. Also, its great size is realized when seen from the air - it is the world's fourth largest island and a third larger in land area than California, stretching down the South Indian Ocean for nearly 1000 miles.
The sight of Mauritius from aloft was rather disconcerting; its postage stamp size seemed to belie its prominent role in maritime history, and also it appeared to be almost entirely under cultivation, giving reason to believe that areas of native vegetation were limited. This indicated that we were not going to have the problem of organizing any extended plant hunting activity in the wild.
While in England, I read everything I could find on the history of Mauritius, as I felt that this might be of importance in our plant collecting effort here. I learned that it was the first island in the South Indian Ocean to be colonized by Europeans.
The first European to visit Mauritius was Pedro Mascarenhas, one of Vasco de Gama's captains, in 1506. The Portuguese did not colonize Mauritius, but they left a few domestic animals, and some monkeys.
The Dutch were the next to arrive in 1598. They established a fort at Grandport, and named the island Mauritius for Maurice, Prince of Nassau, their ruler. It's difficult to believe that it was from Grandport that Abel Tasman, sailed to discover Australia.
In 1638 the Dutch brought in colonists. One of the important items of food in their diet after they became established was a large, clumsy, succulentlyfleshed bird called the Dodo. It could not fly, or run, and soon the last one disappeared in the cooking pots of the food-loving Dutchmen. This, it is said, was the origin of the expression "As dead as the Dodo bird".
As I have gained a great deal of weight, I am glad that in 1718 the French forced the Dutch out of Mauritius and ruled for over a hundred years.
In 1810, the English took the island, and since that time it has been an English Colony, although they are now pushing for independence. While the English rule Mauritius, the French are still the principal land owners, and everyone speaks French as well as English here.
Realizing the possibilities for raising sugar cane, the English brought in Indian labor and the Indians brought in the mynah bird and the mongoose. The mynahs killed off most of the beneficial insects and the mongooses took care of the beautiful native birds, but seemed to have formed a brotherly relationship with the mynahs, as they do not include them in their diet.
Mauritius has a land area of 720 square miles, and population of close to 500,000, of which 400,000 are Indians.
The principal products of Mauritius are children and sugar cane. The children are produced by the Indians, and sugar cane by the old French landowners. The birthrate of the Indians is increasing each year, and the standard of living of the Indians is declining. However, the colony of monkeys left by Portuguese 300 years ago has not grown any larger; they have limited their numbers to the food sources available to them. Considering the precarious nature of the island food supply, a study in depth of the birth control as practiced by this group of assertedly sub-human group of colonists would seem to be in order.
Port Louis, the main town, with a good harbor, had been a port of call for Portuguese ships on the route from their enclave at Goa, on the Malabar Coast of India and continued to be an important source of supplies for ship en route from Asia around the Cape of Good Hope.
It is well established that the species native to southeast Asia, and hybrids developed there, found their way to Mauritius very early. In fact, the first recorded crosses between H. Liliflorus and H. rosa-sinensis, as early as 1828, were made by Dr. Charles Telfair, a British Army doctor, who remained as a resident physician in Mauritius after the British took over the island. His hybrids, described in detail and pictured in water colors by his wife, were published in English horticultural magazines. These reports stimulated interest in the hybridizing of ornamental hibiscus.
Dr. Telfair was a dedicated plantsman who collected plants throughout the Mascarene islands, and madagascar, and even the African West Coast, sending them to Kew Gardens. He also designed public gardens in Mauritius.
Our interest in the Mascarenes and Madagascar, therefore, was not centered on finding the native species H. liliflorus and H. fragilis, but also in seeing some of the early hybrids there. So I'll be reporting to you almost daily on my experiences here.As ever,
November 29, 1965
Eureka! I have found the elusive H.liliflorus, and obtained both wood and seed.
Last night the Manager of the hotel joined me on the veranda of the hotel, where I was relaxing with my usual Scotch and water - no ice. He is an Englishman who married into one of the wealthy land-owning families. He came here from England to take the position of Police Commissioner for Mauritius, but is now retired.
I told him my reason for visiting Mauritius and asked if he could suggest anyone who could advise me where to start my search for the native hibiscus. He said that he had on his staff, as a garden consultant, a Scot named Capt. Henry Adams. Adams had been Chief Forester of Mauritius, but he was now retired, that is, like I am. He now assists Hargreaves, the Hotel Manager in supervising the design and maintenance of the Le Challand grounds.
He phoned Adams who promised to take me up to the Black River Gorge, where he had seen a hibiscus "tree", but not being a botanist did not know what it was.
He drove me up to the mountains as far as he could, then we walked about a half mile to see the tree. Although interested, I was very much disappointed because it was not H. Liliflorus or H. fragilis, but more like the kokio rockii of Hawaii. As it was not in bloom, further identification was impossible.
Captain Adams then remembered that many years ago he had brought down two trees of a flame-colored hibiscus and planted them in a small botanic garden in Curepipe, a town near the Le Challand. We then left the mountains, visited this Garden, and sure enough, the two trees were still alive, but in very poor condition. They were both H. liliflorus, in full bloom and with many ripe seed pods. I secured an ample supply of both seed and wood, and both will be sent to you tomorrow.
The flower is difficult to describe, but I think I could best do this by just saying it is about four inches in diameter and shaped like a lily, hence its name, and the size and shape of H. kokio. However, the red is more towards orange, and it has orange-yellow stripes or veins on the petals, and half of the back of each petal is orange-yellow, just as half the back of Puahi Bishop (Pseudocameronii) is white. Quite possibly the half and half effect of the latter comes originally from H. liliftorus the staminal column is the same color as the petals, the pollen yellow and the pads red. The size and form of the column, the style, filaments, etc. are much the same as H. kokio. Also, it may be compared in form and shape with that little yellow I brought back from Samoa.
Just to be sure, I checked my notes in Cavanilles and found these trees to be true H. liliiflorus.
Captain Adams also informed me, of a Dr. Vaughn, a botanist who had taught at the Royal College here, but had on retirement developed a small herbarium at the Mauritius Sugar Planters Experiment Section at Reduit forty or fifty miles away from the hotel.
I phoned Dr.
Vaughn and he invited me to come up to Reduit tomorrow.
This morning I hired a car and driver, and went up to Reduit to see Dr. Vaughn. I found him to be a charming old Englishman - well, older than I am and a dedicated botanist. I told him about the tree that Captain Adams had shown me in the Black River Gorge. He had a colored drawing of the flower and foliage, and while this flower was a mixed yellow and red and never opened fully, it was much like the Hibiscadelphus of Hawaii.
He told me that two trees of a hibiscus which he thought was H. fragilis were growing in Pampelmousses Garden, on the north shore beyond Port Louis, and suggested that I see them. He had not been to the Garden for some time, but he remembered the location, We were to enter the main gate, and proceed a few hundred yards to a monument, then turn left to the lily pond. I had no difficulty in finding the trees. There were two of them, but unlike H. Liliflorus (at Curepipe), they were about 25 feet tall and columnar in form. Unfortunately they were not in bloom, but the leaves were thick and leathery, exactly like the Cavanilles sketch of H. fragilis - bunched closely at the ends of long branches.
I took a generous quantity of wood which I will ship to you from the airport. We are taking off for Madagascar in about an hour.As ever,
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