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Hibiscus Around the World

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

January 1964


January 2, 1964

Dear Joe:

I finally got around to doing a little serious hibisticating on Monday, paying a visit to Lester Beers, who operates Hibiscus Park at Warriewood Beach, about fifteen miles north of Sydney. He specializes in hibiscus, and as we Aussies say, he does a fair dinkum job of it.

Beers propagates for sale about 120 named varieties which he has brought in from India, Hawaii and Florida. He sells 30,000 plants a year, mostly on their own root, in what we would call 2-quart containers. He issues one of the best hibiscus catalogues I have ever seen; I am sending you a copy under separate cover. This indicates that he gets from $1.00 to $2.50 for his plants, depending on variety.

He is a real merchandiser, too. As one enters his sales area, he must pass along a wall into which are built several round windows - or window boxes, really - and in each one is a display of blooms on coconut leaf ribs, attractively arranged in sprays. Then, in his sales room he has a large table about 24 inches high and painted white, and a flower of each variety, carefully labelled, is placed on the table every day to help influence purchase decisions.

Most of his varieties are old forms under local names. The only exception are the ones he secured from Brisbane, originally from Ceylon, and some newer Hawaiians recently imported from Nii Brothers. He agrees that while these latter are showy, they may not do so well here. Yet I observed that this year he is getting some very good growth on his Hawaiians, particularly his Miller and Nagao originations.

Beers is a horticulturist by education and training and he has tried to learn as much about hibiscus as is possible. He says that he has never found anything in the way of literature on the subject, but his catalogue and planting and care instructions are quite complete. He says that interest in hibiscus in Australia is growing very fast; that fifteen years ago one could not find any yellows here, and only a few varieties of any other color. He knew, of course, that some of the Australian nurserymen in the late Nineteenth Century supplied English nurseries with some special forms such as H. denisonii and H. baptisti but apparently in late years few new ones have appeared. However, he had two of Australian origin that I liked, and which I think may be helpful to us. One is a large 8-inch single light pink, a very precocious and free bloomer on a low­growing plant. This one is called Mrs. Thompkins. The other is a sport from Kona (Kona is Mrs. Rose Davis here) which is just like Kona in foliage, but the color is a dark reddish-pink - Shocking Pink, I think the girls would call it if it were a fabric. It is known as Sabrina. Both of these were shipped to you today, together with several other varieties.

I had hoped to find some seeders and seed here. However, the season is wrong for this, for summer has just gotten underway.

Next week we will go up the Brisbane in Queensland, the real hibiscus area of Australia, and then on up to Cairns which is about 1400 miles north of here and only a few hundred miles away from New Guinea. From there we will go out on the Great Barrier Reef.

As ever,


Brisbane, Queensland
January 13, 1964

Dear Joe:

The City Fathers of Brisbane must have anticipated my arrival here some years back, for they planted both sides of the entire avenue approaching the airport with H. tiliaceus, or hau, as we call it in Hawaii. These handsome trees are quite unique in that they have been shaped into huge "standards" - the trunks are bare up to about ten feet and the carefully trimmed "heads" branch out evenly along the entire planting. And they are now in full bloom; as you know, the flowers of the hau are rich yellow in the morning hours, changing to a deep orange-brown by nightfall.

We are at the Bellevue Hotel across the street from the Botanic Garden, and as soon as we were settled I called on the Curator, H.W. Caulfield. With him, we first looked over the so-called "Ceylon Collection". although I had seen some of these in Sydney, I had been looking forward to seeing the entire group, which, when introduced, numbered about 60 varieties.

You know the history of this collection, I believe. They were brought to Brisbane by the late L.H. Steenbaum, formerly connected with the Brisbane City Council, in 1955, from Ceylon. Most of them, I understand, were originated at the Peradynia Garden near Kandy where some simple hybridization has been done over the years. This Garden also published a bulletin on hibiscus hybridization, now out of print, but thanks to K.C.L. Perks of Suva, who has a copy, I was able to photograph the publication with my copying lens and will reproduce it for the Arboretum Library.

I was very much disappointed with the quality of the blooms. In fact, I can say without reservation that not one of them would displace any of the common sorts we grow in Southern California, but it is possible that they were not at their best as summer is just coming on here.

After satisfying myself that the Brisbane imports were not particularly valuable in our work, we looked over a collection of seedlings originated by a Mrs. Marjorie Blackman of Magnetic Island off Townsville, six hundred miles north of here. She has been hybridizing for some time, but unfortunately none of her cultivars were in bloom. Here and there in the Garden were very large specimens of most of the older varieties we know here, but the only plants that really impressed me were the H. arnottianus, the native Hawaiian white, which seems very much at home here, and seeds like mad.

However, my main interest in the Brisbane Garden was the possibility that I could find the true H. cameronii, Knowles & Westcott. Paul Weissich of Honolulu told me he thought he had seen this elusive species in the Brisbane Garden, so when Mr. Caulfield confirmed this, I lost no time in getting to that part of the Garden where it was growing. One look at the plants and the one bloom in evidence confirmed the fact that the early-day journals had described the species correctly, and that Indian and Hawaiian authorities, from Bulletin No. 29 down to contemporary references, had been confusing H. cameronii with what we call Pink versicolor - a wide miss of the mark.

Actually, the coloring is very close to the hand-colored prints of this species published when it was introduced into England from Madagascar in 1837. It is a mixture of light rose and buff, and there are promiently darker maroon blotches on the petals. It is really a little beauty.

Although the seed pod of H. cameronii is covered with a hairy coating, the flower parts are exactly like those of H. rosa-sinensis. The staminal column is the same in form, too, as are all reproductive parts. The leaves are deeply cut, five-lobed, a form that so often shows up in our seedlings.

Could this be the ancestral species we are looking for? I know that Dr. Tachibana at Osaka has been attempting to cross it with H. rosa-sinensis and other species without success, but I want to give it a try myself. It is too soft to ship as scion wood, but I was able to secure some seed from Mr. Caulfield.

In addition to the H. cameronii seed and scion wood of some H. rosa­sinensis cultivars, I am sending you cuttings of H. insularis. This is a large shrub with very small leaves, handsome in growing habit. The flower is a cream color with touches of maroon on the petal edges. I don't think that it is close enough to H. rosa-sinensis to be useful in our project, but it is a shrub which may do well in Southern California. It should not be confused with Lagunaria pattersonii, a Norfolk Island native, although the blooms are somewhat alike. L. pattersonii is already known in Southern California and there are many plants - I should say trees - on Catalina Island, where this species seems to find a happy home.

The Brisbane Garden also has a fine collection of native Australian hibiscus species, and are collecting more. These are, of course, somewhat outside our field, but I am bringing back seed of several, and Mr. Caulfield promised to send more to me. One little plant, H. rhodapetalus, intrigues me. It is a low grower with foliage and branches much like H. fubiflora. However, the flower is a flat single, about 4" in diameter, and brick red in color. It is a native of Queensland, I was told, and may therefore be too tender for us. But it is certainly showy.

You have no doubt been consulting the map of Australia in order to follow my kangaroo-hopping travel pattern, so you know that Brisbane is 400 miles north of Sydney. It is beautifully situated at the mouth of the Brisbane River, and the city sprawls for miles along the Queensland coast. We were told by a bus driver that the area of the city of Brisbane is exceeded only by that of Los Angeles.

The climate of Southern Queensland is very much like that of Honolulu. It is quite humid, and hibiscus seed readily all along the Queensland coast. I noted pods on an old yellow called Bruceii here; on Shirley, one of the varieties from Ceylon, and on a single pink called Stella. Of course, every plant of H. arnottianus is covered with seed pods. I asked Mr. Caulfield if there was any activity in hybridizing other than the work of Mrs. Blackman who I mentioned in my last letter, and he gave me the name of a local nurseryman named Ulrich who lives in a suburb near here, so I decided to visit him.

I found Mr. Ulrich to be a dedicated hibiscus fan, but he had not been long in the business of tossing hibiscus pollen around. He had a number of seedlings, most of them simple singles, but nothing that we could use here. However, I envied his set-up; evidently one can get pods to set over a long season of the year here on dooryard plantings. he seemed surprised to learn that I had to have greenhouse environment to get seed in Southern California.

The main problem here seems to be the lack of varieties which will not only seed, but produce desirable seedlings. Interest is growing in the hobby, however, and I predict that in a few years a large number of amateur hybridists will be producing excellent hibiscus cultivars all along the Queensland coast!

We fly to Cairns tomorrow. This town is 900 miles north of here, and only about 400 miles south of Port Moresby in New Guinea. It is supposed to be truly tropical in every way and we are looking forward to seeing some real hibiscus plantings.

As ever,


Cairns, Queensland
January 16, 1964

Dear Joe:

At this moment I'm wondering if the old government employees' travel form questions: "Is this trip necessary?" should have been given more consideration before we made the 900-mile flight up hereto Cairns. Certainly it has not added anything to my knowledge of hibiscus, for I found the same varieties here that are common in nearly every other place I have visited so far and, in fact, most of the ones I have seen are growing in my own yard.

However, we did want to see tropical Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. Green Island, 16 miles off Cairns, is the easiest way to see a "sample" of the Reef, which stretches several hundred miles down the east coast of Australia. Only a few of the hundreds of islands in the Reef are visited, and Green island, where we spent yesterday, is a true coral atoll. It is only 42 acres "big", but is very popular with "trippers", as tourists are called in Australia.

A few hundred miles north of Cairns is the Torres Straits which divides Australia from New Guinea, and in an area 400 or 500 miles directly east of here the battle of the Coral Sea was fought.

Here in Cairns the hibiscus plant look much like they did in Fiji. This is perhaps because here, as well as in Fiji, we were visiting during the rainy season; however, they certainly look unhappy and the bloom is very sparse.

We visited a nursery, an orchid specialist who also produces a large number of hibiscus for the Northern Queensland area. It was obvious that most of the varieties were from the so-called "Peradynia" collection at Brisbane, although there were some Hawaiian "oldies" such as Kona and Mrs. Wilder. I did find a very good plant of baptisti, the odd variegated red and white that one sees in Hawaii ocassionally. It is called Hawaiian Flag there. As I remember, this variety was found as a sport by an Adelaide nurseryman nearly a hundred years ago, and sent to England where it enjoyed a brief vogue as a hot house novelty. Also, I found a couple of poor singles, but as the plants were loaded with seed, I am sending you some wood. We need seeders, particularly old forms.

Cairns is the center of the Northern Queensland sugar cane industry, and the cane fields present a beautiful pattern in green from the air, or as one travels by car up from the coast to the Atherton Tableland area, situated over the coastal range. This section is known principally for tobacco production; temperatures drop down to 30 degrees there, but I noted many large old plants of hibiscus which were very thrifty and blooming profusely - much better looking than plants in the Cairns area. Apparently the low temperatures did not persist, for there was no evidence of frost damage.

The back country here is a tropical jungle, given over to palms, tree ferns, and other exotic flora. One can travel for days along "tracks" (roads) lined and sometimes canopied with dense jungle growth. It's a hothouse, and full of bush flies.

Tomorrow we take the long, 1400-mile journey back to Sydney, stopping only a few minutes at Townsville and at Brisbane. We have seen Cairns and sampled the Great Barrier Reef, but l am sure that had I known how little there is to see here, I would have spent more time around Brisbane and the lower Queensland Coast. This area seems to be the real happy home in Australia for hibiscus.

We stay only a day or two in Sydney, then make the 400-mile flight west over the entire continent of Australia to Perth. I'll write you again from there.

As ever,



Perth, Western Australia
January 28, 1964

Dear Joe:

Perth has a population of over 300,000, but I would say there is a hibiscus bush for every man, woman and child resident of this beautiful little city on the Swan River just a few miles inland from the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, I am sure that 75 per cent of the hibiscus here are Mrs. Wilder, or one of the Wilder seedlings. Next in preference seems to be what is called Wilders White, which is none other than the true H. arnottianus, the native Hawaiian white.

This is really an unusual situation; here, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, an area where early trade contacts were via hibiscus-rich South Africa, Madagascar and Mauritius, the old Hawaiian varieties are predominant. It is certainly a testimony to the efforts of the early Hawaiian hybridizers such as Gerrit Wilder, Alonzo Gartley, Valentine Holt, and others, and to the fact that interspecific crossing of the native Hawaiian species and old forms of H. rosa­sinensis does produce horticulturally significant hybrids.

There is very little authoritative interest in hibiscus here, in spite of the fact that the climate seems ideal for the culture of this exotic flower. On Monday, I called on the curator of the local Botanic Garden whose name had been given me by Dr. Stewart. He was out of the area, but I spent some time with his assistant. Outside of a few older forms used as landscape plants, nothing is being done at the garden with hibiscus.

This area is very much like Southern California in many ways. This is perhaps due to the fact that both Los Angeles and Perth are located close to the 30th parallel, only Perth is south latitude and Los Angeles is north latitude. The longitude, too, is practically the same.

Perth does not have a mountainous background as we do. The average annual rainfall is 35 inches, but like ours, is badly distributed. We are here at the very worst time of the year insofar as bloom is concerned - the countryside looks like ours does in August. We do enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables which are grown locally and thus served field-fresh, but it does seem odd to have cantaloupe for breakfast in January - and at 12 cents a serving!

I plan to visit a local nursery if I have time; they have a salesroom here in town, and I have looked over their hibiscus. The manager told me that his firm is the largest grower of hibiscus here, and that the demand is quite good. However, they had nothing in stock except the older forms grown the world over, and did not seem at all interested in anything new.

The single pink that we call Mrs. Wilder, or Mrs. Lillian Wilder, is called Apple Blossom here, and another one of Wilder's pinks, the name of which I cannot recall, is called Dawn. The name Apple Blossom fits here because this variety grows to a height of 35 feet here, and when covered with pink bloom, does look like an apple tree from the distance. H. arnottianus also makes tree­like growth in this area and seeds freely.

Other varieties seen in West Australia in approximately the order of their popularity (local names in parenthesis) are: Agnes Galt; Kona (Mrs. Rose Davis); Orpath (Island Empress); H. andersonii (the bronzed leaf variety); Eleanor (Bronze King); Brilliant (Splendid); Princess Takamatsu (Flame); Ruffled Beauty (Cameo Queen); Lamberti (H. flora plena rubra); Jamaica (Conquerer); Hawaiian Golden or Jigoro (Mrs. J.D. O'Brien); Peachblow (Peachblow); Pink Versicolor (Suva Queen); and a yellow single which looks very much like Bloomin' Fool.

Obviously, there is little of interest in this list for us, but I am sending you a small shipment. One that I selected is a large red with a dark center zone; it looks like a strong grower. Another is a double yellow with a dark pink center zone; it is the old one called Colleri, I believe. In all, I am shipping 14 varieties, none of which are spectacular.

I am enclosing a map showing you, roughly, where we have been, and where we plan to go from here. Also, please note that I have marked the mileage between South Africa and Western Australia; my geography at the start of this trip was certainly off, as I thought Mauritius was about 500 to 900 miles off this coast. Actually, it is 3500 miles. Madagascar is 4000 miles from here, and it is farther from Perth to Cape Town, Africa, than it is from Cape Town across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro!

My next letter will be from Singapore, where we will board the P & 0 Liner "Chusan" for England, with many stops between. The "Chusan" incidentally, is the same ship that we were on when we took a cruise from England to the Canary Islands and Madeira a couple of years ago, a cruise that also allowed me to collect several fine old hibiscus for our collection.

We made the Mediterranean Canary Island and Madeira cruise in July, 1962, boarding the "Chusan" at Southhampton, England. We had our grandson, Ross Estey Walton, 13 years old, with us on the trip - he had come over to England to spend his summer vacation with us.

I looked forward to this trip because the Canary Island (Spanish) and Madeira (Portuguese) were very important in early horticultural history. For several hundred years they were a stopping place, outward and inward­bound, around the Cape of Good Hope, for ships in the Indian trade. They also stopped at Mauritius in the Indian Ocean for victualing.

During this period Portugal established a colony at Goa on the Malabar coast of India, which as you know, figures importantly in the history of ornamental hibiscus.

In 1788, Spain established the Orotavia Botanical Garden on the island of Teneriffe, one of the Canary Islands as a plant acclimatization garden for plants collected in India and perhaps the Mascarene Islands. I was very anxious to visit there and see what they had in the way of hibiscus. If you remember, I sent back several old forms for our project.

We also visited Funchal, in the Madeira Islands. I was surprised to see some old Hawaiians, like H. arnottianus and Floribunda. As most of the Portuguese who were brought to Hawaii as cane labor were from Madeira, it is possible that there was some interchange of hibiscus varieties between the two islands.

Our flight will be over some stormy country, both weatherwise and politically; just the other day Sukarno ruled that Bristish or Australian planes, even for emergency, could not land in Indonesia if there were Malaysian passengers aboard. We have to fly directly over Indonesia, so I hope they have plenty of gasoline aboard, or are ready to unload any Malaysians overboard in case of trouble!

As ever,

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