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Hibiscus Around the World

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

October 1963


Part One

October 20, 1963
March 1, 1964
Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Malaya, India, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea

Honolulu, Hawaii
October 20, 1963

Dear Joe:

Thirty years have passed since I called Hawaii home, years which have not let me forget the old Island saying: "- to leave Hawaii is to die a little". However, it has been my good fortune to have been able to return often and while saddened by the commercialism of the Islands, nothing has really changed for me. Sitting here tonight on the lanai of this garish Waikiki Beach hotel, I can close my eyes to the blare and glare of tourism, and the soft caress of the trade winds and the sensuous fragrance of the tropical night brings to me the same feeling of tranquility, repose and mutuality of spirit that I knew in my earlier Hawaiian years.

So if I fail to do all of things I promised to do, and do not visit all of the people I promised to see during my ten-day visit here, I know you will understand and forgive me. I am again involved in an old love affair, one that began thirty years ago; as with a well-loved woman, Hawaii's favors are irresistible.

But I do want to write you frequently during our journey to England by the back way, so to speak, to share my hibiscus happenings and observations. These letters will be poor pay for the stay-at-home job of minding our Los Angeles State and County Arboretum hibiscus project. Baby-sitting for a thousand hibiscus seedlings and a sizable "stud farm" of parent stock is a real chore. Andy, you have promised to graft in all of the scion wood I send along from foreign parts, under official permit. I'll try to be selective, but you know me when I have a sharp knife and a new hibiscus crosses my path!

Also, I hope to get off the seat of my swim trunks long enough to do some more research on the history of hibiscus in the Pacific area. About all we know is that Captain James Cook found a double red which his botanist called H. flora plena - double flowered hibiscus - in Tahiti when he made his first visit there in1769. Early explorers also saw this species in Tonga, the Marquesas, and other Pacific island groups settled by the Polynesians. E.D. Merrill, great Pacific botanist, calls it "a pre-Magellan, man-introduced ornamental species from the West", referring, of course, to the East Indies.

Banks and Solander - the latter having been Captain Cook's botanist - recorded the double red in their journals as the species H. rosa-sinensis, for Linneaus has so classified it in 1753. This same double red was the first flower in this classification to be described in European horticultural literature, having been called Ketmia Javanica by Gilbert Miller, who is said to have been the first to grow H. rosa-sinensis in Europe in 1731. He described the double red in an early edition of his Gardener's Dictionary. Ketmia is an old name for hibiscus, yet I have seen no reference as to its being a native of Java, as the name would imply.

But in this connection, it is interesting to speculate on the fact that the Polynesian people were supposed to have originally come from India and through the East Indies, thus probably brought the hibiscus with them. The late Peter Buck, famous Polynesian anthropologist and for many years director of the Bishop Museum here, in his Vikings of the Sunrise says: " . . . in remote ages the ancestors of the Polynesian people probably did live in some part of India and worked east, but myths and legends transmitted orally do not reach back that far. They must have sojourned in Indonesia in order to reach the Pacific; the Polynesian language has affinities with Indonesian dialects. During their stay in Indonesia, saltwater entered their blood and changed them from landsmen to seamen, and . . . they turned their gaze toward the eastern horizon and embarked upon one of the greatest of all adventures".

Still another anthropological relationship between Polynesian migration and hibiscus species which are cross-compatible is the fact that when peoples now called Polynesians left India and pushed into the Pacific by the way of Indonesia, other waves of the same stock are said to have turned southward in their double-hulled canoes to populate the African coast bordering the Indian Ocean, and particularly the islands of Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius. And it is precisely in this area - and only in this area - that have been found hibiscus which are cross-compatible with H. rosa-sinensis, the native Hawaiian white and reds , and the endemic Fijian species H.storckii. These are H. schizopetalus of Southeast Africa and H. Liliiflorus from Mauritius and possibly H. denisonii, origin unknown.

Apparently the distribution of H. rosa-sinensis in the Pacific by the Polynesians did not reach either extremities of their migration, New Zealand on the south, and Hawaii on the north. While the Maoris of New Zealand, like the Hawaiians, have no written history, there is nothing in their orally descended history or mythology to indicate that H. rosa-sinensis reached either island group.

The double red hibiscus is not the only Asian native plant which is believed to have been carried into the Pacific during the Polynesian migrations, but its presence there was discussed freely by Eighteenth Century botanists because it was the only double flowering plant found in the Southern Hemisphere at that time, either native or introduced. Apparently the hibiscus had been the subject of a great deal of human selection, from either sports or chance seedlings, before it was taken into the Pacific. In fact, it was fifty years after the first double hibiscus was introduced in Europe that the single appeared in English greenhouses. By this time, the English had introduced from China and were growing crimson, yellow, buff and even white varieties of double hibiscus.

Of particular interest to me is H. storckii, found by Dr. Berthold Seemann on the Fijiian island of Taveuni, and is described by him as a low-growing shrub with a light pink flower in his Flora Vitiensis published in 1865. He named it for his assistant, Jacob Storck. As you know, one of the reasons why I am stopping off in Fiji is to try to locate this species, although I am informed that it has been lost to cultivation. It has the same chromosome count as the hibiscus species we are now using in our work at the Arboretum, and thus could be valuable to us.

It is rather strange that propagating material of H. storckii was not brought to England at the time of its discovery, for Dr. Seemann worked with Kew Gardens and was sending back material to Kew Herbarium. Furthermore, hibiscus was at the height of its popularity as a "stove plant" in England during this period and many new forms of -H. rosa-sinensis and other hibiscus species were offered by nurserymen.

[Later: After several years of study of the Mascarene species it is now -believed that like the Hawaiian reds, there are several forms closely allied to H. Lilliflorus, including H. fragilis, H. columnaris  and others yet unnamed. The writer has some of these in his greenhouse, under observation. - RG]

Another reported species which interests me is H. denisonii, which we now have, but have not was yet bloomed. It will cross with the specia with which we are working. Little is known of the origin of this one; it was brought to England by B.S. Williams, English nurseryman, about 1875, and offered by him as a pot plant because the very small plants produced "large creamy white flowers", and modern horticultural literature still refers to it as a white. It was apparently named for William Denison, Governor of New South Wales, at the time the first material was sent to Kew, and the same man who sponsored Dr. Seeman's stay in Fiji.

I saw and photographed H. denisonii at Kew a year ago and recorded it in my notes as being a "delicate pink" in color. The color photographs were taken in a poor light but they also show the flower to be pink. Both Paul Weissich and Dr.Y. Tachibana have H. denisonii, and they confirm the fact that it is pink in color, although turning to white late in the day. So I am beginning to wonder if H. denisonii and H. storckii could be one and the same. On this trip, I hope to be able to see the true H. cameronii, for as you know, there has been a horticultural scramble on this one for over a hundred years, in fact, almost since its introduction into England from Madagascar in 1837. I am now convinced that the H. cameronii as described in most modern horticultural .literature, is not the true H. cameronii, for as you know, there has been responsible for listing H. cameronii as one of the progenitors of the modern hibiscus hybrids in a lot of literature on the subject, including my own. What has been erroneously called H. cameronii is the pink known by many names, Puahi Bishop in Hawaii, and Versicolor in Southern California and Florida. It is very popular in Fiji and other Pacific Islands, and goes under many different names. Although certain reports from India indicate that H. cameronii has been crossed with H. rosa-sinensis, there is no proof that these crosses, too, were not with the pink referred to above. Dr.Y. Tachibana of the Osaka Botanic Garden reports that he has been unsuccessful in his efforts to cross the true H. cameronii with H. rosa-sinensis, but I want to see it and possibly secure seed, as it may be a candidate for the ancestral species for which we are seeking.

All has not been hibiscus here in spite of the fact that my letters might indicate this to be true. I have been spending of my time waist deep in the surf, photographing my grandson Roddy who, as you know, is on his second visit to Hawaii with us. He now comes in on the big waves, standing up on his board, and of course I must record this on film. Also, I sit on the beach a great deal, waiting for people to say: "Who is that little boy on a surfboard, coming in standing up on those great big waves?" Then I quickly answer "That's my grandson, Rodney. He's only eleven years old."

I go on to tell them just what a smart youngster he is in every way, so as I give them the full background on this remarkable lad. But I fail to understand why they seem so disinterested, particulary when I am just trying to answer their question.

As ever,

Honolulu, Hawaii October 24, 1963

Dear Joe:

I was reminded of my own early years in Hawaii yesterday when I visited the office of Paul Weissich, Director of Botanic Gardens here. There I renewed my acquaintance with Mrs. Colin Potter, Mr. Weissich's office manager. Mrs. Potter is the daughter of the late Allen Bush, for many years in charge of the grounds of the University of Hawaii, and one of the most avid pollen dusters of his day.

When I arrived in Honolulu in 1935 for a "tour of duty" in the University Agricultural Extension Service, about fifty per cent of the plantings on the -campus were hibiscus. I was attracted by the great variation in form and color of the blooms. While my own specialty was vegetables, I had already had a few years in the dahlia hobby and inclined toward floriculture. Each morning I looked for new colorings in the grounds plantings, and observed that many of them were covered with little white tags. These were Mr. Bush's markers, I learned, the record of his crosses. I began to follow him around the campus when he was doing his "dusting", and in a very short time, was "hooked". While it was not possible for me to go into the hobby on my own for a few years, my interest in hibiscus dates back to those walks and talks with Allen Bush.

The Kapiolani Hibiscus Garden here has been closed for several months because a large number of the plants were lost, largely from chlorosis. However, a thorough job of soil renovation has been done and the plantings beds have been raised to provide better drainage. According to Mr. Weissich, the Garden will be re-planted in a few weeks with plants provided by the members of the local hibiscus Society and the Botanic Garden nursery. In addition to a large display of modern hybrids, the garden will have its educational side, with all of the Hawaiian native hibiscus represented, as well as many of the "oldies" - first generation hybrids developed in the early days of hibiscus hybridizing in the Islands.

So as to have an authentic representation of the native Hawaiian species, Mr. Weissich has made several field trips to other islands during the past two years. On one of these he brought back a new form of H. arnottianus from Kauaii. It is now established in the Garden, a real beauty - pure white, a tre­mendous bloomer and one can small the fragrance almost from the moment one enters the Garden. I've sent cuttings of this to you, together with scion wood of a large number of other species and varieties. Also, I have asked Mr. Weissich to send you a ground plan for the Hibiscus Garden so that we can use this in laying out the proposed hibiscus garden at the South Coast Arobretum.

Other than Augie Miller, I have not visited any of the local breeders yet. It is my understanding that only the Millers, Nagao and Asato, are very active at this time, but, as I said, I have not been around very much.

My visit with the Millers was, as usual, a real inspiration. They are sticklers for form, color and, above all, petal substance. What is more, they recognize the importance of sound plant structure. In recent years both the Millers and Nagao have released varieties under which winter quite well with us. The Millers have some unreleased beauties as well as some fairly new ones which are not as yet known on the mainland.

Hawaii has been called the "melting pot of the races", and so it has been with hibiscus. However, I did not realize the extent to which the pioneers in this field had drawn on other parts of the world for hibiscus species and cultivars to use with their own native species until I turned up two articles on this subject in the Archives of Hawaii the other day, both published in the "Friend", an early Hawaiian magazine. One was written by Alonzo Gartley, and appeared in 1913. Gartley is credited with having produced Agnes Galt, perhaps the most widely grown hibiscus in Southern California today, and the other was authored by Gerrit Wilder and published in 1920. Wilder is known for the several cultivars named for various members of his family, some of them still grown in California and elsewhere.

These articles, with the Hawaiian Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin No. 29, "Ornamental Hibiscus in Hawaii", which was issued in 1913, give us a clear picture of hybridizing efforts in the islands during the period 1900-1925 when thousands of hybrids were produced and shown in Hawaii.

I am sending copies of the articles mentioned above, and perhaps we can have them published in the American Hibiscus Society quarterly "Seed Pod".

In this connection, folks here seem quite surprised when I ask for cuttings of some of the older forms rather than of the modern hybrids. They cannot understand why such varieties could be of interest to us, even when I explain that these "oldies" are to be used in our breeding program at the Arboretum, a program designed to develop hardier cultivars for Southern California conditions. Hardiness is something they cannot recognize as important, for theirs is the ideal climate for hibiscus and plant and root vigor are not a problem here. Yet, it seems that in spite of their advantages, the old introduced forms are most commonly seen in dooryard and park plantings; although they are referred to as "hedge hibiscus", they are the varieties which persist, even here. So I think that we are on the right track in collecting these forms for our work.

Unfortunately, anyone who wants to go back to first principles here in Hawaii finds it difficult to locate many of the fine old F 1 seedlings which were the result of the work of Giffard, Gartley, Holt, Wilder, and others. In fact, it is almost impossible to find many of the varieties developed by the late J.A. Johnson who died in 1947. I brought over a list given to me by Mr. Johnson in 1946 as being the varieties which he used as the basis of his own breeding program, but could not locate any of them. Undoubtedly they would be called "primitive varieties" by Hawaiian breeders today, but I have had them all at one time or another, and I am sure that many of them represented the foundation stock from which many of the exotic modern hybrids were developed.

It may be of interest to you that on this list was one called Hawaiiana. Mr. Johnson told me that it was a form of Hawaiian native white which he had collected in the Punuluu district of Oahu. It is very fragrant, as you know, and until a few years ago I believed that it was a native form. However, later classifications by Roe and Degener indicate that Hawaiiana is quite possibly a F 1 hybrid, with H. arnottianus as one parent. But this one was the "daddy" of Ross Estey, Roddy Boy, and many other varieties which we now use in our breeding program. I sent it down to Florida quite early in 1948, as I remember, and L.K. Thompson used it in producing that fine yellow named for the late great Florida plantsman, Jim Hendry.

   This trip to Hawaii has fully hardened my conviction that while Hawaiian hibiscus fanciers have led the world in the development of the flower as a novelty bloom and will undoubtedly continue to do so, our own efforts in Southern California must take a different direction. Because of our climatic conditions, we must go back to earlier forms and continue to develop strong plant and root qualities first, then gradually improve the bloom. Of course, those of us with greenhouses can bloom and enjoy the Hawaiians, and even develop a few exotics of our own. But for landscape planting we must have special types, "tailored" to our own conditions, hibiscus which will fit in every garden and respond to ordinary care. Only in this way can the beauty and satisfaction of our hobby flower be enjoyed by everyone, thus giving our work any degree of horticultural significance.

We leave here for Fiji on October 27; we will put our grandson on a plane for Los Angeles before we take off for Suva. As I told you in my last letter, the self-styled "King of the Junior Surfers" spends most of his daylight hours with his beachboy pal, Mene, out where the high ones break. Both of us will leave here with regret, but for different reasons.

As ever,

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