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Hibiscus Around the World

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

Part 3

La Mesa, California
April 1, 1980

Dear Reader:

The Third Hibiscus Discovery Expedition left Los Angeles early in October, 1967. The principal objective was to visit Reunion Island (Isle of Bourbon in early horticultural writings), one of the Mascarene group, about 90 miles south of Mauritius. Our base, however, was Mauritius.

We had not expected to make another visit to the South Indian Ocean, but early in 1967 we received a letter from Dr. Vaughn, of whom we had much to say in our letters written during the second "Expedition." He wrote that he was arranging a visit to Reunion for Sir Colville Barclay, an amateur British botanist and his lady. The visit would be under the auspices of the Reunion Department of Agriculture personnel, who would furnish transportation and advice.

Reunion is French, and the reason we hesitated to visit there on our first trip to the Mascarenes was our inability to speek French. Dr. Vaughn had written that Sir Colville was fluent in that language, so we accepted his offer.

So that we would have some time in England before proceeding to South Africa by sea, we left well before the date set for the Reunion trip. I wanted to read all references available at the Royal Horticultural Society Library and the Library of the British Museum of Natural History.

The following letters, written on the third "expedition", close my report on the search for species and old forms of hibiscus known to be the progenitors of modern ornamental hybrid hibiscus. Specifically, the true species were H. storckii, reportedly a native to Fiji, and the Mascarene species, H. liliflorus and H. fragilis.

We were successful in finding H.liliflorus, but later research indicates that the plants (or trees) which we found in Pampelmousses Botanic Garden on the island of Mauritius was not H. fragilis, but H. columnaris. As reported in a footnote to our letter from London, South Africa, one of the plants found in the public park at Port Elizabeth in 1967 has proved to be H. fragilis, Cav. Apparently it had been brought to the Garden by an early collector of Mascarene flora.

Some work is still being done on the Mascarene flora by a staff member of Kew Garden, London. This study, together with my own work here in La Mesa and at the Waimea Arboretum in Hawaii, seem to indicate that like the Hawaiian. H. kokio, the native red hibiscus, these seem to be several forms of Mascarene hibiscus closely related to H. liliflorus. However, these studies have not as yet been published.

As for H. storckii, during the intervening years since the "expeditions", I have searched early botanic literature on the Pacific area quite diligently but so far the only conclusion I have reached is that H. storckii and H. denisonii are one and the same. There is ample circumstantial evidence of this. However, one does not take genetic decisions based on circumstantial evidence.

The Gast-Staniford-LASCA project officially closed in 1966. I continued certain research in my greenhouse. Later, this work continued both in my greenhouse and at Waimea Arboretum when I accepted the responsibility as Research Associate. This has centered on further research on the identification of H. storckii, also the study of certain old forms which we believe may be true species.

Now that Joe Staniford has promised to carry on this work at Waimea during the several months each year that he resides in Hawaii, we should be able to announce some interesting results in the next few years.

Hibiscusly yours,
Ross H. Gast


Los Angeles, California
October 5, 1967

Dear Joe:

I have completed our travel arrangements for our visit to Reunion Island. As usual, we are signed up with American Express, at least as far as Mauritius.

We will fly to England on October 10 and have reservations at the St. James Court Hotel, Buckingham Gate, London, S.W.

According to our schedule, we will sail from England on the S. S. "Orangi", one of the Union Castle Lines' smaller ships. It is one class, so we will find it more suitable to our way of life.

After 17 days at sea, with a one-day stop in the Canary Islands, we will de­embark at Durban, South Africa. From there we will fly to Johannesburg and from there to Mauritius. We have reservations at the Le Challand, which is perhaps, the best place to write us.

As ever,


Part Three

October 19, 1967
December 16, 1967
England, South Africa, Mauritius Reunion Island


London, England
Thursday October 19, 1967

Dear Joe:

We've just about completed everything we planned to do here, and are getting ready to shove off for South Africa tomorrow. I did plan to go out to Kew today, but it is raining, and I don't really have anything to do out there.

Fortunately, I found a work on the Flora of Reunion at the British Museum of Natural History, and this gave me the collection sites where Bory St. Vicent found both H. boryanus and H. fragilis. This was writted by a Frenchman by the name of de Cordemoy. It was in French, but with the assistance of a librarian, I took a copy of the pertinent information on hibiscus species. However, I found little new on either species at the British Museum of Natural History or the Royal Society Library.

I read Cavanilles again at the latter library, and found that according to this early botanist the other hibiscus pictured in the plate with H. liliflorus is H. lampos, collected in the Phillipines. The text is in French, but as I read it, it is a yellow form of H. rosa-sinensis. I have not seen any reference to H. lampas. To me the Cavanilles plate called H. lampas looks exactly like H. fragilis.

Also read the "Garden" reference on H. cameronii. The plate shows a Versicolor and the text, while calling the form H. cameronii, admits that it is probably erroneously captioned.

I hope you have plans for getting together the old forms which we do not have. Do you still have Walsh? I think there is a plant at Lux (separately located station of the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum). We should try to self this one; I still don't know where the yellows came from.

I checked the Reeves' prints at the British Museum of Natural History Library, and as I expected, most of them were either H. syriacus or Pavonia. There were six H. rosa-sinensis all doubles. Four of them were double orange - not duplicated, but all slightly different in form, and all but one of them without the red eye zone. One was undoubtedly what we call Lambertii, and another was yellow with red eye, on a long stem, almost a duplicate for that yellow with a red eye of mine!

As ever,


New London, South Africa
November 5, 1967

Dear Joe:

We've docked here for a few hours to unload passengers and cargo, the will take off for Durban, arriving tomorrow morning. We've had a rather uneventful trip so far. However, we have enjoyed the voyage - we have a very comfortable cabin and the food is excellent. As for our fellow passengers, well, you know we English are not very social, and besides we enjoy our own company - even after 44 years of marriage.

Hibiscuswise, I saw nothing important until yesterday, at Port Elizabeth, where we spent two days. On the morning of the first day we took a bus tour around the city, and at one park I saw several very old hibiscus plants, one of them a yellow. As yellows are not common in this part of the world, I tried to check it out. But the driver did not give enough time.

So yesterday, Saturday I hired a car and went back. I also took with me the name and address of the Superintendent of Parks, Leslie Prosser, whose name I had in my book, although I had forgotten who gave me the reference.

At this park, I found four old ones, including the yellow - an orange pink with dark eye, and a red, which is no doubt H. liliflorus, although the red was deeper than the liliflorus I picked up in Mauritius. All were lily flowered (vase­like) and had foliage much like liliflorus. The red and the pink had shallow­cut involucre bracts, but the orange and the yellow had deep cut involucre bracts.

It is the pink single which interests me. The leaves are exactly like those shown in the drawings illustrating H. genevii. The pink is a little lighter than Agnes Galt, the eye zone dark red. It could be that I was a bit premature in calling that plant I found at Telfair Garden true genevii - this pink may be the real one.

I took cuttings, and am mailing them tomorrow for Durban, as the Post Office was closed (Saturday afternoon) before I had the material packaged. I'm also sending some wood to Egolt, although only a very small piece of the pink - I should have cut more.

I also took herbarium material and photographs of all four.

In addition, I included a stick of Peachblow, and another of Subviolaceous as they are grown here.

I did not get to see Prosser, as the Park offices were closed. However, I saw one of his men. He said there was no interest in hybrid hibiscus in this area.

As ever,


[Later: By 1971 we had bloomed plants from cuttings of the orange-colored plant found at Port Elizabeth, and found that it resembled the H. fragilis which we collected at Pampelmousses. Futher work with the plant proved it to be a true species. After discussions with authorities on Mascarene flora it was decided that the Pampelmousess plants (or rather trees) were H. columnaris and the Port Elizabeth plant was H, fragilis.]


November 12, 1967

Dear Joe:

This is Sunday, and our beach has been taken over by people who live in the interior of the island - just as we go down to Balboa, Laguna, etc. And just the day before yesterday we saw the last American Air Force Reserve Squad - they were here in case the Saturn dropped. Rather a coincidence that two years ago, we were here when Gemini was up. Good thing we did not meet the same officers, or we might be up for espionage!

We have not been too active since our arrival on Wednesday. Yesterday I got off a package of wood. This included:
1. Orange single with red-rayed eye. This was sort of an orange Versicolor.
2. Orange single with mother-or-pearl center. I think this is an old Hawaiian, probably Johnson's Glorious #1 or Rainbow.
3. Single Peachblow Durban. This is the only plant of this I have ever seen. It is the same light pink as Peachblow, with dark eye zone. Foliage same as Peachblow.
4. Red Versicolor, Le Challand. I'm not sure that I got this one in 1965. It has a large rayed eye, and is a vivid scarlet. Seeds.

On Thursday, we did not leave the hotel, but on Tuesday, drove up to Curepipe Garden, and found that one of the two trees there had died. Very few blooms on the other. We then went to the Archives in Port Louis, and registered for research, which I may do on my return from Reunion. We also had lunch with the Vaughns, then went to his herbarium, where I saw specimens of H. liliflorus and H. genevii; the former was represented on several sheets, some of them recent collections. Most of them looked like the Curepipe trees. The genevii was much like the one I found fat Port Elizabeth.

Yesterday, we drove up to Telfair Park to check the plant of which I brought back as genevii. Vaughn said he had collected this, in fact, he had two sheets in his herbarium with this statement, H. genevii, collected at Telfair Park, against old prison wall. Identified by Ross H. Gast, Los Angeles State and County Arboretum" So now I'm an authority on Mauritius species! The trouble is, he picked the wrong plant - the one I felt was genevii was on the other side of the park from the prison wall. The "prison" by the way, has not been occupied since 1850.

Today we go to Vaughns for cocktails, and to meet the man with who we travel to Reunion. Also some local people. I hope the guy is right-one thing in his favor - and in our favor, is that he speaks French - a necessity, we're told, on Reunion.

Will report soon.

As ever,


By the way, I think that you should address all mail after receipt of this c/o American Express, Johannesburg.


St. Denis, Reunion Island
November 18, 1967

Dear Joe:

We are back in St. Denis, after three days in the mountains, looking for the elusive H. boryanus. We did not find this species or any other hibiscus, but we did find a lot of grief.

We stayed at a house which was once a hotel, at the 5000-foot level at Plain de Cafrie, which is fairly close to the collection site give by both Bury St. Vincent and de Cordemoy for H. boryanus.

Reservations had been made by Dr. Vaughn. Apparently he had stayed there several years ago, when the house was being operated as a hotel. When Dr. Vaughn contacted them, they did not advise him that it was no longer a hotel - apparently the prospect of making a few francs by taking in four guest was too great a temptation to resist.

The Auberce de Volcan, as the place was called, consisted of five rooms about 8 x 10 in size. They had all been occupied by members of the family, and two of them had been vacated to take us in. The beds looked like they had been brought in by the French when they took.over Reunion in 1710. Further­more, the linens had not been changed. There was a wash basin with no hot water and a bidet, one of their French bathroom contraptions of questionable use to a 70-year old couple. The toilette was down a dark hall, and there was no bath in the hotel.

We are traveling with Sir Colville Barclay, a baronet and member of a very old English family. His great grandfather had been Governor of Mauritius at one time, and the family still has extensive sugar interest there. He is about 45 years of age, and his wife is somewhat younger. Both try to be nice, but it is apparent that they are not too happy to be in the company of us commoners, and Americans at that.

The proprietor assigned us to our room first, and we apparently had been given the best bed. When the Barclays were assigned their room, Lady Barclay was not pleased and insisted on seeing all of the rooms. When she saw that we had a better room, she demanded that it be given to her and Sir Colville. Rather than quarreling, we gave it to them.

However, it was the food that was the last straw that broke the camel's back. We were served "steak" for lunch, however, it was not until Sir Colville went into the kitchen for some reason that he found that we had been served OLD DOBBIN - horsemeat - and that it was the usual fare here. When Lady Barclay heard this, she threw a tizzy and had to be put to bed.

Sir Colville then had a driver take him to another village a few miles away, where he found quarters for all of us. It was not much better.

We did have one day in the "wilds" there, however. I hired a car and driver and had him drive me up to the Grand Tampon Road as far as possible, then we hiked in some distance until we were blocked by steep ravines. Unfortunately they had had some devastating fires several years back, and the slopes were reforested with black acacia, which has taken over and crowded out older trees and shrubs. The level lands have been planted to sugar cane.

I did not find any hibiscus of any kind, but did see a small white Malva that I could not identify. Barclay, being younger than I am, was able to take a more difficult terrain than we could. Also, he visited an area several miles from Grand Tampon. He said that he did not see any Malvaceae whatsoever.

Because of the hotel accommodations, and the fact that the weather was cold, with dense fog rolling in the early afternoon, we decided to hire a car and driver to take us back to St. Denis.

We spent this morning visiting the local park and looking over the fences of the residences as we walked up to and back from the park. We saw very few hibiscus. Among these were the ubiquitous Versicolor and a H. flora plena rubra, also some H. schizopetalus hybrids.

We also visited the local "Botanic Garden", a very poor excuse for one. We saw every tree and shrub, but nary a hibiscus.

As usual, the Mauritius officials failed us again. In 1965 they allowed us to go to Madagascar and return to Mauritius without a valid visa, and no one advised us that we would have to have one to get back there this time. So I contacted the British Consul - a Frenchman, who operates an importing business. He could not possibly do anything for us for several days, as he was too busy. I protested, stating that we had to fly out the next afternoon or stay over another week. He said that he would try to help us, but it was plain that he had his hand out, and if I had offered him some francs he would have our visas ready in an hour, but I was determined not to pay off.

A few hours later I called at his office again, but he was not in. I told my troubles to his clerk, and after a wait of less than a half-hour, he handed me our visas! Just as I was going out of the door, the Consul came in. I showed him the visas and thanked him for his help. I'll bet that clerk was given a bad time.


Just as I was about to close this letter, Sir Colville came into the hotel. He had remained in the "wilds" a day longer than we did, and had, with the help of a Department of Agriculture official, checked another site. He was quite excited, for he had found a hibiscus which he was sure was H. boryanus. He took a lot of wood, and as the tree was in bloom and seeding, he also secured a good supply of the latter. His wood also included some leafy branches, and I took the lot up to the roof and photographed them.

But if they were H. boryanus. the H. boryanus is synonomous with H. liliflorus, for Barclay's plant was unmistakably the latter. I will mail both seed and wood to you from Mauritius.

As ever,


November 24, 1967

Dear Joe:

I had an unusual dream last night and as it was hibiscus-related I must tell you about it.

I was standing in line at the Pearly Gates, waiting my turn to be judged by St. Peter. When I came before him, he asked what I had done during my life on earth.

"I was a 'hibiscusizer'," I replied.

"A'hibiscusizer'?" Pete said, "What is that?"

"I crossed various species and forms of Hibiscus", I told him.

"We don't allow that in Heaven", he said sharply. "Here it is considered forcible rape, and therefore an affront to God."

"Then Heaven must be a wasteland inhabited by deprived people", I said.

Pete pulled a lever, and I dropped through a trap door. Much to my surprise I landed in a beautiful hibiscus garden. There were blooms of every color perfectly formed, ruffled singles, peony flowered doubles, and cup and saucers. All were 12 or more inches in diameter.

"This is Heaven," I said to myself. "Pete must have pulled the wrong lever."

In no time I had my knife out to make cuttings to Air Mail to you. However, the wood was as hard as wrought iron and ruined the edge of the blade. Even the small wood that ordinarily would cut easily was like steel wire.

I then noticed that the plants were full of large, fat seed pods. However, on examining them I found that they were all "foolers" no seed whatsoever.

"This is Hell", I said. "Pete did get the right lever."

I woke up, determined to write to you of my experience, not only because, as I said, it is hibiscus-related, but to warn you to watch your P's and Q's and go to church Sunday, not to the Arboretum assisting in forcible rape of virgin hibiscus.

As ever,


December 2, 1967

Dear Joe:

We really enjoyed our week-long visit to Rhodesia. In addition to a few days in Salisbury, we flew to a game park for one night, then on to Victoria Falls where we stayed two days.

On our arrival in Salisbury, Ella called a Yorkshire Terrier owner to whom she had been referred by another "doggie lady" in Durban. The lady had been advised that we might call, so she was all set for us, and during our three days in Salisbury, we had one long round of cocktail parties - they call them "Sundowners" here - dinner and parties. Apparently "Yorkshire Terrier" is a far more potent word than "hibiscus" here in Rhodesia.

Salisbury is a beautiful city, clean wide streets and landscape parking. Although it is 5000 feet in elevation, the climate is more subtropical than ours. Poincianas bloom beautifully, and no place that I have ever visited - not even in Hawaii - have I seen such beautiful fragipani.

In spite of Ella's new-found friends, I did have my "innings". Ronald Jones, Superintendant of Parks, called me and took me through the city and to some parks. He has made excellent use of standards along the streets, just as they have in Nairobi. The only difference is that he is using about 20 hybrids given the City by the late Major Phillips, who did some hybridizing here many years ago. None of them were really worth shipping - we discarded better ones occurring on our project.

Jones "taped" me for his weekly broadcast on Sunday morning, but unfortunately I won't be here.

I don't seem to get much of a kick out of game parks, and I have developed a real dislike of elephants. The reason is that on the way up to Victoria Falls, and return, we landed at several small airports. At least half a dozen times an elephant ran out on the runway, just as we were landing or taking off.

However, Victoria Falls was breath-taking. We walked the entire length of it, along the bank of the Zambesi River, and saw it in all of its grandeur and immensity.

As you probably know, this Zambesi River is the boundary between Rhodesia and Zambia, once called North Rhodesia, but now a separate country under black rule. A 200-yard railroad bridge, as well as a bridge just wide enough for one car crosses the Zambesi River to the hotel. Every day the Chinese advisors, that the Zambia rulers asked to assist them, cross the bridge for their noon meal at the hotel. They seem strangely out of place.

As you know, Rhodesia declared its independence from Great Britain last year, but seems to be doing quite well in spite of the sanctions against her. I predict that the sanctions will actually result in making this little country self­sufficient. They are sure working at it - I found that out when at a cocktail party, I asked for Scotch whiskey. Our host politely advised me that Scotch or any other English liquor is taboo in Rhodesia. I had to settle for South African brandy, which was not all bad.

I will probably not write you any more, because we will be at sea, or in the air most of the time. Furthermore, we will be out of hibiscus country. We expect to be home for Christmas.

As ever,


December 16, 1967

Dear Joe:

You will be surprised to note the dateline on this letter. As you know, we were booked to fly direct to London by B.O.A.C. from Johannesburg. There is a strike on B.O.A.C. and all other lines are booked up - so many people are going back to England for Christmas Holidays. All of this hassle took three or four days. In desperation, I finally checked the steamship lines, and found that the S.S. Vaal sailed from Durban on the 9th. It was too late to get a plane to Durban in time to board there, so we took a booking to board her at Capetown, but we had to be there by the 12th. When I checked the planes to Capetown, I found that I could not get a booking. I then tried to get a berth on the fast over-night train to Capetown. However, no berths were available, so I booked on the so-called Milk Train, which takes several hours longer, making many stops along the way.

We made it in time to board the Vaal, but our troubles were not ended. Two days out of Capetown, and well up the west coast of Africa, the ship had engine trouble and we had to turn back to Capetown for repairs. So that's why this letter bears such a late date.

The steamship company provided tours around the Cape area free of charge, but we always came back to the ship for meals. As we have seen almost all of the interesting spots in this area, it has been a boring two days.

We won't make it home for Christmas now - just when, depends on plane reservations from London to Los Angeles. If you write, address the letter c/o American Express, Haymarket Street, London. We will arrive in London on December 26, according to a notice on the ship's bulletin board, but I can't be sure of this. We want to stay at the St. James Court Hotel, but I have not cabled for reservations.

As ever,

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