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Clivia Obsession

Articles: Clivia Obsession
A small portion of the stud collection of Clivia miniata at Joe Solomone’s growing range in Watsonville, CA. Photographs by James Comstock
A small portion of the stud collection of Clivia miniata at Joe Solomone’s growing range in Watsonville, CA. Photographs by James Comstock

The horticultural history of any group of plants is really the story of a set of people who became interested in the plant and then proceeded to develop it. Why some plants are selected and worked with while others are neglected is not clear. Flower growing is a mixture of art and science, and the reason why some people prefer one flower over another is as much a mystery as why others prefer the impressionist style to abstract art. Clivias are impressive flowers, sometimes even overwhelming. The question is perhaps not why are some people smitten with the plants, but rather, why are others not?

Clivias have several unusual features, besides their ease of growth and longevity, that make them a good hobbyist’s plant. The plants are now of a manageable size—although there are some giant forms—but many modern clivias are small enough to be accommodated in reasonably sized containers. They can fit on a wide windowsill or grace the steps at the front door. They make big seeds that are easy to count and handle, and growing them is almost as easy as planting beans. In fact, making and growing clivia seeds is a great project for a small child. The earlier rarity and cost of yellow clivias gave them a reputation as something special horticulturally in that they were not only exotic but also highly desirable. Mass seed production has now made yellows accessible to all, and this has helped boost clivia’s popularity. The formation of the Clivia Club in South Africa in 1992, and the two international shows and conventions held there in 1994 and 1998 helped promote this new hobby to an international level. The recent formation of an e-mail list of clivia enthusiasts helped strengthen the worldwide interest in this group of plants, and within a very few months, hundreds of enthusiasts were exchanging information and asking questions over the internet.

Clivia miniata ‘Gold Star’, one of the yellow, narrow-tepaled “spider” flowers, selected by the author from Joe Solomone’s nursery
Clivia miniata ‘Gold Star’, one of the yellow, narrow-tepaled “spider” flowers, selected by the author from Joe Solomone’s nursery

Early Days in California

Tracing back the origins of clivias in California is difficult. It is a common landscaping plant, and few seem to remember its origins. Many of the yellow forms appear to have been mutations that appeared “spontaneously.” It is not clear if the genes for yellow had been mixed in Europe or if they were new mutations that appeared in California, where most of the plants were seed grown and not divisions. One person who had a great influence on the California flowers was EP Zimmerman. He had emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1907, and twenty years later when he was forty years old he settled in the Carlsbad area, a wonderful, frost-free, mild flower growing area in Southern California. He must have brought his plants or seed—-perhaps both—-with him from Germany. William Drysdale reported that Zimmerman was “. . . proud to say that three generations of his family had worked for 75 years on clivia.” His grandfather must have been among the first Europeans to get involved with clivias. There is no information on where the clivias were during the twenty years between 1907 and 1927, when Zimmerman finally settled in California. Were they still in Germany, or had they accompanied the family as prized possessions during the family’s sojourn in the New World?

Clivias grow very well in Carlsbad, and Zimmerman had five thousand pots growing under lath. He wanted to grow the plants for the cut flower market, but whether he succeeded in doing that is not known. Drysdale does record, however, that five hundred umbels were entered in the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939, and Zimmerman earned a gold medal for the display. He produced seed and plants for sale, and he listed thirty-eight types of flowers in six different colors. His plants were known as the Zimmerman strain, but of course they were not a strain in the strict sense of the word because of their variability. Current California breeders must all, at least in part, trace their clivia plants back to Zimmerman. In 1943, Jimmy Giridlian wrote in the Oakhurst Gardens catalog: “These [Zimmerman clivias] are the best hybrids in the world, showing great improvement in size and shape of the flowers, and the range of colors is truly marvelous, ranging from creamy yellow through all the shades of orange to deep red.” He was still offering plants of that strain in 1968, twenty-five years later. It is likely that this “strain” also contributed to modern European clivias since Drysdale reports that at least ten thousand seeds were sent to Denmark and Germany. (It was not clear if that represents totals or merely one year’s harvest.) Certainly by today’s production levels in Europe that number seems small, but the market was very different then, and those seeds may have had a profound influence on the germ plasm that underlies today’s market.

Horace Anderson was another important horticulturist. He was born in 1908 and initially not at all interested in plants. The story has it that he was a milkman and that the home of the Chancellor of the University of Southern California was part of his delivery route. There, in the Chancellor’s garden, he saw some philodendrons used in the landscaping and immediately became fascinated with them. This led to a general curiosity about plants. Anderson met his future wife, Mary, fell in love, and married. They set up a nursery and flower shop in or near Santa Monica, close to Los Angeles. Mary was well versed in horticulture and flowers, and Anderson took charge of plant propagation. At the beginning he could not tell a perennial from a tree, but soon he started to acquire a great deal of knowledge and experience. He became interested in subtropicals, including palms and clivias, and when he discovered how to hybridize and breed plants, it turned into a life-long obsession. In 1954 they bought a piece of land in Leucadia, where he had enough space to pursue his passion. Zimmerman lived nearby in Carlsbad, and Anderson must have known of that nursery with its thousands of clivia plants.

Another grower in Carlsbad at that time, Ed Hummel, was also growing and breeding clivias (he grew other plants for which he was to become more famous), and Hummel gave Anderson a division of what was then called Clivia miniata ‘Aurea’ that had a smallish yellow flower. As with all the early yellow clivias, it is impossible to decide if C. miniata ‘Aurea’ was a clone or merely an epithet applied to any yellow flower. Anderson crossed the yellow to an orange-flowered plant and bred with them for several generations, retrieving the yellow color, but with vastly improved forms. He was repeating the paradigm that had been used at Kew to improve the yellows. Anderson also achieved a wide range of other color varieties and forms, among them picotee flowers, doubles, flowers said to be close to white, and even one reputedly mauve flower. After Anderson died, Mary remarried one of his friends, Ron Chamberlain, who also breeds clivias. The nursery passed to Anderson’s son and it still produces clivias for sale. Plants from the Anderson palette grace many gardens and collections in California, and they were probably the source of the yellow plants that formed the foundation of the current established clivia breeders, David Conway and Joe Solomone.

Clivia miniata ‘Lemon Cloud’, a fine mid-yellow selection produced by Jim Comstock
Clivia miniata ‘Lemon Cloud’, a fine mid-yellow selection produced by Jim Comstock

Current Californian Breeders

Without a doubt Joe Solomone is the clivia king of North America. He has the best selection of yellow clivias of any I have seen around the world. Solomone is a nurseryman in Central California who originally specialized in growing color perennials for the wholesale nursery market. He was able to keep his eyes open for unusual plants that had possibilities for the nursery trade, and sometime in the early 1960s he found a seedling in a local nursery in southern California with a very pale yellow flower. The stem had not elongated and the flowers were hidden between the leaves. Realizing the potential of this plant, Solomone purchased it. He selfed the plant and crossed it onto a standard orange clivia specimen. When the seedlings flowered, he backcrossed all of them to the yellow plant. He flowered a number of plants with yellow coloring in the next generation, and from then started to build up his numbers of yellow plants. It was not until the mid-1990s that he decided to emphasize the yellows. Maricela de la Torre has worked with Joe and the clivias for over twenty years, and she now does most of the selection and hybridizing. Plants are grown in one-gallon pots and then transferred to two-gallon pots when large enough. Solomone uses a compost of sixty to seventy percent redwood sawdust mixed with a sandy loam, and the plants are either watered with drip irrigation or by hand.

Solomone currently has about three acres of greenhouse growing space, of which 1 1/2 acres carries clivias, and he plans to expand the numbers of clivias to fill the entire space. Over 90 percent of the clivias grown there are yellow, and the rest are oranges and variegated forms. The variegated forms appeared spontaneously and have been selected out and maintained. Solomone has brought in relatively little new genetic material and he continues to utilize the genes derived from his original stock. He estimates that he now plants 100,000 seeds per year, which allows him to explore the genetic potential of his founding plants. An amazing amount of variation continues to be expressed, and Solomone has found a wide range of shapes from spiders to crinum-like bells. Size of individual blooms can approach four inches in natural spread or less than 1 1/2 inches. A few dwarf yellows have emerged, as have some giant plants with wide leaves. Solomone has strongly variegated yellow clivias as well as variegates with standard orange flowers, but it is his variegated leaf yellows that are among the treasures of the plant world.

At first Solomone scheduled most of his yellow plants for the Japanese market, but during the last few years he has found a steady demand for his plants in the United States, especially in California. Spring is the season with highest demand. Most plants are coming into bud in spring, and they are easier to truck long distances before the umbel elongates and expands. Plants that are in flower go to local markets. Solomone’s son-in-law markets the plants through Monterey Bay Nurseries, and they are known throughout the United States as Solomone Yellows.

David Conway is unique. His nursery sells divisions of named clivia cultivars, most of which he bred himself. There is probably no other nursery in the world with as large an offering of named varieties. Conway started collecting clivias in 1962 when he lived in central California. At that time he was a landscape architect and bought some clivias for a job—-broad leaf orange reds, perhaps more red than orange. He visited a wholesale nursery in Carpinteria, just south of Santa Barbara, where he was impressed by the considerable variation between the flowers. Ted Kalil, another grower of clivias in that area, came across some clivias that had been bred by Mr Webber of the Botanic Gardens (now called the Mildred E Mathias Botanical Garden) of the University of California at Los Angeles and that had ended up in the landscape of a parking garage in the Santa Barbara area. Several of the plants had yellow flowers. He brought them to the attention of Conway, who was able to beg pieces of the plants, and he grew on the divisions. Eventually Conway named some of these ‘Whipped Cream’, ‘Lemon Chiffon’, and ‘Supernova’. Sometime in either 1987 or 1988, Conway mixed up a batch of pollen from many different clivias, and taking a shotgun approach, he pollinated all the clivias in bloom in his garden. He harvested about one thousand seeds and grew up the seedlings, many of which flowered in 1993. From these he selected many of his named cultivars, and all his own clivias are named for women from his family. Clivias in his listing that do not have female names were obtained from other sources.

Other clivia enthusiasts also benefited from Webber’s work. Both Dr Glynne Couvillion and Roger Bodaert were able to get pieces of these plants from that same parking garage for their collections. Bodaert started a yellow strain of clivia that he named California Sunshine.

Clivia miniata ‘Morning Light’, from Jim Comstock, is one of the top selections in the peach to apricot range now being explored by hybridizers
Clivia miniata ‘Morning Light’, from Jim Comstock, is one of the top selections in the peach to apricot range now being explored by hybridizers

A Younger Generation

Among the younger generation of breeders is Randy Baldwin of San Marcos Growers, a large wholesale ornamental plant nursery in Santa Barbara. Randy obtained several yellow clivia plants from other growers in California and started to produce his own seed strain of yellow clivias. He obtained a plant of Clivia ‘Lemon Chiffon’ from Conway, another from Couvillion, and two Solomone Yellows. Some of his stock is also derived from Webber’s. At first Baldwin found that some of the crosses yielded a percentage of orange-flowered types. In the second generation there were only sixty percent yellows, but by the next generation, 99.9 percent of the seeds yielded yellow flowers. It took only three generations of breeding and selection to produce a strain that is virtually true breeding, with only the very rare appearance of an orange-flowered plant.

Jim Comstock is a landscape contractor by profession and a contemporary of Randy Baldwin. Comstock, a modest man who has created an exceptional array of the highest quality plants, remembers being moved by the sight of a blooming clivia plant when he was ten years old. He was always interested in plants and grew anything he could lay his hands on. His grandmother, a great gardener herself, encouraged this interest. Comstock has grown clivias of some sort since he was a child, and in 1986 he made his first hybrids. At that time he did not know any other clivia people and was unaware that there might be breeders working in this field. He found some unusual clivias and realized that producing new kinds of flowers was an exciting avenue to follow, particularly since it was relatively easy to manipulate the plants and grow seedlings.

Comstock’s first seedlings flowered in 1992, and he was surprised at their variation and quality. A few of these plants later proved to be very good parents themselves. Before the first seedlings had flowered, however, he had already accumulated better and superior parents and was making seedlings with greater potential. As much as Comstock thought he could predict the results of a cross, he was surprised by the variety he got from any particular mating. This both delighted and exasperated him, but he was sufficiently encouraged to do crosses between very disparate parents to increase the chances of getting unusual genetic combinations. He worked out on his own how to breed yellows and select potential yellow seedlings from their green leaf bases. Only when he had to annex the backyards of several of his friends did Comstock realize that his obsession was out of control. (He admits being in denial for several years before that.) Today Comstock grows about one thousand flowering-sized clivias and about four thousand seedlings. He makes about 380 crosses a year, and while not all are successful, he harvests approximately fifteen hundred seeds a year. Where they are all to grow up and flower has become a slight problem, but one that is not unusual for someone who is truly obsessed.

I have seen the results of many hybridizing programs around the world and have had the good fortune to examine Comstock’s plants for several seasons. He has created and produced some of the most stunning hybrids that I have seen, and I would rank him near the top of the world’s hybridizers. He maintains an extensive frozen pollen bank that gives him special freedom in choosing parents. Comstock keeps good records that he can study to learn about the specific qualities of the various parents when their offspring flower. Unlike many other growers, he sets out specific hybridizing goals for himself. At the same time he exhorts hyrbridizers not to be hampered by rigid goals but to keep an open mind and recognize the potential of unusual plants. The commercial producers did have specific goals, and the Belgian hybrids have been selected for those specific characteristics. Backyard enthusiasts, by contrast, often slap two parents together to see what might happen. Extending the spectrum of colors and patterns seems an obvious goal, but being able to pick out what might be muddy color to some and breed with it to enhance that characteristic to make brick- or terracotta-colored flowers takes both talent and courage. Be warned, however, that when you see hints of purple in a plant and tell others that you want to create a purple clivia specimen, you will encounter knowing nods and some may exchange grins behind your back—-until your goal is achieved. Of course you will then be acclaimed a genius instead of a fool.

Only a few people have been singled out here for attention. No doubt there are many others whose lives have become enmeshed with this group of plants, and we expect that as more people get to know clivias, they too will become ensnared.

Excerpted and adapted from Clivias, by Harold Koopowitz, published by Timber Press in October 2002. This exceptional book offers a thorough discussion of the history, ecology, garden use, hybridization and selection, and future of the genus Clivia. Jim Comstock provided the majority of superb photographs that grace the pages of the book. It should serve as a model of how to write a complete book about a single genus of plants, as well as provide a wealth of information for the clivia enthusiast.

Readers may also wish to reread Stalking the Yellow Clivia, by John R Dunmire, which appeared in Pacific Horticulture, Summer ’93, which introduced the story of the yellow clivia, included cultural information, and provided a source list for clivias; most of the nurseries mentioned are still in business.




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