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Grandfather's Garden : Delphiniums Were His Pride, and It Seems That I've Inherited His Passion

October 27, 1985|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is associate editor, gardening, of this magazine

My grandfather might not have been impressed, but he certainly would have been pleased to see my delphiniums. His delphiniums, like his rhododendrons, tuberous begonias and fuchsias, were of the kind that you could proudly pose beside. In the fading Kodachromes, the rhododendron trusses are as large as his hatted head, the tuberous begonias not much smaller. And the delphiniums? They tower above like New England church steeples, but brilliantly colored, as though painted by Portuguese fishermen.

My grandfather was a close friend of Frank Reinelt, the creator of modern delphiniums. Both were schooled in horticulture in Czechoslovakia, in the European tradition, and both apprenticed in the gardens of queens--in Reinelt's case Queen Marie of Romania. Lured by the legend of Luther Burbank, Reinelt and my grandfather came to California in the early 1900s. My grandfather designed landscapes for the Spreckels and other wealthy San Francisco families, and Reinelt designed flowers by hybridizing and selecting, creating the first dinner-plate tuberous begonias, the Pacific strain of primroses and the Pacific strain of delphiniums--all of which are still the standard of perfection.

These delphiniums were the first to rival the developments of the great European hybridizers, primarily because there were so many blues--brilliant blues, sky blues, robin's-egg blues, blues as dark and clear as sapphires. Many had a contrasting "bee" at their center, either as black as a carpenter bee (which it neatly conceals, to my occasional surprise) or pure white. There was nothing purplish about these flowers. They were blue.

Brian Langdon, a grandson of the great delphinium hybridizers and nurserymen Blackmore and Langdon, said of the Pacific strain that they were popular "on account of the high proportion of brilliant blues . . . though the vigor and perenniality of some of the plants left something to be desired."

The Pacific series, sometimes called Pacific Giants, is a "strain," and although the concept of a seed strain is a little confusing, it distinguishes how we in California grow delphiniums from how they are grown in Europe and on our own East Coast. There, delphiniums are almost permanent plants. Named kinds are propagated from divisions and persist in the garden for years, becoming ever larger clumps until they must be divided and then replanted. In California, Reinelt discovered, delphiniums don't persist, even though they are perennial plants. So he developed strains that could be grown almost like annuals--sow the seed, move the young plants into the garden and they bloom. When they're finished, pull them out and start over again. A strain is born after much crossing, when the progeny of each generation become enough alike to be called similar. Plants grown from a seed strain are not identical, but they are supposed to be nearly so. In Reinelt's case, the Pacific strains were near perfect--identical in height, color and form. Developed between 1938 and 1940, these strains received Best of Show gold medal at the 1939 Oakland Spring Flower Show, the West Coast show of its time, a measure of their importance and popularity.

Most of these strains are still with us, although they have deteriorated somewhat through the years. It is the nature of strains that they must be carefully and laboriously recrossed periodically to keep them strong and uniform, and that has not happened.

The true blue strains were the Bluejay series (a "clear medium to dark blue," according to the 1940 catalogue description, "very intense and alive, with dark, contrasting bee") and Summer Skies series ("the blue of a summer sky, with white bees representing fleecy clouds"). Other less-blue, or outright purple, strains had names chosen from Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," including the King Arthur series ("rich royal purple with a velvety texture and large white bee"), Guinevere ("pink-lavender with white bee"), Galahad ("giant whites"), Lancelot ("pure lilac with white bee"), Black Knight ("the darkest of them all") and the Round Table series (all of the colors--from some 300 crosses).

The Pacific strains grew to a height of at least six feet, and it is not difficult to find photographs of Pacific Giants growing eight feet tall. And they were usually used in a big way. I have a fading blueprint, of my grandfather's, of a Hillsborough estate in Northern California that contains a delightful double border on either side of an ample path that leads to a formal rose garden. (The path terminates in a simple bird bath, not in the more customary fountain or statue. The owners obviously were enthusiastic gardeners, not concerned with pretense.) The borders are full of California plants, a delightful mix that I plan to copy someday.

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