San Diego Floral Association
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July/August 2011, Volume 102 No. 4
Howard Asper and the Camellias of Descanso Gardens
By John Blocker
Howard Asper Sr. had been so successful growing protea he was dubbed the Protea King. During the early 1990s, as I stood next to the packing shed at Green Valley Nursery in Escondido, Howard Asper Jr. told me, “My dad was the first garden director at Descanso Gardens.” Descanso Gardens, I knew, has one of the world’s great camellia collections. “Then he was garden director at the Huntington Gardens. He planted a lot of camellias there. We grew camellias here until flower blight began to ruin our crop. That’s when we started growing protea.” I looked across the protea field to the tall trees lining his property. In the shade I saw camellias.
Photos: John Blocker
Camellias Come to Rancho del Descanso
In early 1941, E. Manchester Boddy, owner of the Los Angeles Daily News, lined the driveway of his private La Canada estate, Rancho del Descanso, with all the camellias he could find and went searching for more. Camellias might be available, he heard, from a Japanese grower at Star Nursery in Sierra Madre.
World War II had started. Mr. F. M. Uyematsu, owner of Star Nursery, needed a buyer to purchase his camellias before being forced to leave for an Arizona internment camp. Prospective buyers had been offering him cents on the dollar for his stock. Boddy, Howard Asper, Boddy’s new curator of plants at Rancho del Descanso, and Charles S. Jones, president of the Richfield Oil Company, paid a visit to Star Nursery.
Howard Asper gives this account of the meeting: “We were amazed to see the thousands of camellia plants ranging in size from twelve inches to eight feet. Mr. Boddy asked the price for the lot and immediately decided to buy. Without any bargaining or hesitation he wrote a check for the full amount asked. When he handed the check to the Japanese owner his face lit up with smiles and tears filled his eyes.”
Uyematsu had immigrated from Japan to the United States in 1904. He first imported camellias from his home country in 1908. Initially he sold these camellias from a horse and buggy on the streets of Los Angeles. In 1912 he moved to Montebello and established Star Nursery on a five-acre tract of land. Over the years, Uyematsu imported and sold hundreds of thousands of camellias from Japan. He sometimes would ship as many as 60,000 camellias by rail to one buyer.
When he met with Boddy, Asper and Jones, the nurseryman was growing hundreds of thousands of camellias on his property. Seventy-five percent of those were ‘Eureka’, white flowers with red flecking also called peppermint stick. Many more were ‘Pink Perfection’, a shell pink very formal double flower. Both varieties he could sell easily.
Uyematsu also had his own collection of more unusual camellias, varieties he was not trying to sell. On a 1930 trip to Japan, Uyematsu gathered a small quantity of seeds from Dr. B. Miyazawa, a noted hybridizer at the Tokyo School of Horticulture. On that trip he also obtained 25,000 seeds from a nurseryman in Saitama Province who owned a superior camellia collection. From the many seeds he germinated, he had saved 60 seedlings. He felt these 60 were worthy of propagation.
In 1930 he also had imported 500 more camellias from Japan of 113 varieties. He believed these camellias to be the best varieties available, many new to the United States. He planted them at his growing ground in Sierra Madre. Being busy selling the more common varieties, Uyematsu left these camellias more or less unattended. By the time Boddy, Asper and Jones visited, at least half of these special plants had died.
Boddy and Jones bought all the camellias on the property that day, Boddy buying most of the camellias imported in 1930 and Jones most of the unnamed seedlings. The total transaction included about 300,000 plants.
Back at Rancho del Descanso, Howard Asper immediately began to bud and oversee the planting of the camellias under the canopy of an oak grove. Depending on which records are examined, 60,000 to 100,000 camellias obtained from Star nursery and at least one other Japanese nursery in the area were planted. According to Douglas G. Thompson, writing in Descanso Gardens, Its History and Camellias, “Mr. Asper managed the procurement and development of the camellia japonica collection second to none in the world.”
During the next year, Asper often would graft 300 plants in one day. In 1942 alone, Rancho del Descanso sold 40,000 grafted camellias to Germain’s Nursery, a large retail operation in the San Fernando Valley. Since he had so many ‘Eureka’ and ‘Pink Perfection’ varieties from Star Nursery, he used them as understock and grafted more unusual varieties on top.
Asper oversaw the development of a wholesale nursery on the property that sold in addition to camellias, roses, ceanothus, leptospermum, and many other plants. Camellias named after Boddy, Asper and Jones’ wives were first sold at Rancho del Descanso. ‘Berenice Boddy’, ‘Mrs. Howard Asper’ and ‘Jenny Jones’ became popular camellias of the time. These varieties originated from Star Nursery’s unique collection of seedlings and imports. At least 17 new varieties from Star Nursery were introduced to the trade with at least 12 being first sold at Rancho del Descanso. Boddy and Asper are credited with helping to revive public interested in camellias in Southern California and returning the camellia to fashion and popularity.The nursery also shipped eastward in refrigerated boxcars tens of thousands of camellia flowers to be made into corsages.
The Kunming Camellias
In 1945 Boddy hired Dr. Walter Lammerts, an eminent hybridizer, to establish a horticultural research department at his private Descanso garden. Lammerts’ achievements while at Rancho del Descanso could be described as nothing short of spectacular. He developed new varieties of ceanothus, pyracantha and fruit trees; he hybridized the first variety of lilac that grew in Southern California’s warm climate. Also while working for Boddy, he created three of the most popular roses ever produced, ‘Chrysler Imperial’, ‘Golden Showers’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’.
Lammerts read in the 1938 Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society there were many beautiful camellias in the remote Yunnan province of China that had not been introduced to the West. On April 16, 1947, in hopes of attaining these new camellias, Lammerts began to correspond with Professor Yu at the Yunnan Botanical Institute in Kunming. In March of 1948, Professor Yu shipped 20 varieties of these Camellia reticulata to San Francisco. Lammerts picked them up on March 15, 1948, and by March 19 he and Howard Asper had all 20 types planted in new potting mixture and scions budded from each onto new stock plants. By August 28 it was clear that five of the 20 varieties did not survive the trip across the ocean and the required quarantine fumigation.
In 1950 Lammerts learned that Ralph Peer, representing the Southern California Camellia Society, had independently arranged shipment of the same 20 varieties from Professor Yu to the Huntington Gardens. Only three of these camellias survived the trip, but they were three of the varieties Lammerts had lost. Lammerts collected cuttings of the three from Peer and gave the Huntington Gardens viable cuttings of the 15 varieties the Huntington had lost. In the end Lammerts and Asper were able to save 18 of the 20 varieties.
William Hertrich, plant director of the Huntington Gardens, wrote about the camellias sent in these two shipments, “Of the twenty varieties originally imported from Kunming through the assistance of various parties, nineteen are old varieties which Dr. Yu assured Mr. Peer had been known since A.D. 900. The twentieth variety was a cross between an old variety ‘Butterfly Wings X Peony-flowered,’ made by Professor Tsai.” But despite Lammerts’ prominence as a hybridizer, it was Asper who later gained fame hybridizing these camellias.
In 1953, E. Manchester Boddy retired from publishing. To ensure survival of his garden, he sold it to the County of Los Angeles and the name of the estate changed to Descanso Gardens. Today it is open to the public and operated by the Descanso Garden Guild.
In 1954 Howard Asper left Descanso Gardens and the employ of Los Angeles County to become the Director of Grounds and Buildings at the nearby Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens.
Next: Howard Asper plants camellias at the Huntington Gardens and has success hybridizing the Kunming camellias.
Warren Marr, Descanso. Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 2007.
Frank D. Williams and Roy T. Thompson, “Star Nursery Camellias,” American Camellia Society Yearbook, 1950.
W. E. Lammerts, “The New Camellia Reticulata Hybrids,” American Camellia Society Yearbook, 1950.
Howard Asper, “A Short History of Descanso Gardens 1941 to 1954,” Camellia Review 50 (Nov. –Dec. 1988).
William Hertrich, Camellias in the Huntington Gardens, Volume II. Pasadena: Abbey San Encino Press, 1955.
Photo: John Blocker
San Gabriel Nursery
In 1942 Boddy also bought nursery stock from Mrs. Yoshimura at San Gabriel’s Mission Nursery prior to her family’s internment. She needed to sell her nursery to cover the bank loans on the property. Yoshimura stated Boddy paid full value for her nursery stock and also took over the lease on the property and continued to operate the business. Many of her camellias and azaleas were planted at Descanso Gardens.
Yoshimura was able to give her workers a small bonus before she departed for the internment camp in Gila River, Arizona. The Yoshimura family received installment payments from Boddy while they were interned, giving them capital to restart their business when they returned to San Gabriel.
When the Yoshimuras returned and opened their new business, San Gabriel Nursery, Boddy closed Mission Nursery. Today San Gabriel Nursery is one of the oldest and most respected retail nurseries operating in the Los Angeles area.
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.