San Diego Floral Association
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November/December 2011 Volume 102 No. 6
Howard Asper: King of Camellias Becomes the King of Proteas Too
By John Blocker
In February 2011 at the San Diego Camellia Society’s 63rd Annual Flower show held in Balboa Park, I met Gene Snooks, a member of the Society since 1953. When he joined, Howard Asper was a member. As I left, Gene asked me to vote for my favorite camellia in the show. The choice was easy. I voted for the camellia named 'Howard Asper'. The flower was a stunning salmon pink and as large as a hibiscus. It was the most beautiful camellia I had ever seen.
From Descanso to Huntington
In 1954, Howard Asper, after helping to create one of the greatest camellia plantings in the world at Descanso Gardens, took another job just 10 miles away at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. He was appointed director of grounds and buildings and inherited responsibility for another of the world’s most celebrated gardens. The Huntington had a significant camellia collection, in addition to the renowned cactus garden and Japanese garden.
When Asper arrived, William Hertrich, director of the garden from 1909 to 1949, still maintained an office at the Huntington and had been given the title Garden Director Emeritus. Hertrich was working on a three-volume set of books, Camellias in the Huntington Gardens. Volume I was published in 1954, Volume II in 1955 and Volume III in 1959. Hertrich described every camellia planted in the garden and provided a photograph of each.
When railroad baron Henry Huntington bought J. de Barth Shorb’s estate in 1905, two camellias were already on the property. Hertrich believed these camellias to be 15 or 20 years old when he first saw them in 1909. One of these plants can still be seen today. It is a large 'Pink Perfection' camellia located in the shade of the oak grove north of the Huntington residence.
In 1908 or 1909, Hertrich purchased about two dozen camellias from a local cut flower grower who was discontinuing operation. These were the first camellias Hertrich planted in the garden. In 1912, Henry Huntington decided to build a Japanese garden. Hertrich began looking for Asian plants around Los Angeles without much success. George Turner Marsh operated a Japanese garden on the corner of California and Fair Oaks in Pasadena where he also sold Japanese arts and antiques. The garden and structures were considered a landmark in Pasadena at the time, but were not a financial success for Marsh. Marsh also operated a similar Japanese Garden along Ocean Boulevard in Coronado from 1902-1905 until it was destroyed by a storm. He reopened it in Coronado in 1908 next to the Spreckels Mansion. This garden closed in 1939.
Hertrich bought Marsh’s Pasadena property, the plants and structures, including the teahouse. Marsh's camellias were the next addition of camellias to the Huntington. The teahouse was moved and is now located in the Huntington’s famous Japanese garden.
In 1915 Hertrich ordered 20 of the best camellias from Sasuki, a prominent grower in Japan. In 1918 long after Hertrich had given up on ever receiving the shipment, the plants were delivered in a shipment from the Yokohama Nursery Company.
By 1942 Hertrich had established more than 1,000 seedlings from these plants. These seedlings were planted both adjacent to the Japanese Garden and under the tall oaks north of Huntington’s residence. In 1943, working with the Southern California Camellia Society, plans were made to establish a test garden in the area surrounding the Japanese Garden. By 1949, about 400 varieties were planted in this garden by the Society.
In the year from July 1, 1955 to July 1, 1956 Asper added more than 200 new and rare varieties to the Huntington camellia collection. Seven new camellia species were imported from Japan, Hong Kong and the islands of the Pacific. From July 1, 1956 to July 1, 1957, he added 200 more varieties and continued to add camellias during his tenure.
William Hertrich recognized Asper’s success with the camellia garden. In Volume II of Camellias in the Huntington Gardens Hertrich wrote, "Grateful acknowledgment(s)…to J. Howard Asper…for his contribution of camellias from his own garden for study purposes, and for his knowledge of reticulata species…"
Asper was to gain fame for breeding reticulata hybrids, the same hybrids imported by Dr. Walter Lammerts to Descanso Gardens from Kunming, China in 1948 and the same hybrids reported to have been grown in China since 900 A.D.
In the 1961 American Camellia Society Yearbook, Dr. Walter Lammerts, director of research for Germain’s Nursery in Livermore, California, praised Asper’s success crossing a Kunming reticulata with another camellia species, sasanqua. Asper had done the work at the behest of the Camellia Advisory Committee headquartered at the Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia. Lammerts wrote, "The successful use of ?Narumi-gata? as seed parent with C. reticulata has finally been broken." For years other breeders had been trying to cross these two species without success. "Thus in a similar manner we might look forward to the use of such hybrids that have been obtained by Howard Asper as stepping stones leading to the transfer of such qualities as fall-flowering, abundance of foliage, well-shaped bushy growth habit, and increased floriferousness."
Asper in Escondido
Howard Asper retired from the Huntington in 1962 to devote full-time to growing camellias and experimenting with growing proteas on his Green Valley Nursery ranch in Escondido. In the 1962-63 Camellia yearbook, Dr. R. K. Womack describes seeing one of Asper’s trial crosses at the ranch: “Fortunately his Camellia reticulata ?Lion Head? x C. japonica ?Coronation? had one bloom open. This is a beautiful large clear pink. Later in the season one blossom of this hybrid measured 7 1/2 inches in diameter and nearly four inches in height.”
Asper began selling this camellia in 1963. Upon its debut, it won the Hybrid Seedling Award and the Harris Hybrid Award from the American Camellia Society. The introduction also won the Edwards Metcalf Award from the Southern California Camellia Society. The camellia is appropriately named ?Howard Asper?. The camellia ?Howard Asper? remains an admired camellia and can still be easily purchased.
In 1964 the American Camellia Society resolved to compile a list of camellia hybrids in commerce that had at least one parent that was not Camellia japonica. Howard Asper was one of the distinguished members of the committee who assembled the list. When the task was completed in 1966, of the approximately 220 hybrids on the list, Asper had created 19 of them. Thirteen of those were crosses with the Kunming reticultas.
The Protea King
In 1963, after Asper learned to propagate protea by germinating seed outdoors instead of in a greenhouse, he began growing proteas at his ranch in Escondido. Because of camellia flower blight, he was forced to quit selling camellias as cut flowers. Protea cut flowers became his primary crop. He became the first nurseryman to grow proteas commercially.
For his work with camellias and proteas, the Southern California Horticultural Institute honored Asper with the 1969 Award of Achievement in Horticulture and in 1972 he was named California Garden Clubs Man of the Year.
Even while growing protea, Asper remained an ambassador for camellias. Alys Honey, president of the Mexico City Garden Club, wrote in the 1973 American Camellia Society Yearbook, "It’s thanks to the American Camellia Society and Howard Asper that Mexico now has fifty new varieties of outstanding camellias previously unknown to this country plus an enthusiastic group of camellia growers."
Honey had been visiting an aunt in San Diego and decided to visit the "famous" Howard Asper. She dropped in at the ranch in Escondido. Asper gave her a tour and then arranged to speak to her garden club in Mexico City. After returning to Escondido, he sent two boxes of seed and then 130 camellia plants to Mexico, all the newest varieties and varieties not commonly found there. "If it had not been for my membership in the American Camellia Society, I would have never known Howard and his sweet wife," Honey wrote. "And Mexico would not have so many new, wonderful varieties of camellias."
Asper retired and sold his nursery to his son in 1977, but did not enjoy retirement. In 1978 at the age of 75 he began growing protea again at Zorro Protea Farms just south of Rancho Santa Fe. Howard Asper died on July 8, 1993.
For his work growing proteas and initiating the protea cut flower industry, he was dubbed the "Protea King," thereby adding a botanical crown. His work with camellias had been so successful he is also acclaimed as the "King of Camellias."
–John Blocker worked with the agricultural industry in San Diego and has attended garden conferences and viewed gardens around the world during the past 20 years. From 1998 to 2008, he was on the board of the California Garden and Landscape History Society.
Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery Annual Reports, 28-35.
William Hertrich, Camellias in the Huntington Gardens, Volume II. Pasadena: Abbey San Encino Press, 1955.
P.L. Hilsman, "Interspecific Camellia Hybrid." American Camellia Society Yearbook, 1966.
Alys Honey, “Howard Asper Conquers Mexico.” American Camellia Society Yearbook, 1973.
"J. Howard Asper Sr.; Acclaimed as 'King of Camellias,' Proteas," San Diego Union, July 25, 1993.
Walter E. Lammerts, "Exploring the Possibilities of Further Use of Interspecific Camellia Hybrids." American Camellia Society Yearbook, 1961.
Clifford R. Parks, “Listing of Interspecific Camellia Hybrids at Los Angeles State and County Arboretum.” American Camellia Society Yearbook, 1968.
R. K. Womack, "Revolution of the West Coast." American Camellia Society Yearbook, 1962-63
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.