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San Diego Floral Association

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Profiles in Horticultural History By Nancy Carol Carter

Dig In

Elizabeth A. Briggs

Reprinted from: March/April 2010, Volume 101, Number 2
© SAN DIEGO FLORAL ASSOCIATION and © Nancy Carol Carter.
This story may not be published in any form or copied onto another website without written permission from
San Diego Floral Association.



Francesco FranceschiGladiolus hybridizer Elizabeth Briggs and her gardening equipment:
a basket containing cups of pollen, and the hoe, which she has used for 30 years.
– Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 27, 1952

 

By Nancy Carol Carter

In the same year that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the future Elizabeth Briggs was born in Illinois. She grew up to profoundly influence Southern California horticulture, but traveled a long road on the way to becoming the “Dean of American Hybridizers” and a founder of the San Diego Country flower industry. She was 51 years old before beginning her career as a gladiolus grower and breeder.

The young Elizabeth had became a teacher and moved to Seattle where she met Charles Briggs. The peripatetic couple had one son, Donald, and eventually settled in Sacramento. Deciding to return to work as her son matured, Elizabeth sat for the California teachers’ licensing examination in 1913, only to be told she was too old to return to the classroom. Vexed, she cast about for enjoyable work that could contribute to the family income.

One day her husband came home waving a clipping from Country Gentleman magazine. It described the quick and easy money to be made from gladiolus bulb production: simply plant bulbs and then sell their naturally reproduced offspring. The idea captured Elizabeth’s imagination. She determined on the spot to become a gladiolus grower. “I can do it. I will do it,” she recalled saying. After a careful review of family finances, the couple allocated $8 to begin the new venture. With persistence and a revealed talent for hybridization, Elizabeth Briggs parlayed that $8 capital investment into a major floral business.

Success initially proved elusive. Briggs grew a first crop in her backyard, then expanded to a next door vacant lot. After four years, she had 500,000 bulbs on hand and rented a five-acre plot, hoping to harvest a fortune in bulbs. Instead, the crop was devastated by an infestation of wireworms, the destructive larva of the click beetle.

Her husband and son helped cultivate the glads during their off-hours, but World War I took both away from Sacramento in 1918. They suggested she put the bulb business on hold, but Elizabeth stubbornly continued on her own, leasing land near Lodi and doing almost all the work of planting, weeding and irrigating. She lost 25 pounds over the summer, but harvested a handsome crop. A sale of $2,000 in bulbs and an abundant stock for replanting boosted her spirits. However, the fruitful Lodi land lease was unavailable for a second season and newly rented acreage was infested with wireworms, again setting back profits and reducing her stock of bulbs.

The next year, the reunited Briggs family moved to Monterey, planting on new land and camping out all summer under nearby oak trees to save money. They were rewarded with a bountiful crop, worth $17,000. Saving many of the bulbs for their largest planting ever, the family rented land in Carmel Valley and hoped for a bonanza. Pests destroyed most of the bulbs.

Continuing south, the Briggs planted their next crop near Chino. Nematodes attacked. The next stop was San Onofre, a move that corresponded with a development in agricultural technology. Using the new methods for fumigating soils, the Briggs produced a bumper crop. Seeing the generous reproduction of gladiolus bulbs when pest free, Elizabeth Briggs thought the promise of Country Gentleman was coming true at last.

Settling in the Encinitas area in 1926, the restless Briggs family had found a permanent home for their gladiolus business. “This is the place,” Elizabeth later said about her corner of San Diego County, “this is the wonder spot.”

Donald Briggs assumed responsibility for the cut-flower and bulb-growing business while his mother focused on providing new gladiolus hybrids, work she had begun in Monterey. At an age when most people retire from work, Elizabeth Briggs ramped up for another 30 years of award-winning flower breeding.

Her instincts regarding flower stock were demonstrated in 1913 when making the family’s initial $8 investment in gladioli. To the dismay of her husband, she had spent $3 on just one bulb. The superior pink flowers and vigorous progeny of the expensive ‘Mrs. Frank Pendleton’ repaid that investment many times over. She thereafter invested only in high quality bulbs and ruthlessly discarded inferior stock.

Briggs called her testing grounds “Seventh Heaven” and described her life in horticulture as play, not work. She took advantage of the 1930 Plant Patent Act to protect the rights to some of her cultivars and proudly beat the odds of producing gladioli in three primary colors after developing a clear yellow bloom by breeding from a single bulb of a wild African gladiolus found near Victoria Falls. “Golden Harvest” was awarded one of her two gold medals from the New England Gladiolus Society and resulted in a stream of visiting horticulturists desiring to see deep blue, bright red and pure yellow gladioli flourishing in her fields. Her little black book of breeding records also held ideas for naming new plants. Playful monikers like Flashlight and Honeymoon joined the more descriptive Blue Heaven, Cardinal, and Canary.

Elizabeth Briggs was not the very first commercial flower grower in San Diego County, but her fame as a hybridizer riveted attention on the area. She also is credited with being a leading industry founder after the availability of water changed everything on the north San Diego coast. When Encinitas held a flower show in 1925, most of the blooms were imported from Portland. That year the City of San Diego gained access to the Hodges Dam. With San Dieguito River water now captured for irrigation, the native chaparral was cleared from coastal areas to create frost-free farm land. By the 1930s, the coastal area between Oceanside and Leucadia supported 50 different flower growing businesses. For the next 70 years, San Diego’s floriculture business expanded, growing into a multimillion dollar industry. In 1957, gladiolus was the number one crop in San Diego. Local production represented one-half that of the entire state.

Active until her death at age 97, Elizabeth Briggs saw her son become a prominent businessman and a leader in the commercial flower trade. A grandson, Donald A. Briggs, Jr., continues in the family tradition today, operating the Briggs Tree Company in Vista. Rising land prices due to suburban sprawl and competition from foreign imports eventually sent the flower business into decline, but for the entirety of Elizabeth Briggs’ life in San Diego, flowers were a growth industry. She found joy in her work while wholly fulfilling her 1913 pledge: She could grow gladiolus and she did grow gladiolus.

Elizabeth Ament Briggs
Expert gladiolus hybridizer and pioneer of the San Diego County flower industry.
Born: 1863 in Princeton, Illinois | Died: 1960 in Encinitas, California

Dig deeper with:
Peggi Ridgway and Jan Works, Sending Flowers to America: Stories of the Los Angeles

Flower Market and the People Who Built an American Floral Industry,
Los Angeles: American Florists’ Exchange, Ltd, 2008

Robert Melvin, Profiles in Flowers: The Story of San Diego County Floriculture,
Encinitas, CA: Paul Ecke Ranch Press, 1989.


© SAN DIEGO FLORAL ASSOCIATION and © Nancy Carol Carter.
This story may not be published in any form or copied onto another website without written permission from
San Diego Floral Association.

 

Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.







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