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On the trail of Robert Chumley's Philodendron 'miniature selloum'

Last Edit: 2013-10-10

The world of plantsmen is a slow one, a glacial undertaking that seems to have little to do with the fast-paced, inter-connected world of today. But it is one that is filled with fascinating history, and one where hidden treasures may often lurk undiscovered or unremarked, only to be found and marvelled upon when modern technology in the guise of today's internet casts its light upon them.

Such may be the case with the meconostigma that was called Philodendron 'miniature-selloum', currently owned by Mr. Robert Chumley of Florida. This elegant and compact aroid, with its downcast dark green leaves and robust form, offers a striking and rather unmistakeable visage.


Click on thumbnail above for detailed image

Click on thumbnail above for detailed image

According to Mr. Chumley, horticulturists Carl Cowgill and Jack Holmes of Holmes' Nurseries in Tampa, Florida, who travelled frequently to Uruguay in the 1930s to collect Philodendron bipinnatifidum seed, discovered and brought back to America this unusual form of what they still took to be P. bipinnatifidum. A photo of the plant can be seen on pg.188 of the Exotica Pictorial Cyclopedia Of Exotic Plants by A.B. Graf series 3 edition 9 1957. The plant was photographed evidently for the first time in history, and dubbed with the name of "miniature selloum" by Alfred B. Graf in 1957 at Cowgill's Plantation near Tampa, Florida. The article mentions that this was showing 'Monstera Deliciosa, from an early plantings by Jesuit missionaries, climbing on Bald Cypress trees(Taxodium) hung with 'Spanish moss' (Tillandsia usneoides). The stems, clinging close to the bark, have withstood 19 degrees F.cold, here at Cowgill's Plantation near Tampa, on the Gulf coast of Florida. (caption from the book, Pictorial Cyclopedia of Exotic Plants by A. B. Graf series 3, edition 9, 1957. Library of Congress Catalog Card #72-90669).

Image of a Philodendron 'Miniature selloum' from Alfred B. Graf's Exotica Series 3 (vol 1, 7th edition), p 188. Click on thumbnail above for detailed image

Both Carl Cowgill (1896-1973) and Jack Holmes (1902-1968) have made an indelible mark on the horticulture industry in Florida. Carl F. Cowgill was one of the first production nurserymen in Hillsborough County, and he was famous for introducing podocarpus to the South and for hybrid Magnolias. He was also active in the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association and was known as an excellent horticulturist and innovator. Jack Holmes was also one of the renowned leaders in the early 1900s, who introduced many new plants and advances in production techniques and landscaping theories into the nascent Florida industry.

According to Mr. Chumley, during the mid 1930's, the two traveled, as was their custom, to Uruguay and Paraguay, South America to collect seed (and plants) for importation for their respective nurseries in Florida. On one trip, a solitary plant was noticed to be of an unusual form, high on a mountain, (no location given) and was subsequently collected and imported (with other aroid specimens from other unspecified locations) and imported to Florida. This was considered by them to be a mutated or bazaar form of "P. Selloum". The plant (and other specimen aroids) collected on South American trips were incorporated in Carl Cowgill's private collection. These were rarely shown to touring collectors or individual's as they were located in an old 'glass greenhouse' inundated by many weeds and not regularly maintained for many years. To my knowledge the "special selloum" was never pollinated and never produced seeds." The plant was virtually forgotten by all (except myself) and on one occasion in the early 1960's, while moving plants to a different nursery relocation, I asked for a back cutting of the "special selloum" as a special favor from Mr. Cowgill, as I "dearly loved the plant" and wanted to preserve it (as it was doing poorly and was neglected} He granted me the favor and I took it home. I think during the preceding years his plant was either lost or died due to neglect. This plant, under my care went through many severe freezes down through the years. In 1962, it endured 15 hours below 30 degrees. I remember the water in the bromeliads was frozen solid.Then again in 1977, 1982, and a severe two day major freeze in 1988 dropping to seventeen degrees both days with ice everywhere. " I never forgot this "dearly loved plant" and the special history it endured down through the years, even though it was moved around Tampa many times, and went through severe weather conditions, and special care was provided against theft from unscrupulous people desiring to covet it. I protected it, knowing I had to share this beautiful, unusual plant with the world.

The remarkable morphology of the plant and his curiosity about it caused Mr. Chumley to cast around for someone who could help him identify and perhaps commercialize the aroid. In 1987, Mr. Chumley gave a cutting-derived plant to Dewey Fisk, owner of the Philodendron Phreaque and then president of the South Florida Aroid Society, with the intention of cloning the plant via tissue culture. However, Dewey Fisk's attempt at getting this remarkable plant into tissue culture met an unfortunate end when it was reportedly sprayed with the Dupont fungicide Benlate in the tissue culture lab and died. Dupont's Benlate problems plagued Florida growers in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, others had started hearing about this unusual aroid, including Julius Boos of West Palm beach, Florida, one of the notable members of the worldwide aroid community. Julius' interest had been piqued by the comments of an acquaintance, who told him of the remarkable plant owned by plant collector extraordinaire Murline Lydon of Dover, Florida, who passed away recently in 2007.

Julius recalls in the Tropicsphere Jungle Forums:

I will try to give as much info. as I can to assist Mr. Chumley in his search for info. on the P. "Minature selloum", a plant which I too have been ''obsessed'' with for over 20 years.

I first heard about this legendary plant from a friend who had visited the late Murline Lydon of Dover, FL. He described to me the plant of this taxon that she owned. Several years later I overnighted at Murline's home, together w/ the late Lynn Hannon, Murline's best friend, as we were on our way to drive up to MOBOT. I FINALLY saw the plant, which left me speechless!

I suggested to Murline that if she were to ever divide the one plant she had, I'd LOVE a plant of it. She informed me that she did not intend to divide her plant and did not recall where she had obtained it.

Years went by, Murline became ill, Lynn told me that the plant had in fact been divided. Murline passed away in '07, and Lynn, who did a massive clean-up of Murline's yard on behalf of the family, located the top cutting (which Murline had offered to her before she passed away), but by the time Lynn found it, buried in trash and weeds, it was little more than a long rhizome with a couple of leaves surviving at the tip. Lynn took it home with her.

I asked Lynn to look for the base cutting, it was no where to be found. Months later, when Lynn was loading all the empty pots at Murlines place, she called me in triumph, she had found the basal cutting in an empty, soil-less pot, barely alive, only ONE root growing out a drainage hole of the pot attached it to the soil, but it had one shoot! She kindly gave it to me, and I have loaned it to a friend for attempts at breeding. The tip cutting was given to a friend, as Lynn's very untimely and unexpected death took everyone by surprise.

I have kept in contact with our mutual friend, and the tip cutting has been divided, resulting in two BEAUTIFUL plants. I am aware of another plant of this taxon at a friends home in Cen. Florida (this may have been given to him by Robert Chumley!) So, I know of at least four plants besides those in Mr. Chumley's collection of this wonderful plant in Florida collections.

Indeed, it turned out that Murline Lydon was a close neighbor and good friend of Mr. Chumley, and that they used to visit each other and trade in plants often. It thus seems likely that the "miniature selloum" owned by Murline Lydon that piqued the interest of Julius was indeed derived from a cutting from Mr. Chumley.


Click on thumbnail above for detailed image. Note the sulcate upper surface of the petioles

Click on thumbnail above for detailed image. Note the sulcate upper surface of the petioles

Over the years, Julius had tried to contact Mr. Chumley, but was not able to get in touch.

But the story took a turn for the better when Mr. Chumley, who continued to be intrigued by the identity of his plant, posted in the Tropicsphere Jungle Forums seeking help from other plant enthusiasts.

The first descriptions of the plant resulted in various possibilities being put forward, including comparisons to the dwarf Philodendron 'Little Crunchy' and other cultivars, such as Philodendron 'Hope'. However, most of these cultivars were likely the result of adverse chemical treatment during tissue culture, whereas the Chumley aroid was derived from wild stock taken from Uruguay.

Kirsten Llamas, the editor of the forum, garnered the attention of various aroid researchers, including Dr. Tom Croat, and the discussion finally caught the attention of Leland Miyano from Hawaii, an artist, author, and landscape designer, who is also a protege of the internationally known Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. Leland alerted Julius to the ongoing discussion in the forum, and commented that "Based only on the sterile features and the latest photos that show the intravaginal squamules, these resemble Philodendron bipinnatifidum. However, the old stem show these to be persistent... at least for an extended period. Most Philodendron bipinnatifidum have papery, needle-like intravaginal stipules that are soon shed.". He finished by noting that close photos or samples of the inflorescence would be needed, and that what would finally determine this taxon would be the entire suite of characters and the commentary of researchers like Eduardo Goncalves, who is studying Philodendron subgenus Meconostigma in-situ.

Other characters of the aroid pointed to its being in the P. bipinnatifidum complex, including the presence of distinctive canals along the dorsal surface of the petioles. There was also some speculation that the dwarfish and compact condition of the plant, as well as its relatively slow growth, may have been due to its origin in Uruguay, which is near the limits of expansion by the Philodendrons due to the harsher and colder climactic conditions as one goes farther south.


Click on thumbnail above for detailed image. Mr. Chumley and his Philodendron at the IAS Show and Sale, September 2013. Photo by Joep Moonen, Emerald Jungle Village, Fr. Guiana

On March 25, 2009, Mr. Chumley announced that his plant was starting to bloom. This prompted Julius, who was excited about his first contact with the owner of the "miniature selloum", and Mr. Chumley to share information on how to pollinate the plant and send over samples of the bloom to Julius for further examination. Julius also noted that he had been able to examine a specimen of P. 'miniature selloum' and that the intravaginal squamules on the lower portions of the stem had rubbed off easily, a trait of P. bipinnatifidum.

Mr. Chumley happily complied with the request, and once the bloom sample arrived in early May, Julius moved swiftly, sending emails out to Simon Mayo at Kew, to Carla at MOBOT and to Leland Miyano in Hawaii, to try to set up microscopic examinations of the sexual parts of the mysterious aroid. On May 30, Julius sent the "pickled" inflorescnce to MOBOT, where it could be microscopically examined by Dr. Tom Croat.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chumley set seed on the second bloom of the "miniature selloum", and it seemed to be holding.

On July 2, 2009, Mr. Chumley announced that "I am pleased to report the seed on our philodendron 'Chumley miniature selloum' have successfully ripened and have been collected for processing and planting. I estimate anywhere from 300-1000 seeds". A couple weeks later he saw 100% germination after 3 days for those seeds that he had planted.

By mid-2010, the consensus seemed to be that notwithstanding the beautiful leaf shape and unusual cold tolerance, the aroid would for now be considered an aberrant form of P. bipinnatifidum. As Julius pointed out:

Your plant does in fact have a unique and to me beautiful leaf shape when compared to other Philodendrons, including P. bipinnatifidium, but unfortunately just the leaf shape don`t count for beans when deciding if a plant is a new species, and yours seems to fall within the variation of leaf shapes of the highly variable P. bipinnatifidium. Of MOST importance, all the OTHER distinguishing features on your plant, such as petiole shape in cross section, intravaginal squamules, blooms, etc. all fall EXACTLY the same as P. bipinnatifidium.

Nonetheless, as new details and new studies come to light, there is always the possibility that this form could be segregated out from P. bipinnatifidum, just as P. mello-barretoanum was moved out recently. As Leland Miyano pointed out:

There are still details that are not available to us. Now. Julius mentions that Philodendron mello-barretoanum was segregated out from Philodendron bipinnatifidum. One day, your taxon may also be so segregated, but, taxonomy is not a democracy. The naming of species of plants is strictly controlled by the laws of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). It takes Linnaeus's ,Species Plantarum, 1753, as it's starting point. At this point, there is no evidence that would separate your taxon from Philodendron bipinnatifidum. Leaf blade variation is not sufficient to warrant such a division to the species level. Biogeographic information does not merit separation, even though the population was the southern most record of any Philodendron bipinnatifidum. If the population was very disjunct, perhaps there could be an argument for this. Where questions remain are precise locality data and details of the flowers and the genome. That is where this discussion stands.

In 2011, Mr. Chumley gave five seedlings from the original plant to IAS members, with Steve, Julius, and Albert Huntington each getting one. Steve's seedling died, while the whereabouts of Julius' seedling is unknown.

Albert Huntington decided to send his to Leland, but could not obtain the permits needed to import it to Hawaii. He enlisted the help of Dan Levin who had to get certification for his greenhouse and buy Agriculture stamps and have the State inspector inspect. Leland received his seedling in July 2011, planted in coconut coir, perlite, and black volcanic cinder.


Click on thumbnail above for detailed image. Chumley Philo seedling received by Leland in July 2011. Photo by Leland.

Click on thumbnail above for detailed image. Chumley Philo seedling received by Leland in July 2011. Photo by Leland.

In the 2013 IAS Annual Show and Sale held at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, in Miami, FL on September 21 and 22, Bill Rotolante's Chumley Philodendron won Most Unusual Plant.


Click on thumbnail above for detailed image. Bill Rotolante's Chumley Philodendron won Most Unusual Plant in the 2013 IAS Show and Sale. Photo by Zach DuFran.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chumley successfully hybridized the P. Chumley with both P. 'Evansii' and P. bipinnatifidum in May of 2012, and the resulting juvenile Philodendrons had grown to huge sizes by Summer of 2014.


Click on thumbnail above for detailed image. P. Chumley x bipinnatifidum. Photo by Robert Chumley.

Click on thumbnail above for detailed image. P. Chumley x Evansii. Photo by Robert Chumley.

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