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On the Origins of Philodendron x evansii
(Last Edit: 2009/5/10)
The huge beautiful ruffled leaves of Philodendron x evansii has always attracted the attention of aroid lovers and laymen alike. Indeed, the path to my obsession with the meconostigma aroids was paved by my visit to Huntington Gardens in California in 2005, when we chanced upon several grand specimens of this aroid, one in full bloom.
And yet the origin of this Philodendron, and in fact its very parentage, has sometimes been cast in doubt. This article is an attempt to put together some of the facts concerning the origins of this enormously appealing aroid. It will always be a work in progress as more facts are uncovered, but as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand li begins with one's first step.
And this journey, strangely enough, begins with a most unusual setting, the lavishly landscaped parks of DisneyLand in California, where in 1954, a man by the name of Morgan "Bill" Evans was enjoined by Walt Disney with the unenviable task of transforming the local landscape into a botanical paradise, a mission which Bill Evans undertook with much zeal and ingenuity. His background must have certainly provided much comfort and confidence in Disney, as Bill Evans lived a life thoroughly immersed in the botanical and horticultural sciences.
He was born on June 30, 1910, in Santa Monica, California, to a father who also had close affinities to the natural world and who managed a large garden whose denizens must have seemed magical to the younger Evans. Emboldened by his curiosity about plants, Bill Evans joined the merchant marine in 1928 and travelled around the world in the S.S. President Harrison. In his travels, he gathered botanical materials from such faraway places as Singapore, Hong Kong, the West Indies, Trinidad, Tahiti, the South Pacific, Australia, Europe, South Africa, and the Suez Canal.
Once he returned home he studied at Pasadena City College, and then Stanford, where he majored in Geology, only to be interrupted by the Great Depression. Undeterred by this setback, he transformed his father's gardens into a wholesale business that specialized in providing rare and exotic plants in 1931, and then opened a landscaping business called Evans and Reeves Landscaping in 1936 with his brother Jack and a man named Jack Reeves. Their clients included such luminaries of the day as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Elizabeth Taylor, who marvelled at the exotic plants they provided, which included Schefflera pueckleri (Tupidanthus calyptratus), Chamelaucium uncinatum, Tibouchina urvilleana, thirty-five species of araliads, thirty species of bamboo, twenty-four bougainvilleas and Philodendron 'Evansii', a cross between P. speciosum and P. bipinnatifidum carrying the family name 1
From this description, I thought it seemed likely that P. x evansii is a hybrid between P. bippinatifidum and P. speciosum, a hypothesis that certainly makes some sense. The huge leaves of P. x evansii do seem to be a blending between the pinnatifid look of P. bipinnatifidum and the undulating but nonetheless entire leaf contours prevalent in P. speciosum. Simon Mayo in his seminal work on Meconostigma aroids in 1991 concurs, stating that the hybrid P. x evansii is derived from these same two species 2.
I also deduced from other internet sources that it P. x evansii may have been introduced at least during the 1950s. The Annotated Checklist of Cultivated Plants of Hawaii by Clyde T. Imada, George W. Staples, and Derral R. Herbst lists P. x evansii as part of the garden collections in several Hawaiian gardens since 1954.
It was at this point that I ran into a wall. I realized that the internet may not have the complete answer after days of fruitless searches on google. I decided that the answer may instead lie in finding hardcopy articles about the Evans and Reeves Landscaping business.
Armed with this new strategy, I quickly found mention of this business in several obscure references on the web.
When I contacted the Massachusetts Horticultural Society about catalogs from the Evans and Reeves nurseries in 1942, they found that they did not contain references to the hybrid, although they did mention that they stock "PHILODENDRONS - We grow and stock a variety of these handsome decoratative subjects, particularly P. pertusum, P. trifoliatum". 3.
It seemed therefore, that the hybrid was introduced sometime between 1942 and the early 1950s.
The search finally ended when Ms. Lilace Hatayama of the Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA mailed me the newsletter of the Evans and Reeves nurseries that introduced the new hybrid to the world. The Grapevine Newsletter in February 1952 announced proudly to the world on the front page:
"Have a cigar! It's a hybrid! Introducing Phildendron Evansii"7.
You can read the amazing article by clicking on the thumbnail below.
The hybrid continued to be popular as time passed. In 1986, the Marie Selby Botanical Garden obtained a plant of Philodendron x evansii from Oak Glan Nursery in Miami 5, and by at least 1999, the hybrid had been placed into tissue culture by Rancho Tissue Technologies, allowing the mass production of these plants 6. However, for some reason or the other, retail access to these plants remained difficult for end consumers.
TO BE CONTINUED.
1 Pacific Horticulture, Fall 1996
2 Mayo S. A revision of Philodendron subgenus Meconostigma. Kew Bulletin 46(4): 601-681
3 Thanks to Ms. Horn of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society
5 Thanks to Harry Luther of MSBG
6 Thanks to Dewey E. Fisk of THE PHILODENDRON PHREAQUE
7 The Grapevine Newsletter, vol. 2, no. 10 (Feb 1952)