It was in the spring of 1983 when I saw Griff retreating repeatedly to a corner of the garden, intently focused on cross-pollinating a flannel bush and monkey paw tree. Methodically, all spring, he kept at the work of hybridizing Chiranthodendron pentadactylon and Fremontodendron ‘Pacific Sunset’, a formidable task according to most horticulturalists. I remember a late afternoon, when my husband called me over to our living room window, pointing toward Griff who was standing among the sprawling branches of a large ‘Pacific Sunset’ in the garden. With white beard and a shaggy crown of silver hair he appeared wizard-like as he went about sprinkling pollen. In one tightly squinting eye he held a lens. Stooping over a stem, he dusted pollen from the monkey paw into a waiting flannel bush flower.
Griff’s presence, when he arrived at the nursery, was so unassuming that I did not realize at first his vast knowledge of botany. He was quiet, uttering only such periodic comments as to describe a flower. “Cruciform” he would say almost in a whisper, referring to its shape. I learned that he was an authority on the genus Camellia, that he had attended graduate school in Florida and was later a doctoral candidate at Claremont College. His work, while at Claremont, remains a mystery, the mystique of which would probably please him now if he were still alive. In the 1960’s he served as curator to the Los Angeles Arboretum Herbarium in Arcadia.
In later years he settled in Oceano, California where he developed a relationship with the staff of Pismo State Beach Park Service, through environmentalist Kathleen Jones. There he compiled data from Mussel Rock to Black Lake Canyon and on to Pismo Beach, identifying the plants that were eventually included in the book Dune Mother. It was during this period that Griff started working in the nursery garden. I knew him to strive for meticulous botanical detail, requiring repetitious and painstaking data collection, much to the exhaustion of my staff. I am filled with memories of him.
Every week he brought my young daughter butterscotch candies, who now at the age of twenty-one, still remembers him. Her first rag doll was a gift from Griff. She was sitting in an infant seat when he entered the house, bobbing the colorful cloth figure with polished button eyes, in front of her. She responded with fits of gleeful cooing, kicking her stocking feet like an Irish dancer. On his way to work he would often glean the recently harvested vegetable fields, bringing brown paper bags filled to the brim with lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower for the nursery employees. Fresh and flavorful they were frequently the answer or accompaniment to a fretful mothers dinner plans. My son, then a teenager, was the recipient of unexpected rides from high school on rainy days when Griff drove his vintage truck to work. Just recently I learned, much to my chagrin, that on occasion he brought the boy a beer for the ride home. My son has reassured me that it was a memorable experience, akin to a rite of passage.
At Christmas parties, Griff posed as Santa’s helper, arriving at our door with an armload of packages and wearing a red felt hat trimmed in white faux fur. After passing out gifts to the children and sharing in holiday fare he joined in the conversation, games and frivolity. It is his laughter I remember most, not easily forthcoming, yet robust and contagious once in the air. Every holiday for eight years he joined us in a celebration, until we were no longer to have his company. In 1988, the day after Christmas, Griff’s wife called to say that his heart had stopped. “He died peacefully in the night on Christmas Eve” she said.
On the far slope of my garden stands the original hybrid that resulted from his cross-pollination, ×Leelenzia ranchorum. When in bloom the flowers are reflexed, and following a storm their large felted bracts become filled with rain. Overflowing one morning, after a night of showers, six birds danced a frenzied tarantella above a cluster of flowers, then swooped to drink. Deciding to have a taste myself I soon understood their apparent enthusiasm. The liquid was like nectar. Griff’s hybrid survived him and was released into the nursery trade after his death under the name ×Chiranthofremontia lenzii.