Griff's Wonder

He arrived on a summer day in 1981 riding a dilapidated Schwinn bicycle and dressed in worn khaki trousers, an old t-shirt, and sneakers.  In a gravelly voice he inquired about employment.  There were no jobs available at the time, but Griff quietly volunteered, returning each day to water, prune, label and sow seeds, waiting for the opportunity to stay.  During lunch he could often be found in the orchard sitting beneath the apricot tree, the fruit of which he insisted was the sweetest on earth. At some point, everyone who worked at the nursery, indulged in its offerings, but it was to Griff that I conferred when a deep crevice became visible in the trunk.  Together, for a couple of years, we tried numerous remedies in our attempts to save the tree but it was eventually lost and a bare- root apricot planted in its place.

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.

During the years that he was with us, our business was more relaxed. The potting shed and propagation area of the nursery, at that time, was in my garage, where I remember Griff sitting on a high stool below a fluorescent light that hung on a thin wire from the rafters.  Perusing botany texts, sowing seed, dividing and transplanting chaulk lettuce into flats, or peering into a microscope appeared to bring him a measure of peace and contentment.   After a full day of working, most of the staff stayed to commiserate and tell stories.  Griff’s blue eyes would flash between merriment, at finding a place that valued his eccentric genius; and brooding, when recalling tales of his twenty-five missions over Germany as a navigator in World War II.  We are left with the rich memory of these stories, and the lingering reminders of his presence in the garden; apricots, the scent of butterscotch and nectar from the flowers of ×Chiranthofremontia lenzii, a plant I call  'Griff's Wonder'.