Established in 1959






A History
by Moyna Prince

Late in 2006, I sat down with Nat DeLeon, one of the founding members of the Bromeliad Society of South Florida. I was curious about the early years, when these exotic plants were first arriving from Latin America and sometimes from Europe. And I also wanted to hear about the beginnings of Bromeliad Society of South Florida and the people who got it started.

Like most people in South Florida, Nat came from elsewhere. I asked him what brought him to Miami. He told me that he got out of the Navy following WWII service and wanted to go to college, but all the colleges around Pennsylvania were already filled. "I sent letters all over the state and wasn't able to hook up with anything. Then I had a friend who played quarterback for our high school. He came down to UM to play quarterback, then transferred to West Point. He always raved about the climate in Miami. So in 1947 I sent a letter and got information about enrolling in the University of Miami and that's where I went. I didn't want any more of the northern cold and I thought going to a warmer clime would be just right for me. Even before I enrolled I knew this was the place I was going to stay after I graduated.

"After I graduated I took a job at the Miami Daily News in advertising but I wound up in circulation. Circulation meant having a lot of spare time. And I met a fellow who was doing a lawn business on the side so I went to work with him building up a clientele. After a year or so - he was not the working type - he intimated to me that he was thinking of getting out. I said, 'I'll buy you out.' And I did. I quit the newspaper and decided to do this full time.

"I felt I needed to learn about these plants. I went to Fairchild Tropical Garden a couple of times a week. I also sent away for all kinds of catalogues. In those days some of the better nurseries had catalogues and sold a lot of things besides orchids. I did a lot of self-studying. There were no societies at that point.

"I met my wife Eileen at University of Miami when we were in a marketing class together. I think by that time I knew a fair amount and there was an opening at Parrot Jungle. It may have been a long courtship because at that time Parrot Jungle was at the end of the world and whenever I had a date with her I made sure my tires were in good shape, because it would have been a long walk to go anywhere else - probably in the dark.

"Parrot Jungle was at the point of expansion and they needed somebody and I dove into tropical plants, even more so because I didn't want anyone saying I got the job because I married the boss's daughter. There was plenty of room to make the grounds of Parrot Jungle as interesting as the birds. It was at the time when there was a boom in tourism and that put Parrot Jungle on the map. What they had there were mostly birds. The grounds were waiting to be worked on."

I asked Nat how he got started in bromeliads. He replied that he wanted Parrot Jungle to have interesting plants. "Most of the other tourist attractions used annuals and I wanted something different. I wanted people to stop in their tracks and say, 'Gee, what's that? That's beautiful.' The first bromeliad I found was Aechmea fasciata, and it lasted so long and was so easy to grow. I said 'Gee, I've got to get into this group of plants.'

"Then I heard about Mulford Foster and some of the other people who were collecting bromeliads. I used to get up at daybreak and drive up to Orlando and be with Mulford by 9 o'clock and listen to him talking for most of the day. Finally when it was starting to get dark I'd say I'd come up there to get some plants! He knew that the plants I'd get from him would be used in a landscape setting and 
that would help popularize bromeliads. I think we were the first to use bromeliads in the landscape. However, I couldn't get a lot of plants from him. He was in the process of moving from Orlando where he had a rather small place to the larger place he had in the country. But I would bring plants back. Julian Nally grew Vriesea mariae, which at that time was hot, but he said he wouldn't sell more than a couple until he had 50 thousand. He wanted to grow Vr. mariae as a cut flower. He was interested in other bromeliads that I was able to buy. So Mulford's was the center. He was the guy who did all the hybridizing. Hardly anyone else I knew did hybridizing at that time, with the exception of Ralph Davis and myself.

"Ralph came to the Jungle one time because he'd heard I was using bromeliads in the landscape, and we had a pretty good friendship. Ralph was more interested in staghorn ferns and crotons. But when he got the bromeliad bug, crotons took a back seat. He had a lot of oak trees up in North Miami and had enough room for his bromeliad benches. He and I started to do some joint ventures, importing from South America, mostly Brazil. We tried not to duplicate. If I did something, he would do something different. I would go up to his place at least once a month. We both started hybridizing. What I wanted to do was have masses of bromeliads. Not onesies and twosies. To do that it would be almost impossible unless you grew a lot of your own. Bromeliads were pretty scarce. Bob and Catherine Wilson's Fantastic Gardens nursery was only five minutes away and anything they had I got, within reason. But they still didn't want to sell in any quantity either."

Nat is famous for his hybrids, and it took a farsighted person to realize what the future could hold for a commercial grower, with an attraction like Parrot Jungle requiring a constant supply of colorful, showy plants. Nat told me he spotted blooming xNeophytum Lymanii on a visit to Mulford Foster. Nat could see there was a wide variation in the colors, ranging from red to green and everything in between. But Mulford wouldn't sell those hybrids. However, he did part with an Orthophytum navioides, one of the parents of xNeophytum Lymanii. Driving home Nat was puzzling over what he could hybridize the Orthophytum with, and Neoregelia 
carolinae was the plant he came up with.

"It wasn't that long before the Orthophytum showed signs of coming into bloom and I had to find something that was also in bloom. Luckily Ralph Davis had several Neo. carolinaes that were also coming into bloom and I told him what I wanted to do. He said 'Come on up. It's yours.' I brought some home and hybridized and got lots of plants and gave some to Ralph. Because of our partnership and because I got the carolinaes from him I named Neophytum 'Ralph Davis' after him. I made Neophytum 'Gary Hendrix' too and several other Neophytum hybrids."

On a 1959 visit to Fantastic Gardens, the famous nursery run by Bob and Catherine Wilson, Nat encountered Alex Hawkes who had just returned from a bromeliad society meeting in St. Petersburg. As the three men talked, they wondered if there was enough interest in the Miami area to form their own society.

Said Nat, "We each called some people and set up the first meeting at Fantastic Gardens. There probably weren't more than a dozen people at that first meeting but we started a society. We grew too big for meeting in each other's homes and started meeting in South Miami Savings and Loan." Alex Hawkes became the temporary chairman of the board and in 1960 Nat was named the first president, 
a position he also held in 1978-79 and 1986-87.

In 1970 the BSSF put on a show at Fairchild Tropical Garden. The November - December 1970 issue of The Bromeliad Society Bulletin describes it: "The entire auditorium was filled with mulch and arranged into islands illuminated by overhead spots. A thousand or more bromeliads were shown in the beds, including the hybrids of Nat Deleon and a spectacular blooming Vriesea [now Alcantarea] imperialis lent them by Tom Mentelos of Fantastic Gardens." This show was followed by annual events at Fairchild which have always featured dozens of Nat's spectacular blooming and variegated Vrieseas and Guzmanias. Education was emphasized, with card tables set up in the show room, each featuring a different bromeliad genus.

Nat had always been interested in palms, which to him denoted the tropics. He describes those early years: "Whenever I thought about the tropics I thought about palms. Whenever I went to Fairchild, so I could speak intelligently to the people I was working for, I memorized the labels on the palms. I used to write different people. There were maybe three different nurserymen in Belgium I used to correspond with. One was interested in palm seeds and in return I wanted Neo. carolinae tricolor. Mulford Foster had said it would be a couple of years before he had any to sell."

He became acquainted with Georges DeMeyer, a well-known Belgian bromeliad grower. They sent seedlings back and forth while they were evaluated for commercial qualities depending on their different growing conditions. But the DeMeyers were strictly commercial, while Nat was looking for showy landscaping plants.

He also started corresponding with people in the tropics and the only way he could get their names was through the orchid journals. "I wrote to an orchid man in Cali, Colombia, and we corresponded and even traded certain plants. And then I thought, if I'm going to do a really nice job at Parrot Jungle, it would be nice if I could go into the jungle and see what it was all about. I asked the Colombian about meeting him and the two of us going on a collecting trip. I brought back some heliconias and other plants from Colombia. In some ways my first trip was a disaster, but it was a learning experience. I actually went on three collecting trips to Colombia. I learned that altitude was critical so I always went to the lower areas. I collected in Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador. I was more interested in Guzmanias, anything that looked really colorful. Parrot Jungle had plenty of shade and Guzmanias needed plenty of shade.

"By that time I'd moved from a small house in South Miami to Old Cutler Road, where I had an acre and a half. I did not have real facilities at Parrot Jungle but I was able to use my own place for hybridizing." Hardiness also had to be considered. Nat persuaded Parrot Jungle to build a couple of Quonset type shade houses for protection of ornamental but cold-tender plants - not only bromeliads. These would be displayed in the grounds while they bloomed, pot and all, and returned to the protective huts when they finished flowering.

Nat made the acquaintance of California growers and swapped plants back and forth. He started acquiring orchids from Fred Fuchs, a Homestead orchid grower who was making frequent collecting trips to Latin America. Nat attached the orchids to tree limbs, and placed portable signs that said "Orchids [or bromeliads] in bloom" with an arrow pointing straight up.

By then it was obvious that many visitors went there because of the beautiful gardens. In recognition of his landscaping work, Parrot Jungle renamed the garden "Parrot Jungle and Gardens." I asked Nat about his involvement with the BSI. He told me, "I became a member of the BSI about the time I became interested in bromeliads. I guess the involvement had more to do with expanding my interest.

"There were a number of growers in California, among them David Barry. He was very wealthy and would go over to Europe. He was interested in many plants, not only bromeliads, and it was another way of getting new things. We corresponded some. He was also interested in palms and cycads. I think my first trip to California was to accept the presidency of the Palm Society.

"I was the fifth president of that society from 1964-1966, and David Barry was the second president. So I went out to California and spent a week or so there. That's when I met Bill Paylen and Victoria Padilla. Slowly but surely people were finding out what was happening here. Don't forget, the BSI was almost all California at that time, but I joined because I was interested in the bromeliads. I became a director. Florida was becoming a big bromeliad-growing area. There was an upheaval and the BSI president was forced to resign, and the other directors asked me to be president. I was president just one term. There was a lot of controversy over shows and show schedules. There were more societies in Texas and New Orleans that were on the wane. That seems to be happening in Florida now. I think it's due to the changing of the times, with computers becoming more common and the mass information age. A lot of societies are having difficulties. I worry about these societies that are combining bromeliads with other plant groups."

Nat told me the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies was formed following a meeting with Carol Johnson, a nursery owner in central Florida. Carol was concerned about having accepted the 1980 World Conference and getting enough involvement from other societies. Nat's position was that all societies needed to help each other. By then he felt the societies were getting a little rusty and needed ideas from other people and places.

At about this time, Nat started his famous nursery. He told me he started DeLeon's Bromeliads in 1979 for his sons. "At first we were a retail and mail order nursery. Then we learned about chemicals to induce blooming, and tissue culture was just coming into being. Before that, we used to order plants from the Bak Nursery in Belgium and they would send us the plants in flower, which we'd pot up and sell. Having a retail nursery and mail order business is not the easiest thing, because we'd have people come in and spend an awful lot of time and not an awful lot of money. We knew who the big buyers were. For instance, when we got in Aechmea 'Samurai,' my sons got on the phone and had ready buyers. It still was a tough deal. Eileen and I spent a lot of time feeding our kids because they weren't making a lot of money. So when tissue culture and the chemicals to induce flowering came in, I talked my sons into going wholesale. We bought a five-acre nursery at the present site on 216th Street which is a main road and very accessible. We had a one-acre shade house to start with, which has expanded to 28 acres presently."

I asked Nat which of his hybrids is his favorite. He told me, "One of my favorite bromeliads is Vrieslandsia 'Ultima.' Unfortunately it's not the best plant for Florida because it likes it cool. But I'm not sure I really have a favorite bromeliad. The most sold individual bromeliad would be Aechmea fasciata, and in general Guzmanias are probably the most important genus commercially. Aec. fasciata will probably always be the best seller because it has such a long-lastinginflorescence, and Guzmanias are important because they do well indoors. Part of the early problem was educating people in caring for bromeliads and not 
over-watering them."

Over the years Nat has seen a lot of changes for the bromeliad hobbyist. He pointed out that while there used to be more nurseries, they were more like back-yard growers. Now we have the Home Depots and K-Marts, but unless you get to the store when the plants are first put out, you may buy something that's been neglected.

Finally, Nat said: "While the Journal has been the voice of bromeliads for so many years, I have to mention the everyday voice of bromeliads that has been available for some time now, and that is the Florida Council of Bromeliad Society's web site, Michael Andreas and his wife Karen have done a tremendous job. The web site covers just about every facet of bromeliads and includes the most up to date photos of hybrids made by bromeliad lovers from all over the world. It is truly a work of art!"

This article was originally published in the BromilAdvisory, November 2008, the newsletter of the Bromeliad Society of South Florida.