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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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 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,
http://fcbs.org/ 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.