Building the Case
Bill Meyer

 

   When I first started attending hosta meetings in the mid-1990's, many famous hosta people would be present at them and Aden's name came up sometimes. I can't remember a good word ever said about him, and he himself did not seem to be a member of any society other than the AHS, and he did not attend the AHS conventions either. He was a recluse, living in his Baldwin home on Long Island. No one seemed interested in contacting him for any reason. 

 
 

Aden (r.) with Carl Christ at the 2001 AHS Convention - the last he attended.

   I attended several meetings of the Tri-State Hosta Society on Long Island while Aden lived there and saw no sign of him. One day near the end of the century Tri-State decided to invite Aden to speak at one of their meetings. The hostility level directed at Aden was so high that some of us were recruited to sit next to luminaries like Alex Summers and Warren Pollock to act as bouncers if that hostility erupted during Aden's talk. Things remained peaceful, but it certainly was an interesting day.
   In the Northeast, the stories about Aden were well-known and always circulating. He was the bogeyman in many hosta circles, but still the golden boy in the wider horticultural world. The great founder of the AHS, Alex Summers, for whom the society's highest award is named openly called Aden a liar and a thief and vowed to prevent him from receiving that award because he had done nothing to deserve it. On the other hand, famous New York Times garden columnist Ann Raver wrote of Aden in glowing terms as "one of the world's most humble and most dedicated hosta growers". Which Aden was the real Aden?

   Although the Court of Public Opinion doesn't have any clear rules about evidence, it is always in session. There will always be those who want to take upon themselves the right to make a determination for everyone, but over time people can and will decide for themselves. In the course of the investigation I admit that I have reached my own personal conclusion regarding the provenance of the Aden plants, but it is not my intention to decide their fate for everybody. I have a right to decide for myself and so does everyone else. No one has the right to decide for all of us. 
   To reach my decision I had to look at many aspects of the case. The weight of all the testimony over all the years since 1974 is very heavy on one side of the scale, and remarkably light on the other. Many highly respected people had nothing good to say about Aden - he was in fact despised in some circles.
   Aden for his part refused to discuss the background of the plants he was questioned about. He maintained he had a right to keep that as a trade secret, that if he told everyone how he had produced them then they would all be doing it. That is a plausible reason for secrecy, but one that has some holes, most notably in his apparent lack of any knowledge of hybridizing. How could a person who had produced a great number of spectacular variegated plants be totally unaware that variegated seedlings only come from streaked pod parents? That is one of the first things he would have learned if he had in fact created those plants himself.
   Then there was the major issue of where he was doing the hybridizing. Hybridizers know that the huge and remarkable list of Aden registrations was the result of a lot of crossing and seedling growing and selection. A hybridizing program of the necessary size and scope is hardly invisible as it would involve thousands of seedlings under evaluation at any given time. Many were baffled by the lack of any such hybridizing efforts at Aden's home, and skeptical of his stories of secret seedling beds elsewhere. Had he let even one person see those secret beds he would have quelled all those rumors about the plants not being his. The mystery of the seedling beds is a key part of getting to the bottom of the plant origins. They grew in somebody's seedling bed and if Aden had no such beds of his own, then the plants simply couldn't be his. 

The lost 'Royal Rainbow' in 1978

   Aden's very first registrations were of four plants: 'Blue Cadet', 'Gold Cadet', 'Gold Regal', and 'Sun Glow'. Of the four, 'Blue Cadet' was known to be a Florence Shaw plant that she had shared with friends for several years. The others looked like the plants she was working with too, but no one can confirm that they were with any certainty. That aside, with the inclusion of 'Blue Cadet' in his first registrations, a plant Aden clearly knew was Florence Shaw's, without mentioning her name on the registration card, it was clear that Aden had no qualms about taking credit for the work of others.  Two years later, Aden registered another 23 hostas which included 3 more that were known to be Mrs. Shaw's.
 
 Several other clear cases of taking credit for the work of others followed, but those were only a small number of the plants he registered. Information about all the rest has been hard to come by. Aden himself not only left no records, but actively sought to conceal the origins of the plants he registered. So the question becomes one of determining whether he was in fact the hybridizer he posed as but never actually claimed to be, that did a few bad things but otherwise did great work of his own, or was it all a great deception with plants from others that he just pretended were his work?
   In a fraud case, when it goes to court in the U.S., what is looked at is what's called the "fraud triangle". First of the three points of the triangle is motive, or why someone might be moved to commit the fraud. Second is opportunity, or whether they had a situation where it was possible for them to commit fraud and to conceal it after the fact. Third is rationalization, or why it was OK, or at least not so bad for them to do it in their own mind.
   Paul Aden, who lived a quiet and unremarkable life as a schoolteacher on Long Island, sought the limelight throughout his alternate career in horticultural circles. There is no doubt that he coveted fame and fortune in the world of ornamental plants, sometimes to grandiose excess such as calling himself the "Father of Hosta".
   Opportunity is very interesting. In order to pull it off, he needed a very special and unusual set of circumstances. First, he needed to find someone or more than one person who had been doing a lot of hybridizing and had produced a body of work that topped everything done before. 
   He did find two that fit the bill and was confirmed to have contact with and acquire numerous plants from both. Not only did he need to find a source, but that source had to keep quiet about him taking credit for the plants. The first source, Florence Shaw, passed away soon after. The other, Kevin Vaughn, was strung along for years with empty promises.
   The second thing necessary to provide the opportunity was a weak and undeveloped plant society and community devoted to hostas. He left the daylily world after some undefined controversy, perhaps because the opportunity to advance himself on the work of others did not exist there. The hybridizing scene in the daylily field had been established for decades, and the community attitudes about theft and fraud were firm as it gets. A well known daylily story has a person who stole pollen from a hybridizer's garden virtually ostracized for the crime. The American Hosta Society was small and newly formed in the early 1970's, and the few people hybridizing hostas did not have much contact with each other.  
   The third thing was a registration authority he could use to establish himself in everyone's minds as the official person who created the plants. When the AHS created the registration authority for hostas in 1974, Aden was waiting at the door and immediately registered a "test batch" of four apparent Florence Shaw plants while she was still alive but in deteriorating health. When they were accepted without question by the brand-new Registrar, he knew he was in.
   Lastly, he needed to conceal and protect his assertions that the plants were his against any change in registrars or AHS officials. He was able to become a board member of the AHS and remain one for 13 years, maintaining a position where he could fight any talk about revealing his secret with threats of lawsuits. Because he was making quite a bit of money from the plants, and that could be threatened by revelations about the sources of the plants, it was believed by many that he really would sue anyone who interfered.  
   Our research committee was able to identify two hybridizers in the Northeast that both had contact with Aden and were possible sources of most of the early Aden plants. We next looked into the type of material they had to work with and whether they had the necessary parent plants to create the plants that Aden registered. Our committee was made up of hybridizers, most with 15 years or more experience. Plants like 'Elatior' and streaked pod parents were extremely rare at that time, and absolutely necessary for a hybridizer to produce those plants.
   After learning what Florence Shaw was working with, all of us on the committee agreed that she had the ability to produce most of the early Aden registrations. In looking into her further, we found that she had a hybridizing program of sufficient size and scope to account for many of the most well-known "Aden plants". A similar evaluation was made regarding Kevin Vaughn's work. Both clearly possessed and were using the necessary parent plants, and creating plants of the type Aden registered. Both as well had Aden taking plants from their gardens without permission. We looked too to see if there were any other hybridizers who were doing similar work that could have been the source for some of the plants. Of those we know were working with hostas at that time, none let Aden have any plants and some, like David Stone, had no contact with him at all as far as we could determine.
'Blue Cadet' - the first one he took credit for
   The final point on the fraud triangle is rationalization that what he did was OK. As Aden never admitted where he got the plants he registered, we will never know for sure what went on in his head as he road them to fame and fortune. His few supporters do offer some rationalizations that likely were part of his own thinking. Foremost of these is that if he hadn't gotten those plants and moved them into the marketplace they might well have been lost forever. There is some truth to that, but he could have credited the people whose plants they were and accomplished the same if that were his goal. Maybe they would have gotten some of the money and that was the reason he tried to pass them off as his own. Maybe it was the fame, the opportunity to pass himself off as a great hybridizer that caused him to do it. We'll never know for sure if he even did rationalize his actions.
   I knew him only briefly in the later years of his life. Between trying to pass off a few plants in his yard as his own work, he would tell endless stories that were not remotely believable, stories that mostly had him interacting with famous people of the day like Albert Einstein and Benjamin Disraeli. Paul Aden certainly had an active fantasy life.
   The last time I saw Aden was a particularly telling one. Again invited to speak at a meeting of the Tri-State Hosta Society, he was approached by a new-to-hosta Kathie Sisson. She had a copy of a hosta book and asked Aden to autograph a page with one of the plants he had registered on it. Aden declined, saying "That's not my plant." She turned to another famous "Aden plant", and again Aden declined, saying "That's not my plant." A bit flustered, she turned to one popular Aden registration after another. 'Sun Power', 'Blue Angel', 'Sum and Substance', 'Fragrant Bouquet', etc. Aden kept saying they were not his and when she gave up he just walked away.
   I didn't know what to make of that at the time, but have since come to believe that it was Aden finally tiring of maintaining the great deception. He no longer cared to try to get people to believe the plants were his own originations. The game was up, and he was tipping over the king on the board.

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