The Hybridizing Work of Florence Shaw
Bill Meyer
 
 
   In the spring of 2012, a few of us started out to try and resolve the origin of the Aden plants. It had long been a mystery shrouded in the kind of silence and whispers that only threats of lawsuits could produce. An uneasy balance had existed in hosta circles regarding Aden and the plants he had acquired and registered for nearly forty years. Those in the know were aware of several stories of theft and deception, but those stories covered only a small percentage of the 176 plants he had registered. 
   It seemed no one actually knew the origins of the great collection of plants that seemed to have just magically appeared in the hands of someone who had never been known to hybridize. The story that came to light in the course of the investigation was the kind that causes history to be rewritten. It is the story of the hosta world's greatest hybridizer. A story obscured in the smoke of one man's lust for fame and profit and the deceptions that covered his tracks. It is the story of Florence Shaw, the person who moved hostas from just a few similar varieties to the top-selling perennial that it is today.
   In the 1960's Florence and her husband Samual Parkman Shaw lived on a multi-acre estate called Birchwood in Weston, Massachusetts, one of the priciest towns in the Northeast. The gardens there featured a fantastic collection of rare and unusual plants that made it one of the great gardens of its day. In 1970, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society awarded them a medal for their outstanding collection. Those who knew Mrs. Shaw spoke of a wonderful person, kind and generous, who was never one to call attention to herself.
   Florence had been hybridizing irises in the sunnier parts of the garden, but as the trees in the collection grew, more and more of those areas became too shaded for them and she started to become interested in hostas. There were very few hostas commonly available at the time. There was 'Elegans' and its sport 'Frances Williams', 'Lancifolia' and the 'Undulata' types, a few sieboldii cultivars, and of course plantagenia. An uninspiring lot to be sure, with little to get excited about as prospective hybridizing material.
   She utilized her connections in the rare plant collecting community to get her hands on some of the rare new species just arriving from Japan. Into her hands fell some of the very first plants of nakaiana, 'Elatior', and other rare hostas. She had also received from Dr. John Harrison a piece of his prized gold 'Tokudama' seedling called 'Bengee'.

Florence Shaw circa 1940's

   Perhaps the most important of her breeding plants was a streaked sport of the edged sieboldii cultivar 'Marble Rim'. These were to become the building blocks for a hybridizing program that was stunning in the impact it had on a plant genus. With most other genera, progress in developing new varieties was slow, moving in fits and starts over many decades. What the amazing Mrs. Shaw was able to accomplish in a few short years completely changed the perception of hostas and forever altered the shade garden landscape.
   Among the solid clues we have about the extent of her hybridizing program are the small number of plants she thought enough of to share with friends. These became "smoking guns" in trying to unravel the mystery of where Aden got all those plants he had taken credit for. She didn't name the plants she shared, but they were of such remarkable quality for the day that they garnered quite a bit of attention in the small circles of collectors who shared them. It should be noted that in the late 1960's there were no hosta collectors like we see today - there just weren't that many hostas to collect then.
   It appears her hosta breeding began primarily with 'Bengee', and she selected a number of improved 'Tokudama' types in blues and golds from it. Of these, she shared 'Golden Waffles' and 'Love Pat' with others prior to her passing. A number of other blue and gold plants of this type appeared "magically" in Aden's yard soon after he was reported taking plants from Birchwood, and like the two above, he added attractive names to those as well. In the list of Aden registrations, you can see a large number of quality 'Tokudama' types that seems clearly to be from her work with 'Bengee'.
   Also among the few plants she shared from the early period was 'Blue Angel', which likely was developed from Harrison's 'Goliath', but which might have included 'Elatior' in its makeup. It is unclear when she first acquired 'Elatior', but we do know that she shared 'Blue Angel with others some time before she passed away as several people had it, and Aden wasn't even the first to try to put a name on it and claim it as his own. A nursery owner in the area named Royal Bemis had already obtained a piece and named it 'President Woodrow Wilson' and was offering it for sale. Other than 'Blue Angel' and 'Birchwood Elegance', she does not appear to have spent much effort in developing larger plants in her early work, although it is likely that 'Sun Power' also came out of her work with 'Goliath'. 

Parkman and Florence Shaw circa 1960's

   She began working with nakaiana fairly early as well, and perhaps the best of those seedlings was 'Blue Cadet', which she had shared with others prior to Aden registering it as his own. Her personal favorite, probably of all her seedlings, was 'Birchwood Parky's Gold', named for her beloved husband Samuel Parkman "Parky" Shaw. With these two known to be hers at the time, the rather obvious similarities between 'Gold Cadet' and 'Gold Edger' make it clear they were from the same breeding efforts.
   Early work with sieboldii types produced some small gold seedlings that Aden named 'Chartreuse Waves' and 'Lights Up'.
   Work with the streaked 'Marble Rim', which was never named and is presumed lost, also began fairly early. The first plants developed from it were probably the similar 'Neat Splash', 'Yellow Splash', and 'Swoosh', all of which appear to be simply selfed seedlings of it with a very similar appearance. Her later efforts involved crossing 'Bengee' or its seedlings onto it, and she was rewarded with a number of exceptional plants that combined the best attributes of both. Of the streaked plants from that mix, 'Fascination' was known at the time to be perhaps the best, but Kevin Vaughn said that the real star of the group was 'Flow Swirls', which does not seem to exist today. The streaked golds were her favorites of the progeny, and 'Vicki Aden' was also known to be hers.
   Of the stable forms, there is some confusion that we do not expect will ever be resolved because the plants Aden got from Kevin Vaughn included stable forms of similar appearance from his work with the 'Beatrice' seedling he called "73-2" and 'Polly Bishop'. Aden mixed them all together and took credit for them in registrations, and other than the few that were old enough to be recognized at the time, there is no good way to separate the Vaughn and Shaw plants. Most of the variegated ones are probably either hers or Vaughn's, but which are which we can't tell, as many of these were obtained by Aden as young plants and only he knew where they came from.
   Lastly, a late cross was made in the early 1970's that involved 'Bengee' and 'Elatior', and it is from that one that a few large plants came. These included 'Sum and Substance', 'Chartreuse Wedge', and 'Green Wedge'. At the time of her passing these were still immature. 
   The hybridizing work done by Mrs. Shaw might seem mundane today with as many as 100 people doing some hybridizing, but it has to be taken in the context of her time. Her work took hostas light years forward and started them down the road to becoming the what they are today. This remarkable woman advanced the genus so much that there can be little doubt that she was the most important of the early hosta pioneers.
    For my part I find it most rewarding to have been a part of restoring to her the legacy that Paul Aden stole from her. I hope in time the AHS and the registrar can come to  understand that she was the most important hybridizer we had, and give her the credit she deserves. It seems pretty clear that more than 90 of the Aden registrations came from her Birchwood garden. Although only a few were clearly remembered, there was no other possible source for the remainder. 

'Fascination' - one of her breakthrough plants

"Without the work that Florence did, we would never have gotten as far as we did with hostas. She was the one who got it all moving." - Kevin Vaughn

ADEN CONTENTS PAGE
LIBRARY READING ROOM
LIBRARY MAIN PAGE