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
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
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
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
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.
- one of her breakthrough plants
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