At her fingertips
How a Gresham woman’s magic touch gave primroses new life
Thursday, April 15, 2004
Kym Pokorny for the Oregonian
In spring, fresh primrose petals lolled on the aisles of Florence Bellis’ pollination sheds, one small, velvety petal floating atop another, one shade drifting into another until the pathways unrolled like scarves woven of rainbows.
For Bellis, the primrose path was nothing less than the road of history.
Single-handedly, on a sloping piece of land along Johnson Creek in Gresham, she revolutionized the world of primulas. An old barn served as home, shipping facility and namesake for her Barnhaven primroses, which elevated the plant from novelty status to star of the spring garden.
Amazingly, Bellis started her quest without ever having grown a plant or opening the cover of a gardening book, let alone a botany text. Yet she made hybridizing history, perhaps because she didn’t have the scientific background that would have bound her to accepted procedures. Instead, Bellis relied on instinct, which led her to pass up the paintbrush most hand-hybridizers use to transfer pollen and do it with her fingers, something that had never been done with primroses before.
“By observation I had escaped the tediousness of the traditional brush with its slowness,” Bellis, who died in 1987, wrote in her book “Gardening and Beyond.” “Instead of each stigma being lightly brush-touched with pollen, my fingers transferred a heavy load making the seed set phenomenal.”
That early discovery was, as she put it, “the wings on which the operation flew” and a practice widely used today. From there, Bellis took off on a 30-year odyssey to improve the Acaulis and Polyanthus groups of primulas. Color was her first objective, though size, form and fragrance were not forgotten. She despised the muddy colors of many primroses, says her longtime friend, Anita Alexander, and set out to emphasize clear, clean colors.
“Until she started, there were blues or yellows or reds or whites,” Alexander recalls. “She separated them into strains by selecting two that best typified the color she wanted, crossed those, planted their seeds and kept doing that until the gene pool was pure.”
After years of patient hand-crossing, Bellis did what no one else had been able to do: breed primrose hybrids that would come true to seed. Traditionally propagated by cuttings, original primula lines got weaker and more disease-prone as time went on. Bellis was not only able to improve Polyanthus and Acaulis primroses, but she also succeeded in separating the colors into strains and keeping them true to seed at least half the time.
The result is what British plantsman Jared W. Sinclair, who bought the Barnhaven collection from Bellis, calls “the aristocrats of the primrose world.” After Bellis sold her business, some of her strains eventually ended up in the hands of European breeders, including Otka Plavcova, a genetic researcher in Prague, who for 40 years has worked to stabilize Bellis’ hose-in-hose primroses, a primula that dates from the 16 century.
Hose-in-hose, named after the fashion folly of Elizabethan courtiers who wore two pairs of stockings, folding one down to reveal the inner sock, look as if one flower is emerging out of another. Fragrant and hardier than any other primrose, the hose-in-hose line is slowly making a comeback thanks to the efforts of Dutch seed wholesaler Kees Sahin. The Oregon connection comes full circle as Log House Plants in Cottage Grove becomes the exclusive grower of ‘You and Me’ hose-in-hose primroses, a series directly descended from the Barnhaven collection.
Bellis wouldn’t be impressed with all the hoopla surrounding her work, says her friend Alexander, who met Bellis in 1954. “She was matter-of-fact about her accomplishments. What was important to her was what the people she considered her peers thought.”
What mattered to Bellis was the work itself. A workaholic with more patience and determination than a dog on point, she was happiest when productive. But primroses were not her whole life. She loved music and had been a concert pianist before her career stalled in the early ’30s. She was fond of cooking, reading, writing and had an enormous intellectual curiosity.
“We never ran out of conversation. She loved to sit and relax with a glass of wine and discuss books, current affairs, places in the world. She was very well-read.”
Alexander can still remember her first look at Bellis’ Barnhaven catalog. She was living in Bend in the ’40s and trying to garden “in that miserable climate” when she sent for one.
“It was different than any other catalog,” says Alexander, 85 and gardening strong at her home in Sandy. “She was a poet the way she wrote about each plant. It ended up being salesmanship but that wasn’t her objective. It was sharing her delight.”
She didn’t much like sharing it in person, however. Fans dropping by out of the blue weren’t welcomed with open arms by Bellis, who didn’t suffer fools or interruptions kindly.
“She was very particular about honesty, she was particular about a lot of things,” remembers Alexander. “Rae Berry was the same way. That’s why they didn’t have many friends. They didn’t want them.”
Alexander was always amused at the difference between Bellis and Berry, two great plantswomen with opposite goals. Bellis spent her adult life hybridizing. Berry, a respected plant collector who left the legacy of Berry Botanic Garden in Southwest Portland, grew only species and never had any of Bellis’ plants in her garden. But they were fast friends and steadfastly supported each other.
Alexander met Bellis when Alexander moved to the Portland area in the ’50s with her second husband. For her first gift, Alexander’s new husband drove out to Barnhaven and bought several primroses. Of course, she had to have more and drove out herself.
“Florence liked me because I didn’t take up a lot of her time. I walked the fields on my own. I told her I would not touch anything, and I would watch where I put my feet.”
From then on, they were friends. Both were starting second marriages. Both were raising children. Both loved to keep up on everything. Bellis, a tall, handsome woman with long legs and thick, red hair usually twisted into a bun, was meticulous about everything, including her skin.
“She used to say so many people who work outside end up looking like witches,” Alexander remembers. “But she used apricot oil, vitamin E, all sorts of lotions. Her skin was smooth and unwrinkled till the day she died. Rae used to say, ‘Anita, Florence is always giving me a tale of woe about how bad she feels. But she looks so good, I don’t know if I believe a word of it.’ ”
But when Bellis talked about primroses, you could believe it. She collected and grew all sorts of primulas, a complex genus that includes more than 400 species. She concentrated on the Polyanthus and Acaulis groups because she knew she could make a living off them. And she was right. As Bellis began writing about her strains in local newspapers and for the Quarterly of the American Primrose Society (a national group she helped found in Portland in 1941), the sturdy, beautifully shaded Barnhaven primroses began to sweep into America’s gardens. So popular, they were planted in great swaths in public parks and, for 30 years, in the large borders around Bonneville Dam.
“You could grow beautiful, beautiful primroses from her stock,” says Alexander, who’s been a member of the Primrose Society for 50 years.
What made Bellis do it? Why, after her musical career petered out during the Depression, did she spend her last $5 on primrose seed from England and abruptly turn to horticulture?
The only explanation she gives in her book is a simple one, “I had never grown a plant, but for some reason, still unknown, I had fallen in love with primroses.”
Love may have led Bellis down the primrose path, but there was nothing easy about it. When she sold the business in 1965, she and her husband, Bob, built a house overlooking the ocean in Lincoln City. During the last year in Gresham, a visitor to Barnhaven said to Bellis, “So much beauty — you must feel like God!”
Bellis answered, “I feel more like bed.”
She must have missed the barn in Gresham. The hillside filled with shrubs, roses and perennials maintained by her husband. The winding gravel path that led up to a flat piece of land where the remains of an old apple orchard sat, trees kept short with judicious pruning, white petals raining down on the hundreds of primroses growing below.
WHERE TO GET ‘YOU AND ME’ PRIMROSES
At the Log House Plants Web site, www.loghouseplants.com, you can find a list of retailers in Oregon and Washington.
How to Grow Primroses
— Plant in a moist, well-draining soil, rich in organic material.
— Grow in light shade, preferably under deciduous trees where they’ll get full sun in winter and light shade in spring and summer.
— Mulch with compost in fall.
— If soil isn’t naturally moist, water is necessary in dry months.
— Feed in early summer with a balanced fertilizer.
— Divide plants every two or three years in spring after flowering or in fall. Dig them up, cut clumps into two or three and replant right away.
Gems from “Gardening and Beyond” by Florence Bellis (Timber Press, 1986):
“It would be hard to say which is the more important — the planting or the placing,” comparing the site vs. the hole when planting.
“Clay is the Cinderella of the soil,” bemoaning the reputation of the much-maligned soil type.
“Sand is usually recommended to open clay, but mason sand packs and coarse concrete sand is only a boy trying to do a man’s job,” in recommending 3/4-minus to break up soil.
“In indecisive climates, such as the Pacific Northwest . . . I find spring planting very much safer.”
“When the procreation period ends and allure has served its purpose we, like the flowers, lose the freshness of youth.”
“Plants want only what Nature gives them — the amount of sun or shade they like, air around their roots and tops, water, and the residues of life — and for us to stop fussing so much.”
“When you plant seeds that bear the stamp of your own hand your thoughts are in full bloom the year around.”
“Plants much prefer an old-fashioned consummation with their natural lovers but should bird, wind or insect fail in the nuptial visit, then self-marriage is better than no marriage at all,” about self-pollination.
“The first flower to bloom on Earth was insignificant and wind-pollinated but it changed our planet to the same extent as the most cataclysmic upheaval.”