A Gladiolus Wizard

The story of a Canadian plant breeder whose success with a “hobby” made him world-famous

BRUCE M. PEARCE September 1 1929

A Gladiolus Wizard

The story of a Canadian plant breeder whose success with a “hobby” made him world-famous

BRUCE M. PEARCE September 1 1929

A Gladiolus Wizard

The story of a Canadian plant breeder whose success with a “hobby” made him world-famous


MOST men have a hobby. Many men retire from active business life and spend their declining years in pursuit of a hobby.

This is the story of a Canadian whose hobby became the motivating factor in his life, took him almost completely away from his business, netted him a snug fortune and made him world-famous. But the singular part of his case was that after twenty-five years of headturning success, when he was apparently wholly absorbed by his favorite occupation and making “big money,” he suddenly gave up the enterprise and returned to his downtown office. For the next ten years his hobby received scant attention. But the lure was too powerful and today, in his seventy-sixth year, he is again plunged deeply in his engrossing task, lost once more to all else but the pursuit of the hobby that made him famous.

At the height of his career, the name of H. H. Groff, of Simcoe, Ontario, was mentioned in the same breath with those of Luther Burbank and Dr. Van Fleet, then the outstanding breeders of plant life in the United States. Indeed in his own special department, the hybridization of the gladiolus, he was acclaimed as the greatest genius in two hemispheres.

From Banking to Plant Breeding

AS A young man Harry Groff had been associated with his father in the banking business. The time came when the alternative presented itself of continuing his banking career, or of interesting his active mind in other pursuits. He had been early interested in the breeding of livestock, poultry, pigeons and rabbits and in the fixation of the mutation of Cocker spaniels. At one time he was successful in breeding the only trio of pure white Cocker spaniels in the world. He chose to follow such studies for a short time until the death of his father brought him again into the banking world.

But his hobby would not be denied and the crosspollination of flowers began to engage his attention. He tried several species before he recognized the possibilities of the gladiolus. At one time he grew a large stock of cannas, but found the season in Ontario too short for sufficiently rapid propagation.

He made his first gladiolus cross-pollinations in 1890, and during the years immediate'y following he was in touch with many of the best-known gladiolus specialists of the day. He found great difficulty in making the desired crosses in his early work with the gladiolus species. Moreover, he discovered that many imported varieties of gladiolus were lacking in vigor and quality. But he persisted and his ingenious mind brought into being flowers of great vitality and wondrous beauty.

For ten years he labored quietly and without public notice. Then came the reward. It was the year 1901 and the Pan-American Exposition was being held in Buffalo, N.Y. Mr. Groff decided that Canada should be represented there and he had the temerity to believe that his own hybrids might attract some notice. Cutting the choicest specimens in his gardens, he took them along to Buffalo and secured a space in the Horticultural Show. The average man would have experienced some misgivings in so doing, for the most eminent breeders of plant life on the continent were competing. What chance for a comparatively obscure Canadian breeder!

But Harry Groff had given years of intelligent study to his subject; he knew his ground thoroughly and was confident that he had something unique to display. His confidence was justified by the outcome.

His gladioli captured sixteen first awards, including the Pan-American Exposition Gold Medal for the finest display in the show. His remarkable exhibit of hybrids astonished the oldest growers and unquestionably constituted the most important publicity movement for the gladiolus up to that time. Luther Burbank offered his personal congratulations to Mr. Groff. But even more

built a 40,000 bushel warehouse and in one carload he shipped 400,000 corms to Europe. He was the commercial producer and distributor of Groff’s hybrids. Meanwhile Mr. Groff was kept busy for three years in filling his contract. At the end of that time he received a check for $20,000 from Mr. Cowee.

To understand how Mr. Groff was able to complete this remarkable contract, one must know something of the treimportant, at least from a financial standpoint, was the connection established by the newly found genius with a gentleman who was to become his United States agent for many years, Arthur Cowee. know something of the tremendous work he did following his beginning in 1890. During these years he travelled and corresponded widely, making the gladiolus his chief subject of enquiry and collecting breeding stock from every source which offered. At that time Burbank had been working on the gladiolus for some years. Mr. Groff bought his entire stock and later bought out Dr. Van Fleet whose stock had come originally from Burbank. Incidentally, Mr. Groff had a very tempting offer from Dr. Van Fleet to join him in his work at Silver Hill, N.J., but the former preferred to seek honor and fortune in his native land.

Mr. Cowee had been a coal merchant in Troy, N.Y. He was a great lover of flowers. One day a packet of Groff’s hybridized gladiolus seed came into his possession. The seed produced for him types which represented a great advance over the best varieties of that period. He kept in touch with Mr. Groff and when the PanAmerican Exposition opened he came to Buffalo to assist his friend. The astounding success of the Groff exhibit made such an impression on the mind of Arthur Cowee that he abandoned his business to give his whole attention to the gladiolus.

The result was that the two men entered into a contract whereby Mr. Groff was to furnish Mr. Cowee with two million gladiolus corms within three years. The price was one cent each. Mr. Cowee set about establishing a gladiolus farm at Berlin, N.Y. His place became known as the Meadowvale Farms and was a mecca for gladiolus specialists for many years. He had over 100 acres under cultivation, the largest individual area in the world. He

A Stupendous Task

T_TE BEGAN now to breed new varieties of the gladiolus on a very large scale, often flowering as many as fifty thousand or more new seedlings in a season. He handled literally millions of gladiolus seedlings, selecting the best varieties for further trial. He produced over one million new hybrid gladioli. It is interesting to learn that from one little root he produced over one quarter million cormels. These were known as hybrids of Primulinus and had their origin in South Africa. Cormels of one variety of the Primulinus were sold by Mr. Groff for export at a price of $800 for a small quantity. For many years he supplied high-class hotels and commercial florists in Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere with cut bloom to an amount more than sufficient to pay his annual wage bill.

He had early arranged with Campbell Brothers, of Simcoe, florists, to act as his Canadian representatives. With both the United States and Canadian trade taken care of, he directed his whole attention to the foreign markets, the handling of which he retained for himself. His export catalogue went to nearly every country in the Old World. His annual shipments to Australia, New Zealand, England, France, Holland, Germany and many other countries ran into extensive figures. Groff Hybrids were conspicuously displayed in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Eng., Imperial Botanic Gardens, Tokyo, Japan, and the Public Gardens of Johannesburg. He had over 800 correspondents in different parts of the world.

Meanwhile, inspired by his success at the Pan-American Exposition, Mr. Groff continued his exhibits at all the leading flower shows in Canada and the United States. The height of distinction attained by the Groff gladioli is well illustrated by the following list of his winnings: Grand Prize, World’s Fair, St. Louis, 1904; Gold Medal, Alaska-Yukon Exposition, Seattle, 1909; Gold Medal, Jamestown, Virginia, Tercentennial Exposition, 1907; first prize and Gold Medal, Canadian National Exhibition, 1910 and 1915; five first prizes, American Gladiolus Society, Rochester, N.Y., 1910; awards by the Society of American florists on six different occasions; awards of merit by the Canadian Horticultural Association; Two Gold Medals, Two Silver Medals and Two Medals of Honor at the PanamaPacific International Exhibition. In 1925 he was awarded the Carter Gold Medal by the Canadian Horticultural Council for distinguished service to the cause of horticulture in Canada. A signal honor came to him as early as 1902 when he attended the International Plant Breeders Conference in New York City. He was named with Prof. Bailey, recognized as the outstanding biologist in America, and Prof. Hayes, who later became Assistant Secretary of Agriculture at Washington, as a committee to confer with the Department at Washington with a view to establishing an organization to secure the experienced service of independent investigators in the development of plant life. At this conference Mr. Groff created a sensation by exhibiting a specimen of twin cormels. These had been produced by him by breeding from parents of multiplied floral pieces. The leading plant breeders of the United States had never heard of such a thing.

He Turns His Back on World Renown

' I 'WENTY-FIVE years passed. The young Canadian, who in 1890 without experience or tuition began the hybridization of the gladiolus in a small way, had attained his goal. He had startled the horticultural world by his daring experiments in developing hitherto unknown species of his favorite plant. His name was associated with the gladiolus wherever it was grown. He had made a small fortune for himself as well as for Mr. Cowee.

During these years Mr. Groff issued thousands of bulletins and delivered many addresses to plant breeders throughout America, dealing intelligently and exhaustively with the general truths and principles of plant breeding deduced from his own discoveries in hybridizing the gladiolus. At a convention of the International Plant Breeders Association in New York in 1902, attended by the most eminent breeders in the world, he threw a bombshell among his great audience when he exploded in convincing terms the theory held by most hybridists up to that time that the most valuable results were obtained by breeding back to the “wild” species. He pointed out that his own originating plants of greatest vigor and vitality had been produced by crossing “tame” species. Shortly afterward, the Department of Agriculture at Washington paid a notable tribute to him when it declared: “The Groff gladiolus will

solve one of the most important points in the breeding of plant and animal life.” The Department sent one of its most distinguished specialists, Prof. Harter, to make a microscopic examination of his work.

By 1914 Mr. Groff had reached the peak of his career. He was independently rich and his name was firmly established in the world of plant breeders. Suddenly he announced his impending retirement from what had been virtually his life’s work. He had neglected his banking career to devote the best years of his life to hybridization of the gladiolus. But a quarter of a century in this exacting profession was sufficient even for a man of Mr. Groff’s dynamic energy. “Frankly, I was tired,” he now declares in retrospection. “I felt that I had made some little contribution to the science of plant breeding and perhaps had brought some honor to my home town and country. I was satisfied to stop.”

He sold his entire stock of cormels, turning over to Campbell Brothers the most valuable hybrids and granting them the right to carry on his foreign trade. In a few months war broke out in Europe, so that from a financial viewpoint. Mr. Groff was not a loser. He returned to his bank to which he devoted all his attention until a few years ago when he retired from active business life. Having reached the seventieth year of an extremely busy life, he wanted to enjoy a well-earned rest.

The Old Lure

"DUT his inborn desire to fathom Nature’s secrets as contained in plant life proved irresistible. For many years he had been endeavoring to develop by hybridization a new and superior type of corn. He now concentrated on this effort, and today he is about to realize another dream. His corn, known as Groff’s Golden, has already made a record in private consumption both in the United States and Canada. For flavor and tenderness it is unexcelled. In 1928, the Canadian Canners produced 17,200 pounds of shelled corn from eighteen pounds of the Groff seed. An Ottawa seed firm is featuring it in its catalogues. Of this corn, its author states: “I crossed Golden Bantam (female) with Black Mexican (male). It required years to eliminate the resulting black grains, also the pure white grains, all of which were discarded as useless. I have now the specimen for which I have striven.”

Mr. Groff’s present hobby is the Iris and in the last three years he has assembled one of the largest collections in Canada. He has imported roots from England, France, Germany, Japan and the United States. They include the most valuable specimen on the market for breeding. For two roots of a French variety he paid forty dollars apiece. But he is reticent about this new enterprise: “I am not talking yet about the Iris. I have produced material, however, that cannot be bought in the market of the world at any price. My chief ambition is to develop a distinctive Canadian-grown Iris.”

So we find this man in his seventy-sixth year, a time when most men cease flirting with new ambitions, brushing with the leading scientific minds of the world and intent upon bringing added lustre to the name I of Canada.

What manner of man is this, you ask? Simply an individual with an overwhelming desire to add to the scientific knowledge of mankind. That he still seeks new fields to conquer is characteristic of the man. One of his co-workers tells how for many years in the summer months he was always in his garden before 5 a.m., and how on many an early morning in August, while handling dewy flowers, he had to run up and down between the rows and swing his arms to keep his fingers warm. Mr. Groff is one of those rare individuals who can travel at high speed indefinitely and yet sacrifice nothing to accuracy and thoroughness. His genius is widely recognized, but it was equally the intense application and extreme attention to detail with which he prosecuted his work that brought forth his notable achievements in gladiolus improvement.

Nor have the years robbed him of his untiring energy, his penetration of mind or his pertinacity of purpose. Today, at seventy-six, his tall, spare figure can be seen at almost any hour between early morning and dusk, working with machtnelike precision on bended knees between the rows of plants in his garden. He is a veritable human dynamo, a never-failing reservoir of energy, driving along at high speed and under a tension that would break the ordinary man. Fortunately, his strong physique has been attuned to meet the requirements of a mental equipment that will brook no opposition in its searching quest for scientific knowledge of plant life.

A Triumph of Method

rT'HE methods by which Mr. Groff -*■ achieved his success as a gladiolus breeder are no secret and are easily explained. In the first place, his operations were systematized in the highest degree and his extreme care and thoroughness were not less noteworthy than his extraordinary expedition. Nothing was left to chance. In the heyday of his career he employed a score or more of workmen in his gardens, but although he delegated certain authority to his foreman, he was in close and constant touch with all the operations. His plan of hybridizing was almost incredibly intensive, and one learns with amazement that his plantings never exceeded three acres in extent.

Mr. Groff used tools of his own invention which were fashioned by local workmen under his personal supervision. For instance, he had screens made for use in the fall when the cormels were dug. These had to be thoroughly sifted to separate them from the small pebbles. All of his appliances were designed for speed and efficiency, on which he insisted above everything.

For the actual work of hybridizing he wore belts like cartridge belts made from sections of three-quarter inch rubber hose. He kept two of these on the go in the pollenizing season. On his first trip through the breeding blocks early in the morning he would fill one belt with anthers, which were then set aside until the following morning when the pollen would be ready for use. He would then don the second belt filled with anthers from the day before, with pollen ready for pollenizing, and go carefully through the block of mother plants, usually planted in an isolated place near the house especially for the purpose.

At the very beginning Mr. Groff had selected a certain type of gladiolus known as the Gandavensis Section and concentrated upon it. This gladiolus had come originally from two wild species. But years of inbreeding had deprived it of its vitality. Mr. Groff determined to restore it.

His acreage was divided into two distinct departments, the one devoted to experimental plots and the other, much smaller in area, to his breeding blocks. These were subdivided into color sections. For instance, one block comprised only blue, another white, and a third red gladiolus hybrids. Quantity production was relied on to show up the extremes of variation and to produce the finest types possible from the material used as parents. Mr. Groff did not keep individual records of crosses, but conducted cross-pollination within the color groups only, but on a large scale.

His method of selecting outstanding seedlings differed widely from that in use today. He allowed all the bulbs and cormels from a given group to increase together, and was not unduly impressed by an individual spike of bloom which might happen to appear outstanding. When, however, he found within a group several outstanding blooms of one kind, he would know that he had something really worth while. He would then begin isolating the variety and would consequently start with several test bulbs instead of only one as modern breeders do.

Scouting for Perfection

"pVERY morning during the summer season Mr. Groff made the rounds of his entire plantation. His trips through the main body of his garden were in the nature of scouting expeditions to discover new blooms that gave promise of proving useful in hybridizing work. He carried wired wooden labels painted in several colors. He would walk between two rows of blooming seedlings and each plant would receive a label indicating the color mixture to which it belonged. He would place this label temporarily in the angle between a flower bud and the stem. It would be wired to the stem of the plant below the leaves by two men, who followed him for the purpose, one to each row. Extra fine plants would receive a special mark and would be entered in his notebook. Following the inspection, all flowers would be cut, the “Specials” taken for observation to a solarium built for the purpose and all others sold.

The most fascinating part of the work, however, and that requiring the most expert knowledge was the process of hybridization carried on in the breeding blocks. Mr. Groff would go through these carefully though swiftly every morning between the hours of eight and nine o’clock. At this time the anthers were ready to shed their pollen. He would remove the male organs from the plants which he judged to be of a superior type and place them in his belt in their respective color sections. An assistant followed him to remove all remaining anthers in the breeding blocks. Thus every single plant was emasculated and the anthers carefully set aside for use on the following day.

The next step was the actual application of pollen from the previous day’s anthers to the female plants. Both in removing the anthers and in applying the pollen, Mr. Groff used a specially-made pair of silver pincers which enabled him to snap off the anthers quickly and apply the pollen to the pistils with discriminating care. Throughout the season, as new blooms appeared and old ones disappeared, this procedure was carried on. Of course, fertilization never took place in many instances, but with thousands of blooms at his disposal Mr. Groff was always sure of satisfying results.

In early fall the harvest of seeds began. Not a single seed was permitted to evade the grasp of Mr. Groff, for it might mean thousands of dollars to him. They were carefully stored away in a dry place during the winter and in the spring they were so^r. in seed beds specially prepared for the purpose. Thence sprang the tiny seedlings which in the course of another year would yield the blossoms so expectantly awaited by the hybridizer. Perhaps a hundred of them would measure up to the required standard and would be included in the official list of Groff hybrids. One or two varieties might eventually become world-known. The cormels of these new varieties would then find a place in the breeding blocks.

This achieved, Mr. Groff turned again to the season’s arduous tasks, to the goal of bringing into being another set of new varieties. His list ultimately featured 1,700 varieties, although, as previously stated, he produced in all over one million new hybrids. The commercial end was of lesser interest. As the years passed he left that phase to his Canadian and American representatives. Naturally, he produced untold quantities of cormels; for instance, his hybrid “America” yielded over 300 cormels at the base of each plant. But he was more concerned about the originating of new species.

Honored by his Peers

T—TIS ideal was a flower suited to the commercial flower trade. A few of his hybrids for this purpose are worth mentioning as they are so wellknown to flower lovers. His “Peace,” a perfect white, and “Dawn,” a delicate salmon, had a great vogue for many years; his “Alba Dea” is proclaimed the finest florist’s white on the market; “Golden Dream” is the finest tall-growing deep yellow in commerce; “Century,” an exquisite mauve-pink, quite at home in the best of company; “Louvain,” the best allround commercial pink in the trade, and “Groff’s Majestic,” the most popular red ever produced.

The value placed upon the Groff gladiolus by present-day growers is indicated by this statement from a prominent Ontario hybridizer: “The strains

developed by Mr. Groff are a valuable contribution to those who are now trying to breed more beautiful gladiolus. In strength and vigor of plant and the purity of colors, the Groff stock is surpassed by none. In hybridizing I always try to have one parent of the Groff stock.”

J. W. Crow, a leading hybridizer of the gladiolus and formerly professor at the Ontario Agricultural College, after studying the methods and achievements of Mr. Groff, remarked recently: “It would be difficult to express in print the phenomenal powers of perception and judgment with which Mr. Groff approaches gladiolus varieties. His rating of a new specimen is instantaneous and uncanny in its accuracy. He is by far the best judge of the gladiolus with whom I have ever come in contact.”

The American Gladiolus Society, in electing him to honorary membership in that organization, paid him a tribute of singular worth: “This action was taken as an expression of appreciation from gladiolus lovers wheresoever dispersed throughout the earth, though expressed through this Society, for the wonderful work you have done for this, our flower.”

This mark of esteem is ranked by Mr. Groff along with a more familiar one which found expression from the lips of Prof. W. T. Macoun, Dominion Horticulturist, at the time he presented the Carter Medal—awarded for meritorious service to Canadian horticulture—to the distinguished hybridizer in September, 1925:

“The heights by great men reached and kept

Were not attained by sudden flight;

For they, while their companion? slept,

Were toiling upward in the night.”