George French

An Afternoon with George French
By Pat Neal
Epi News, November 1993 (Volume 18, Number 11)

George French and his daughter Kathy Elliott February 2009
George French and his daughter Kathy Elliott February 2009

After more than 30 years of hybridizing, George French still gets enthusiastic over the potential new flowers he‘s getting from crosses. He is particularly enthusiastic about a cross he did about five years ago- ‘Clown‘ x ‘Lady Ruffles‘.

The growth is outstanding,: he said as he pointed out several pots of epis that have truly magnificent, thick, healthy growth. So far six plants from this cross have bloomed. I‘ve gotten the most beautiful yellows.
Our cover photo is one of those crosses: however, the photo doesn‘t begin to do it justice. George calls the yellow flower with green throat one of the most outstanding yellows he‘s ever seen. He will register ‘Dijonnaise‘ next year. In addition to yellows, some of the ‘Clown‘ x ‘Lady Ruffles‘ crosses has yielded some beautiful red flowers.

Hybridizing epis is a long-term project that requires patience – years of patience.

It can take up to ten years to get a new epi for registration, George explained. It takes about five years to get a blooming plant from seed. Once you get a nice bloom you have to wait at least three years to see if the color stays, if it blooms consistently, and what the growth will be like.

George got into epis more than 35 years ago, after their younger daughter was born. The woman who shared a room in the maternity ward with Made-line raised cacti. Shortly thereafter they visited this woman at her Imperial Beach home. When Madeline pointed out that George also had a small cacti garden, the woman filled an apple box with plants for George. One of those plants was an epi. George made a small mound in his backyard and planted his new cacti. The epi he placed at the very top.

The following spring it had a beautiful, large purple blossom, which piqued George‘s interest.
I called her up and she told me it was a jungle cacti and to put it under partial shade. George promptly moved his first epi and went to the library to research Epiphylums. There he found Scott Haselton‘s handbook, which he read a couple of times. Shortly thereafter he discovered the epi nurseries in Los Angeles and he was on his way to becoming one of today‘s most well-known epi hybridizers.

I started very quietly. George commented on his Point Loma garden, built little by little. First I built the small lath house, which I thought would be enough. Comparing that tiny lath house with what George‘s yard looks like today you can see how his interest and involvement in epis has grown over time.
That pretty little lath house with a little bridge leading into it is now just one small corner of a large covered area off the back of their house. This area is completely paved with stones and is bui9lt of wood lattice and shade cloth. It is filled with epis, hoyas, begonias, Easter cacti and ferns and there‘s still plenty of room for entertaining. It‘s like a huge garden room addition to the house itself. Included in this area is an orchid house George built when he was into orchids. Now it holds mostly seedlings and hoyas. Beyond this garden room is the open back yard. On the west side is another lath house that extends to the end of the yard. On the right are miscellaneous shrubs and trees including a huge bird of paradise, an immense pot of epidendrum, a small cork oak and a large ficus tree surrounded by massive jade plant. George planted the ficus as a seedling and it now has potted epis and other plants hanging from its limbs. Attached high up to its main trunk is an enormous staghorn fern. George said that once it got so heavy it fell. Even after breaking some of it off, he still had to use a pulley to get it back up.

In the beginning, George and Madeline, along with his brother and sister-in-law, would go to the nurseries and have fun picking out different varieties. Today George has more than 1,000 epis. He recently completed a hand-written inventory of all his epis, listing their locations and the size pot each is in.

I hand water once a week with a hose; that takes half a day, George commented. I usually use Osmocote granules to save on fertilizing; it lasts six to eight months. November and December are dormant months, then I start fertilizing with) 10-10-10 in January. On his other plants he uses Miracid soil acidifier 30-10-10 at half strength. He also uses this on his epi seedlings.

Right now I‘m using rhododendron-azalea fertilizer, which is 8-12-4 on the epis. It‘s much cheaper than Osmocote which has nitrogen of 18 and that‘s too high. I like this fertilizer. Since I used this, you can see the results.

Indeed, George has beautiful Epiphyllums. Seeing George‘s epis, you know this is what epis are supposed to look like clean, good growth with lush, thick, healthy branches. Although only two are in bloom on this rainy, mid-October Saturday (‘Padre‘ and ‘Confetti‘), George‘s epis don‘t look straggly and worn out from summer and ready for a dormant winter just the opposite. George‘s expert care encourages the best from his plants.
When or how often I repot is a difficult question. I just go by how the plant is doing. When a plant is not doing too well, you have to repot because there‘s some-thing wrong with the roots. When they‘re root bound, I transfer one size up, from 4 to 5 then to 6. I don‘t overdo the size of pot. By the time they‘re in the 8 beehive pots is when I see what they bloom. I have several in 10 or larger pots. The larger the container, the larger the plant will be, but that doesn‘t affect the size of the flowers.

I use Malathion only when needed, he continued. I use very little now because of potential skin problems it can cause. I avoid it as much as I can. I use Deadline for slugs and snails. Most all of my epis are hanging now because of snail problems.

George didn‘t begin hybridizing until about 1960. Coolidge and the Beahms were coming up with new hybrids; Cactus Pete, too. I decided to try it and see what results I got.

The results he‘s gotten have been spectacular. George has registered more than 200 hybrids. Some of his most well-known hybrids are ‘Jennifer Ann‘, ‘Bayou Belle‘, ‘Coral Dance‘, ‘Crimson Arrow‘, ‘Flamboyant Jeff‘, and ‘Prairie Rose‘.

In addition to an epi named ‘George French‘ (a large, solid deep yellow), George has recognized his family with naming epis after them – his wife, ‘Madeline‘ (soft yellow with ruffled inner petals) their two daughters ‘Judith Joy‘ (orange extra large blossom) and ‘Kathy Jane‘ (large reddish-purple bloom); Grandson ‘Steven‘ (red with brick orange edge) and their grandchildren: ‘Jennifer Ann‘ (large one-tone bright yellow), ‘Billy Boy‘ (small reddish purple), and ‘Shawn‘ (large orange-red and fire-red)

George‘s hybridizing goal is a blue epi. That‘s been a dream for about ten years, he said. But it‘s probably a long way out. George has spent some time studying crosses in other plants and has applied what he has learned to epis. One such study researched daylilies. They‘ve come up with a blue daylily. The most bluish flower I‘ve gotten was from a ‘Malcho‘s Beauty‘ x garden cross. On one graft I got three different colored flowers. I took the bloom that had a lot of blue and crossed it with a white. It‘ll be a few more years till I see how that comes out.

Almost all of George‘s epis are in pots. The few he grafts onto opuntia pads are ones he anticipates needing several cuttings of. If it‘s a very nice, new flower, I‘ll graft it. He recently grafted ‘Dijonnaise‘.

An avid proponent of Epiphyllums, George has been one of the driving forces of the San Diego Epiphyllum Society. He was one of the founding members in 1970 and has served as second vice president, first vice president, president (the second person to fulfill that role), as board member, and as chairman of the annual Mother‘s Day Show for eight years. For 22 consecutive years he has had a display at the Mother‘s Day Show and has had displays at the Wild Animal Park‘s Beauty and the Beast Show 15 years. He has worked as a volunteer at the park‘s epi houses for 18 years and has had numerous open houses and garden tours at his home. In addition, he has donated cuttings for sales and at our annual December awards dinners has donated several seedlings as prizes, giving us a chance to participate in his exciting hybridizing career.

He is probably the only gardener in San Diego who holds impromptu garden lectures through the fence in his back yard. Point Loma High School adjoins his back fence and every spring a teacher brings his pupils out to see George‘s flowers. If George is in the yard, he shows them flowers and answers their questions – no doubt instilling the love of epis in a new generation.