History of Epi Houses Remembered
This is an up-dated version of an article in 1993 on the Wild Animal Park epi houses.
Although it has been 15 years since the opening of the current epi display house at the Wild Animal Park (WAP), SDES’s involvement with the park goes back much further than that. In 1976 Honorary Life Member Howard Jones got the epi collection off the ground at the park. Under Howard’s guidance, SDES members began volunteering their time and experience in making the Wild Animal Park’s epi collection the most outstanding public collection in the world.
Howard, hybridizer of the popular epi “Miss Escondido”, worked at the Park every Thursday. During the “Green Thumb Show” weekend in May 1981, Howard gave an hour long behind-the-scenes tour of the Wap’s greenhouses, including two epi lath houses built by SDES members. In the May 13, 1981 edition of Epi News, Pat Stebbins wrote, “Those epis growing in the 16-inch clay pots are just stunning, so large and healthy. Howard’s loving care and hard work is evident wherever you look and the society is multi-blessed that he didn’t take up wood-carving or sailing instead of epis!”
By mid-1982 the lath house opened to the public was deteriorating and SDES began planning a new one. In July, volunteers began an inventory of the plants and began laying the plumbing for the new house. Volunteer Nate Ogdon kept everyone up-to-date on their progress in a series of articles in Epi News. That August he wrote, “While we were inventing, the plumbers got going on the sprinkler system. One pushing, one pulling and one cutting and gluing tees for the sprinkler. The plumbers got started on the original house (here, I think that Rube Goldberg DID do the original plumbing), in and out, under and over, but that didn’t take long and soon the basic pipe work was done and tested, but alas, not enough sprinklers….” The Wild Animal Park leveled the site for the new house in September and in October, California Conservation Corps crews dug post holes. On October 16, 1982, the first pipe was cemented in. “Now for the hard part,” Nate wrote in November. “The Brainwork, We tried that for about an hour and finally gave up and started putting the pipes in the holes that the CCC boys had drilled for us. Gotta admit thought, that some of those holes were more than a little out of line (but thanks, fellows)… Out cement mixer crew, Ed (Post) and Leroy (Schraeder) fired up the old mixer and Putti-Putti, away we went!
“Some of us moved pipe up to the holes, others started getting them aligned, hopefully straight, up and down, both left and right…. Now the project is going like wildfire– well almost. Soon we had two of them in, then another, and another- and just when we had got the hang of it – time out for lunch. And only five to go to finish one row of the brutes—oh well, not bad when we had put 26 to standing tall.”
A group of Navy chief petty officers welded the framework and in February, 1983, the shade cloth went up. “After the upright posts were in place (no easy task in itself, thanks to the working party again), the top had to be put on – so using some “connections”, three Navy chiefs came to our rescue. They had to work against time, working on their weekends in some of the worst weather in years and finally, one week before the Western Pacific deployment, it was done.” One of those Navy chiefs was Nate’s nephew. Nate recalled the weather that they had to work in as “a hellatious wind storm.”
In March, 1983, volunteers began moving in potted plants. “A good-sized working party mustered at the WAP to commence the moving of plants from the upper house and the old house,” Nate reported in the April 1983 “In due time, after bending hooks on the wires and the usual discussion, always in calm, quiet voices, we got started… Gene (Lund) and Co. put up a lot of ties on the Saran. That area is shaping up pretty good. George French has done work on the Saran since this date. It took a little while, but finally one could see what the new house was going to look like from the plant viewpoint. They should love it– lots of growing room, lots of light and moving air.”
Once the Saran was up, things started moving fast. “Now the gravel. Now the wire hangers. Now plants. Now, after six and a half months of volunteer labor and donations, it was done.”
The lath was stained and George French cut and painted giant wooden replicas of his hybrid epi “Jennifer Ann” which were hung on either side of the main entrance. Also out front was hung a plaque containing the names of the volunteers and donors who made the new display house possible. While the wooden epis are gone, the plaque remains.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held April 1983. Nate wrote, “No press, no TV coverage, just about three dozen stalwarts there to watch Jim Gibbons, WAP horticulturist, and Howard Jones cut the ribbon at 10:30 a.m., and the job was done… Then the hourly tours from the covered trail where, since 8:00 a.m., members had set up tables of blooms to whet appetites of the buying public.” Later that afternoon a potluck was held in the new house and about 165 “epiholics” attended. “It’s not all done though,” Nate wrote in June. “We are still moving plants in and out, back and forth, from one house to the other. At the end of each working day it looks a little more done.” In June, the WAP poured a cement ramp at the entrance.
Originally the house had a center aisle that ran the length of the house. Meetings, luncheons and classes were often held in the display house after it was finished. The first Epi Con (1986) was held in the lower house. Today the aisle zigzags back and forth, slowing visitors down to look at the epis.
SDES volunteers didn’t stop once the house was done. They continued to visit the park and host visitors at the epi house. In the July 1983 Epi News George French wrote, “June 25 was my day to host… At 9 a.m. I raked leaves that blew in the entrance, then cleaned old blooms from the plants. In doing so, I counted 160 beautiful blooms for the day’s showing, and another 50 blooms in the upper house. At 10:00 o’clock the first visitors arrived, and from then on an average of 10 to 20 people were in the shade house all day. The best blooms on display were four giant “Sundance.” In the reds, “Radiant Fire” also had four blooms. Many visitors picked a perfect bloom of “Dark Star” as their favorite. In the pink class, “Flirtation” would be my choice and “Ben’s Laura” in the white category.”
Dick Chadwick, who pitched in to supervise work parties after Nate fell ill, recalled that at one time the park had three epi houses. The original one was a “log house” made of untreated tree trunks. “We outgrew that one and built the Howard Jones House which is what we call our work house or upper house now. The log house started to lean and we tried to brace it, but it finally pulled itself down. By then the new house was built.
Other milestones for SDES volunteers at the park include 1985 when the WAP horticulture department presented “Friends of the Green” plaques to George French, Nate and Dorothy Ogdon, Howard Jones, Ron and Joan Miller and Dick Chadwick in recognition of their support for the botanical side of the park. (Though some of these friends have passed on, several were able to join us as our guests at our annual awards banquet on December 13, 2007: George French, Ron and Joan Miller, and Jim Gibbons, the then horticulturist for the WAP, but an active member of SDES as well).
On April 19, 1986, Gina Lollobrigida, Italian actress and photographer, toured the epi house and spent time photographing the flowers.
Today, the two shade houses are called the “lower house” and the “upper house”. The “lower house” is open to the public spring through fall and displays over 600 plants, about 40 or which are species and related epiphytes. In 2005 a special section was dedicated to hybrids of George French, known as the “George French Collection”. Mel Horstman fashioned a beautiful wooden sign that identifies this area of the house.
The “upper house” (the “Howard Jones House”, located behind and uphill from the display house) is considered a work house as well as a storage house for several hundred more epis. All of the plants in both houses were donated by SDES members and are officially property of the Wild Animal Park.
Maintaining the epi collection has been a challenge: from protecting the plants from winter weather to protecting them from deer. There’s always a new problem, challenge, or project to tackle. “For a while the deer were eating the fuchsias in the fuchsia house,” Dick (Chadwick) recalled. “Once they (WAP) fenced the fuchsias, the deer started on the epis. They finally had to start keeping the shade cloth down and closing the doors to keep deer out.”
Caring for more than 1,500 plants can be time consuming, but volunteers have developed an efficient, workable routine. With 12 volunteers working in teams of two, all the plants in both houses can be fed in one morning. The plants are fed twice a year with granule fertilizer– in February with 0-10-10 to promote blooms, and after the blooming season in July or August, with 8-12-4. Workers weed and trim as they manually fertilize each plant.
Sprinklers are automatically set to go on twice a week for 45-minute periods during the spring and summer. In particularly hot, dry spells, additional hand watering is frequently done.
With the often freezing winter nights the WAP experiences, protecting the epis has been a real challenge, and, until recently, not always successful.
The house was covered with plastic and heaters were installed in January 1989, but that didn’t prevent a severe frost from nearly wiping out the entire collection in March, 1990. The south side of the house was the worst hit. Many plants were lost and heater failure during the cold spell was blamed. While members still displayed blooms during the annual Green Thumb Show that year, they were not able to sell cuttings. The following January, all the plants were removed from the hangers and placed in plastic huts to protect them from frost. The current system was then installed. The lower house is closed for the winter, with the two entrance flaps secured and sprinkler heads are adjusted to a fine mist that covers a seven-foot radius. An automatic temperature gauge is set to turn the mist on when temperatures drop to 30 degrees; they stay on until the temperature rises five degrees. So far, this method has proved successful; few plants have been lost to frost damage.
In 1992 and 1993, volunteers transplanted the epis into 7 x 8½ inch dark green composition pots and gradually retired the heavy, old terra cotta pots. The plants look like they’re in terra cotta pots, but, in fact, they’re in green plastic pots inside the terra cotta.
Today, care of the WAP epi collection is under the supervision of Jerry Moreau. On the Saturday following each SDES general membership meeting, volunteers meet at the park to care for the hundred of plants in the two houses. In addition to caring for the plants, volunteers maintain the lath house structures and keep the grounds inside the houses looking spiffy.
Cuttings from the Park’s collection are sold in the Park’s “Nairobi Plant Trader”. The profit from these cuttings makes the Epiphyllum houses totally self-sufficient. Income covers the cost of fertilizer, pots, labels, potting mix, and tools. It paid for new shade cloth for the display house. This year, it covered the cost of painting the pipes that were showing much rust and updating the sprinkler system. Work continues. Hand-written plastic tags were replaced with typed, easy-to-read labels on aluminum plates. These labels should last many years.
Visitors are drawn to the Wild Animal Park by the allure of the Animal Kingdom and few expect to see the extensive plant collections maintained there. The Epiphyllum collection housed at the Park is the finest collection on public display and is one of the reasons why the Wild Animal Park qualifies as a botanical garden.
SDES salutes all of the volunteers who have contributed to the construction and maintenance of this exceptional collection.
Safari Park Epiphyllum Curators/Coordinators
1976-1990 Howard Jones
1990-1999 Pat Barrett
2000-2008 Roger Chapin
2008-Present Jerry Moreau