Back in the early 2000s, I printed out every exchange from the International Bulb Society email list that discussed the bulb genus, hymenocallis (spider lilies). Most conversations originated with Victor Lambou, who was obviously an authority on the genus. It’s now been years since the Bulb Society went defunct and I had lost track of Vic and his work. I, and others assumed that Victor had passed away and his plant collection had vanished, as is usually the case with keen specialty plant collectors, whose families don’t share the same passion or have an appreciation of the importance of their collections.
I was on the road visiting nurseries in late March, when I received a phone call that could best be described as horticulturally shocking. A friend from the American Iris Society was calling to share that they had been contacted to gauge their interest in the iris collection of a Florida plantsman, Victor Lambou, who was in declining health. “Had I ever heard of Vic”, they asked. That call set in motion a series of events that would culminate in a massive plant rescue this September.
Victor Lambou, 92, of Tallahassee, Florida (no relation to Curly Lambeau of the better-known Lambeau Field) is a well-known, retired Environmental Aquatic Biologist, who had a career with the EPA as a fish specialist. In his latter years, Victor became interested in native aquatic plants, primarily in the genus Iris and Hymenocallis. His career travels through swamps and bogs allowed him to locate and rescue several rare and significant plant species, as well as numerous variants within those species. His work in cultivating and later breeding these plants resulted in a botanically significant world class collection that is quite worthy of preservation.
Due to his advanced age, Victor had been unable to maintain his collection since 2017, and is now living in an assisted living facility. In August, after five months of working through the court system, the Florida Court system, with the approval of the trustee and Victor, granted us ownership of his entire plant collection.
The next step was a one-day scouting trip in late August to access what actually remained, the condition of the plants, and if a rescue was feasible. Not only were the plants still in great shape, but the project was much larger than I could possibly have imagined. The highlight, of course, was a chance to finally meet Victor in person and chat about his collection.
Victor’s plant collection consisted of approximately 2000 tubs of plants. Our visual rough estimate put the plant count to be between 30-40,000. Because of the aquatic nature of Victor’s plant collection, all plants were all grown in sealed-bottom tubs of mud, each weighing 60-100 lbs. Plants were meticulously arranged by block, row, and then position within the row. Victor’s last plant inventory in 2017, showed 617 unique plant taxa (taxa = genetically distinct individual). Were it not for Victor’s containerized system of growing plants aquatically, it’s doubtful that anything would have survived four years of neglect.
Victor’s list included 407 taxa of hymenocallis, 138 taxa of iris, and 44 taxa of crinum, and a few assorted other plant genera. To put Victor’s hymenocallis collection in perspective, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which maintains the world’s only global database of living plant collections in botanic gardens, only lists 118 hymenocallis taxa preserved in collections worldwide. In other words, Victor had almost 3.4 times the worlds entire collection of hymenocallis is his backyard.
My initial assessment was followed by a full-fledged rescue in early September. JLBG staff members Amanda Wilkins (garden curator), and Zac Hill (plant records/taxonomist), and JC Raulston Arboretum director, Mark Weathington joined me for the 9 hour drive to Tallahassee, stopping briefly to pick up a 15′ U-Haul once we arrived in Florida.
We also extended invitations to 25 gardens/plant collectors. Of that group, 10 were able to participate. The botanical gardens/staff who participated and will be housing plants from Victor’s collections include:
Hayes Jackson Longleaf Botanical Garden, AL
Pat Lynch Bok Tower Gardens, FL
Mark Weathington JC Raulston Arboretum, NC
Andy Cabe Riverbanks Botanical Garden, SC
Todd Lasseigne Bellingrath Gardens, AL
Once we began the site rescue, we discovered that approximately 10% of the collections were no longer alive, leaving approximately 555 living taxa. Our rescue efforts were not focused on named cultivars of plant species that were already established in commerce (approximately 93 taxa), or un-identified taxa (approximately 24 taxa), or open pollinated seedlings (approximately 10 taxa). Consequently, rescue efforts were aimed at the 428 most important taxa.
None of the tubs were labeled, but thankfully Victor had extensive bed maps, which the trustee made available. Without these, the plant collection would be botanically worthless. Two full days were spent extracting plants from the muddy tubs. We tried an array of extraction methods, but finally found it best to employ the back-breaking task of upturning each container and sift through the muck to extract the plants.
Small quantities of some varieties were labeled and stored in Ziploc bags, while larger quantities were stored in community pots.
Not only were the plants interesting, but Victor also had one of the larger collections of Lubber grasshoppers that I’ve ever encountered. These voracious critters seem to love the plants as much as we did. Of course, these protein filled insects reduced the need for frequent snack breaks. I’d always heard the slogan that Virginia is For Lovers, but little did I know that Florida is for Lubbers.
The rescue became slower and more challenging, when unbeknownst to us, Tropical Storm Mindy had formed virtually on top of us, during our second day of rescue. Consequently, there wasn’t a dry eye…or anything else in the place when we finished and loaded the U-Haul for the return trip.
Rescue team/plant relocations
The next phase of the rescue operation is scheduled for Sept 20, 2021. This will involve the Louisiana Iris Society Historical Preservation Group. This subgroup of the American Iris Society has species conservation stewards who will each house a replicated collection of Victor’s iris. Of the 138 Iris taxa in Victor’s collection, there are 24 different taxa of the southeast native Iris hexagona. Currently, the Iris Preservation Network only has 6 taxa, so these are extremely valuable for conservation purposes. Juniper Level Botanic Garden also has a duplicate collection of Victor’s iris.
When the final phase of the rescue is complete, Victor’s plants will have been distributed to 9 botanical gardens and 5 private collectors gardens. We have instructed these gardens to share with other gardens in appropriate climatic zones, so we feel confident that Victor’s collections will continue to be shared and conserved even more widely.
JLBG spent 392 labor hours on the rescue, including 76 hours on site at Victor’s garden. Our team from Juniper Level Botanic Garden was able to rescue 291 taxa. Taxa that were too tender to live outdoors in our Zone 7b, were sent to gardens in warmer climates. The total number of plants rescued and now housed at JLBG is 5000 plants. This does not include the additional collections which are housed at our sister institution, the JC Raulston Arboretum.
We were able to rescue 19 hymenocallis that Victor has selected and named, along with 3 of his named/selected Iris. Victor’s collection consisted of over 123 of his hymenocallis hybrids which are still in need of evaluation. These were rescued and have been planted in our research area here at JLBG. Any of these that prove to be distinct and exceptional will be propagated and introduced to the horticultural world, via our nursery division, Plant Delights Nursery.
Before the Lambou rescue, JLBG already grew 42 taxa of hymenocallis, which number has now swelled to 263, making it almost certainly the most extensive collection of hymenocallis taxa in the world.
We hope that this will be a model for the future for Botanical Gardens to collaborate to preserve these vitally important ex-situ private plant collections.