Hybridizing Plants & Remembering Sibylla Peters

Harking back to a favourite topic of mine—encouraging amateurs to be involved in hybridizing plants; and remembering Sibylla Peters, co-founder of Humber Nurseries
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

May 15, 2011

Above: A few of the Rhododendron plants in our Parksville garden: ‘Fred Peste’ (red) and R. ponticum variegatum with variegated foliage all year; a large unknown pink cultivar which we moved to the position shown just outside our bedroom window; R. ‘Lee’s Best Purple’ with lupines in the background; and R. ‘Virginia Richards’ which starts out pink and then turns to a cream colour. Author Photos. Below: Sibylla Peters with one of her daughters in 1969 at Humber Nurseries; Sibylla with the rose named in her honour in August1998; and Sibylla and Frans Peters at their 1948 Holland wedding. Humber Nurseries photos.

If you are one who has recently become enthralled with gardening as a hobby, and are now thinking of how you can expand your activity, now could be the time for you to do some research and planning.

If I were to suggest that if you are looking for a way to get more involved in gardening, you should consider the hybridizing of plants, you'd likely say that it would be far too deep and difficult for an amateur like you.

Not so!

Consider the case in the 1970s of Catharine Meserve, living in Pennsylvania. Catharine's husband passed away. Both she and her husband had been ardent gardeners, but neither had ever gotten involved in anything more complex than starting certain "difficult" plants from seed, or propagating shrubs from cuttings. Now she was all on her own. She thought she'd like to get more involved in gardening, but couldn't do anything heavy or (so she thought) technical. A friend suggested she get into hybridizing plants. She eschewed the idea saying it would be far too technical for her, and that she had no training whatsoever.

The friend did not give up, until eventually Catharine asked that if plant hybridizing was such a good idea, how would one start--with what plants? The friend suggested choosing a genus of plants that had not been worked on extensively. When pushed further, he suggested hollies. "Basically the English holly is not hardy much north of Philadelphia, so there could be a good market for plants which produce abundant red berries in colder climates."

Catharine decided to go for it!

That was back in the 1970s, and now today, you can check virtually any nursery or garden centre, or look in any nursery catalogue and find the Blue Princess and China Girl hollies. If you look at the tags, or listing, you'll see the botanical names of these are Ilex meserveae 'Blue Princess' and Ilex meserveae 'China Girl'. Yes, they're her introductions, bearing her name, and they are grown extensively now in almost all parts of Canada as well, of course, as the U.S. [By the way, if you are planting these hollies, remember you must have at least one male plant ('Blue Prince' or 'China Boy' with each four/five female plants, if the females are to bear fruit.]

Now you may think, as Catharine did, that hybridizing plants is a difficult procedure that calls for an extensive knowledge of plants and the ability to carry out hard-to-understand techniques. But, it's all relatively simple. The actual "how-to" of plant breeding can be learned in little more than a few minutes.

The "art" of selecting the right kind of parents and evaluating the hybrids produced are the difficult tasks which will be developed as the work proceeds and the results are carefully studied.

When planning your hybridizing work, you will need to remember that the plants must be closely related botanically. It will be useless to try to cross a lily with a rose, or a geranium with a dahlia (although some unusual crosses do take place occasionally--witness the broccilflower, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower). It's this planning for what is to be hybridized that I suggest could be your summer gardening project, in order to be ready for next spring.

The first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the main parts of a flower. A "perfect" flower has four parts: the anthers (atop stamens) which produce the pollen; and the stigma, style and ovary. The stigma's shape varies with each type of flower, but is usually at about the same height as the anthers, and often is sticky. The style is the stalk that connects the stigma with the ovary at its base. The ovary is the base that contains the undeveloped seeds (ovules).

Many common flowers, such as dahlias, chrysanthemums and zinnias are really clusters of perfect or imperfect flowers and the parts I've described are so small they are difficult to work on (the anthers must be removed before they produce pollen if hybridization work is to be done). With many fully double flowers such as double petunias, the flowers have been created by changing stamens into petals, so little pollen is produced.

Since many rhododendrons are presently in flower here, and no doubt will be soon in Ontario, I could use them as an example. Many, many folks ‘work’ at hybridizing these beauties and if you like them, you might consider that genera to be yours!

There is much information to be found on the Internet and in books at the libraries. And, if you still think it will be hard for you to start in on the plant breeding hobby, bear in mind that a large percentage of ornamental plant varieties introduced in recent years have come from the efforts of so-called 'amateurs.' Some of the best roses, gladioli, rhododendrons, irises, daylilies, hollies, and African violets are being introduced by hobbyists with less than ten years' experience.

For further information on rhododendrons specifically, go to the American Rhododendron Society site at: .

* * *

Sibylla Peters died on May 12th, at the age of 92! Together with her husband Frans, they started the huge Humber Nurseries operation in the west end of Toronto back in the early 1950s. They were married in Holland in April 1948.

Frans wanted to start a business and the Wilson family lived in Mount Dennis near the Humber River and was renting about ten acres of land. Frans, Sibylla and their newborn daughter Sibylla, moved to one of the Wilson houses. Since it was the spring season, Frans ordered Stokes Seeds, built some frames, and started seedings. That was the birth of the business of Humber Nurseries. The name Humber Nurseries was given because the Wilson property ran along the Humber River. Frans also learned how to grow a fast crop of radishes, cauliflower and cabbage, which he brought to the market. The radishes were not a success. At that time, a Dutch cousin, Wim Klein Beernink, worked for Frans for seventy-five cents an hour, and pulled radishes. However, one crate would not even be worth seventy-five cents, because of the more competitive and experienced people in the industry at the time. Sibylla, who was in charge of the accounting, was not too happy! Frans then looked into another way to make a living and decided to do maintenance of people’s gardens which he pursued successfully after buying a truck.

Frans also planted five or six acres of nursery stock from cuttings etc. received from Holland. Sibylla helped out with the planting, and she especially remembers “all the sticks” that grew so fast (namely Weeping Willow trees)! Sibylla also went to Toronto by bus to sell flower bunches at seventy-five cents a bunch. She would bring ten bunches to sell, and would normally return with two or three bunches unsold. For two years she would sell flowers at St. Joseph’s and Toronto General hospitals. At night, Frans would also sell the home grown annuals at the Tuberculosis Sanatorium on the top of the hill of Buttonwood Ave. in Mount Dennis. [I know that site well; my father spent a number of years in the TB hospital on Buttonwood! –ACD]

It was in the autumn of 1954, just after the birth of their last son, Guy, that the growing Peters’ family and business was ultimately challenged by Hurricane Hazel. The Dutch bulbs were just in from Holland and stored in the little barn, and the young pansies were all in flower in the fields. The floods of the hurricane destroyed it all. It was a hurricane not to be forgotten. Since they were in the ‘Humber Valley’, most people thought that the Peters’ family and nursery did not survive. However, the phone was still in operation and the police were informed of the abiding family. They moved to a house that they had luckily purchased for future use, on Islington Avenue. They were not allowed to do business there, and therefore needed to return to the Valley.

Upon returning to the Valley in the spring of 1955, they found that the soil was useless, and that the nursery stock had been washed away. For the next five years, Frans, Sibylla and their little family rebuilt the house and nursery, and they decided to move in November 1959.

They moved to the present location of Humber Nurseries and on Christmas Day 1959, Frans and Sibylla were putting in the kitchen floor of their new pre-fab home. Later, they set up two greenhouses brought from the Valley. One of those greenhouses, after all these years, still stands.

The flourishing business on the original ten acre lot on Highway 50 represents the fulfillment of a dream for Frans and Sibylla, whose combined talents, and ambition have nurtured the enterprise to maturity. The greenhouses’ square footage has increased immensely and the retail-office space has grown dramatically.

During my multi-decade friendship with Humber Nurseries, I became particularly good friends with Sibylla. It was strange that in 1986 while on a trip to South Africa, I encountered a bus group from Canada, but didn’t know that Sibylla was with the group. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that out until we both returned to Canada.

In 1998 Humber Nurseries introduced a new rose in honour of Sibylla’s 75th birthday. You can see it here.

Many customers of Humber Nurseries might well remember Sibylla if they walked through the perennial greenhouses and saw an older lady apparently fallen asleep while working on young plants. That was Sibylla!

If someone would wake her, she would usually walk back to their home and take a nap!

Farewell Sibylla it was great knowing you.

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