THE CALADIUM JOURNEY
May 3, 2022
By Karen Maxwell, Horticultural Specialist
The month of May heralds the approach of summer gardens in Southwest Florida, with unrelenting heat and humidity that can tucker the most zealous of our lot; however, there is just one more thing to plant! Caladiums! Whether you are a new or salty and seasoned Florida gardener, these beautiful foliage plants belong in your garden, in a pot, on your balcony, or even on your kitchen table. Before expounding on the virtues of caladiums,the story of their introduction to the gardens of Thomas and Mina Edison is, in and of itself, an interesting tale of adventure, perseverance, triumph and failure.
The Edisons employed a host of gardeners, some simple caretakers, others renowned horticulturists, and one in particular, Dr. Henry Nehrling, a highly educated Wisconsin native of German descent was blessed with an uncanny knack for tropical plants. He was known as the Audubon of Wisconsin for writing three encyclopedias of birds, all in German. The most famous encyclopedia being “Our Native Birds of Song,” was two volumes and was published in 1893. Always advocating for the value of birds in the garden as natural pest control, surely, Mina Edison who also loved birds, found this man most intriguing.
Dr. Nehrling purchased 40 acres in Gotha, Florida, deep within the so-called Orange Belt in 1886. He established a Palm Cottage Garden and proceeded to collect and raise tropical plants, many samples of which were sent to him by the greatest plant hunter of them all – Dr. David Fairchild. After seven years of living a quiet, probably lonely botanist existence, where shade houses were the most significant buildings to be found in this newly settled area, Dr. Nehrling must have been most anxious to make a trip to Chicago in 1893 to attend the Chicago Columbia Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair). Here he would mingle with the intelligentsia of his time: Edison, Tesla, Mark Twain, Scott Joplin; and be introduced to that great ball-game staple, the hot dog which also made its debut at the most famous event in the White City while the world was seeing Thomas Edison’s first movie!
In the International Building, the Brazil Exhibit included a fine collection of exotic foliage plants being shown by a transplanted German, Adolph Lietze, now living deep in the Amazon. Nehrling purchased the entire exhibit and returned to Gotha with all eight varieties of the exhibited caladiums. These colorful tropical plants, native to the rainforest floor of the Amazon, in the state of Pará, became an important economic product when Nehrling opened the doors of his Palm Cottage Gardens, to the public. He wrote how visitors overlooked all of his other plants when his 2,000 varieties of caladiums were in full leaf, some with “leaves a full two feet in diameter and big enough to serve as an umbrella!”
Sadly, the freeze of 1917 would just about ruin Nehrling, killing much of his tropical plant collection. He abandoned the property and set out to find a property with more hospitable weather for growing tropical plants. Today, the recently formed Nehrling Foundation is well underway in its restoration efforts of Florida’s first botanical garden in Gotha.
Broke and faced with starting over at the age of 64, Nehrling decided Miami was too built up and negotiated with R. Halderman, a real estate developer who offered 13 acres of property and the financial assistance. With that, Nehrling was back in business and wrote that “once again I’m a pioneer in the wilderness.” In a short time, Nehrling amassed a vast collection of tropical plant species without care or knowledge as to their invasive characteristics upon the virgin Florida landscape of Southwest Florida. Dubbed his “Garden of Solitude,” Nehrling’s trials and efforts at his new Naples outpost become the basis for his detailed gardening articles published from 1922-1929 in the American Eagle, the widely read publication of the Koreshan Unity, in Estero.
Nehrling visited Estero frequently and marketed his beautiful caladiums at the Koreshan and Fort Myers flower shows. Books dedicated to South Florida gardening did not become available until the mid-1930s, and this would have been after the gardens of Thomas and Mina Edison would have been fairly mature. As a result, the Edisons often traveled from Fort Myers to visit gardens and nurseries, in search of great plant material and they most certainly would have been familiar with Nehrling’s botanical writings in the American Eagle. As the Edisons developed their Fort Myers gardens during the 1920s, we know that Mina adopted many of the Arts & Crafts garden hallmarks (the Moonlight Garden) which included bringing color to the garden with foliage plants and not relying solely on flowering plants and became enamored with the extensive use of crotonsand caladiums at the Koreshan compound in Estero.
An earlier gardener at the Edison estate was Ewald Stulpner, also a German educated horticulturist, from whom we inherited excellent notes and details about plantings and purchases for the property (he also assisted the Koreshans in Estero). By the mid-1920s Dr. Nehrling’s caladium business was a thriving enterprise once again only to be pummeled by a hurricane in 1926. To this day, it is unclear how some people whosupposedly came to help Dr. Nehrling clean up after the hurricane, made off with truckloads of plants, including most of his remaining caladiums which re-surfaced in Highland County, Florida. Today, Highland County is the center of Florida’s $20 million caladium agri-conomy and 95% of the world’s caladiums are grown in Florida to be shipped around the world.
In 1928, Thomas Edison hired Dr. Nehrling to consult and advise on gardening matters and he introduced a number of fruit trees to the Fort Myers property, as well as created Orchid Lane by mounting a collection of orchids and bromeliads to trees to the delight of Mina Edison. Though Edison and Nehrling were 81 and 74 respectively, a visitor to the Estate in March of 1928 commented that the two “bounded out of the laboratory and raced across the grass to look at a plant, moving as rapidly as boys of 20.” Nehrling was very helpful to the Edisons and spoke highly of Mina’s gardens, though he didn’t mince criticism of plants that he believed would fail in the Florida humidity, such as her Madonna Lilies. In addressing the State Federation of Garden Clubs in Miami in March of 1929, he proudly stated that “Mrs.Edison has extended ornamental plantings along the banks of the Caloosahatchee.”
In 1929, Thomas and Mina visited Nehrling at his Naples Gardens and Edison marveled at Nehrling’s collection of 100+ species of Ficus – no doubt the source of many of the original Ficus plantings here at Edison Ford. Shortly thereafter, Nehrling passed away, in debt once more and his property was foreclosed only to become the site of “Jungle Larry’s Caribbean Gardens.” Some of our readers may be familiar with the location today – there are two small brass plaques commemorating the work of Dr. Nehrling, deep inside the Naples Zoo.
Thomas Edison passed away in 1931, shortly after Dr.Nehrling passed. Mina Edison spent some time in deep mourning, not returning to her Fort Myers home until 1933. At this time, she began in earnest to plant the Moonlight Garden, though there is no evidence she ever used the plant list put forward by Ellen Biddle Shipman because they were predominantly temperate plants. Mina consulted with two nurserymen, a Mr. Helms who owned Royal Palm Nursery in Oneco (outside of Bradenton) and she received a planting list for the Moonlight Garden that included podocarpus, ixora and azaleas. Somewhat unsure of these plants, she ran his list by nurseryman Albert Herman, manager of the Ornamental Nursery in Fort Myers who approved Mr.Helm’s suggestions and also added “he left you some fancy leaf caladium bulbs to try.”
Today, Edison and Ford Winter Estates plants dozens and dozens of caladium tubers each season. As a tropical tuber, caladiums can be planted in our Zone 10 all year, but they will sit quietly until both the air temperature and soil temperature are a minimum temperature of 65 degrees. Below that, they will remain dormant and if planted too early, in a garden with frequent watering, one runs the risk of rotting these tubers.
Without a doubt, caladiums are one of the easiest plants to include in your summer garden. They come in a wide assortment of colors: white, greens, pinks, reds and countless combinations thereof. Most spectacular when planted en-masse, just lay your tubers out where you want a color riot in a shady part of the garden. Cover with 4” of good compost, water and voila! If you plant now, as described, your caladium palette will fill your garden within five weeks! Keep good compost in your soil, keep the soil moist and caladiums will last through December. Do not let them dry out, as that will kill the foliage.
Most fancy leaf caladiums (the tall, heart shaped leaves) prefer 60% shade or more and all of the white varieties require 100% shade – a great way to liven up a dark corner! Lance leaf, also called dwarf species can often take some morning sun. Because they are shallow growers, feel free to plant caladiums under or around any trees in your gardens – they will not compete. The caladium growers of Highlands County are more than happy to match the correct variety to any garden.
Caladiums are just about pest free and when planted en-mass, they do a great job of crowding out the weeds! Plant enough to enjoy cutting and including them in floral arrangements. After cutting your stems in the morning, allow caladiums to rest and recover for 24 hours before using them in floral design. Just be sure never to put them in the refrigerator – nothing below 65 degrees. Can’t get enough? Continue your Caladium journey with a trip to Lake Placid, the Town of Murals,in the center of the caladium industry, or visit during their annual Caladium Festival where one can tour the fields – this year marks their 31st annual festival (July 29-31, 2022).