A small company forever ahead of its time, Flemings Flower Fields is known for its hibiscus hybridization program. This little powerhouse-started by three brothers in Nebraska-has a rich history of horticultural research and pioneering.

Before giant conglomerates overtook the nursery industry, there was a woman named Ruth Bates, and she and her garden were ahead of their time. Earning a master’s degree in the early 1900s, she was a plant and tree expert and became the State Naturalist for Nebraska, planting the vast parks with species of trees, shrubs and perennials that still cover and enliven it today. When Ruth met Will Fleming, a kind engineer from Omaha, well, let’s just say the “hybridizing experiments” soon ensued. This early union created the flower-fated hybridizers: Jim, Bob and Dave Fleming. The crossing of these three personalities and their talents produced Fleming’s Flower Fields, a pioneering, perennial hybridizing nursery that was also ahead of its time. Today the torch has been passed to a new generation at Fleming’s Flower Fields, but the vision is the same: a vibrant future for hardy hibiscus and dwarf and hardy crape myrtle.

A propagation and display garden facility is located in Visalia, Calif. Above right, Little Prince is a Fleming Dwarf HibiscusT; at only 2_ to 3 feet, it’s loaded with 11-inch, pink flowers with violet centers that have a hint of bluish gray.
Photos courtesy of Fleming’s Flower Fields

The Fleming brothers

Jim, Bob and Dave were two years apart in age, and the parallels multiply exponentially with their short stature, gnomish beards and their pure genius in hybridizing quality plants for modern gardens. At the beginning of their creative endeavor, while doing research and earning degrees in the field, the brothers felt it their duty to enlist in World War II. Jim and Bob survived the Omaha Beach landing, while Dave volunteered elsewhere. The three came home self-declared pacifists, inspired to create a better world. They started Fleming’s Flower Fields in 1947 as a retail/wholesale/mail order business, but above all, it was a resolute perennial hybridizing movement that today has come full circle after licensing nearly a dozen nurseries around the world to grow their plants.

In the beginning

The Flemings began by creating and selling thousands of football, anemone and other dazzling hardy mums to decorate the garden. At the same time, they were working on other winter-hardy perennial species and began delivering standards to the market, such as ‘Burgundy Glow’ ajuga; ‘Bluebird’, the first blue-flowered Caryopteris; as well as popular “ever-blooming” Dianthus, like ‘Spotty’ and ‘Snowflurries’.

After returning from service in World War II, Jim, Bob and Dave Fleming established Fleming’s Flower Fields initially as a retail/wholesale/mail order business.

The brother’s flower fashions soon were featured in Flower and Garden and other magazines. They were pushing the petal envelope and getting noticed for their plants’ bold color and hardiness, as well as their own. The Flemings and their colleagues had catalogs and perennial creations that were setting the tone for the future. This was similar to the way the famous painters of Paris came together, sharing ideas while maintaining one’s own uniqueness and creating masterpieces that could live on. In this vein, the Flemings would have been considered the Van Goghs or Picassos with their obsession for perfection, tempered by the unending patience of a Master.

They spent the majority of the next 50 years focusing on refining their favorite species. Jim guided the work on hardy hibiscus, dianthus and crape myrtle, envisioning a much smaller, modern landscape with giant-flowered but compact plants to enhance it. Bob focused on crape myrtles to a large degree, hunting for shorter and hardier seedlings among his many crosses. Dave must have seen a Nebraska that looked better than “Blue Hawaii,” landscaped with giant-flowered, hardy hibiscus in the colors of the rainbow framed by dark purple, smooth-edged “maple” leaves, and small, compact plants with an otherworldly new hardiness to -30 degrees.

Licensed growers

Nurseries licensed to grow Flemings plants include:

Well-deserved recognition

The brothers received many accolades over the years, such as lifetime achievement awards from the Nebraska Nursery and Garden Association and the American Dianthus Society, but none was as close to their hearts as the Perennial Plant Association Lifetime Achievement Award. They knew all too well how it took a lifetime to create their purple-leaved hibiscus and dwarf and hardy crape myrtle. Even with all of these prestigious awards, nothing compared with enhancing Mother Nature and with enjoying customers’ tales of the happiness and awe that the hybrids inspired, for this was their greatest joy. They were very appreciative of their customers and commonly performed unprecedented acts of kindness for them, like the time they brought their hibiscus into full bloom in the winter greenhouse for a former Fleming hibiscus devotee’s funeral.

A revolution in hardy hibiscus

Fleming’s hardy hibiscus are a new breed, a cross between the northern and southern species, creating the first ones hardy to -30 degrees; the first and only with solid purple leaves; the first plants averaging 3 feet (instead of the “trees” of the past); and the first flowers of pale yellow and lavender. When the Fleming’s Hardy Hibiscus were released in 2000, they revolutionized the barely existent market for these species. These tropical-looking plants not only fit the landscape or patio, but also illuminate it and do it in a truly sustainable manner, allowing the gardener to feel the tropical breeze no matter he or she lives.

The difference between the Fleming’s Hardy Hibiscus and those of the past, is that the Flemings didn’t just cross for big flowers, but for every unique aspect that they could. Their dwarf and hardy crape myrtle are also taking the market by storm with their truly dwarf, one-and-a-half-foot size and hardiness to that “Fleming Standard” of -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

A new generation

The Flemings had many hard-working helpers over the years at their Nebraska nursery, but in 1993, I happened along their little slice of Hawaii. After a few years of acclimating to the tribe of brothers with indigenous knowledge of their “Hibiscus Island,” I came to share their vision for their future and that of their fabulous “flower children.” I was a number of generations their junior, but before I began to understand and advocate for their plan for patenting their finest hybrids for wider release. Though it was clear they were getting on in age, it was also clear that their hybrids, like themselves, were sturdy and should live on in horticultural history. After much initiation, consisting of a near PhD in weed picking, I joined Jim, Bob and Dave in their strategy to select, test, self-patent and market a selection of 60 hybrids from their field of more than 1,000 perfectly good cultivars. Meanwhile, I became Dave’s shadow, selectively hybridizing like genetically advanced bees.

New Old Yella is a new Fleming dwarf selection, shorter and more vibrant than Old Yella, the company’s fi rst yellow color break in hardy hibiscus.

Sadly, Dave – the last of the brothers – died in 2001, but he had successfully passed the secrets of the Flemings Hybrids to a new generation just as committed to keeping the Fleming’s classic standards of quality alive, like preserving the 10-year-test of each conscientious new selection.

The Flemings had pretty well covered the palette of how many flower colors one could combine with the purple leaves on their new compact plants. So today, Flemings Flower Fields has been hybridizing with the best chances for new flower colors in the Hardy Hibiscus – the Fleming Tropical-Hardy Hibiscus in its continued crosses. These plants are from a cross that’s considered to be impossible, but when you’ve introduced 26 classics that you hybridized after 60 years, an interspecies cross such as H. moscheutos and H. rosa sinensis is just another day on the job.

Orange or blue flowers are now a possibility at Fleming’s Flower Fields, and having secret methods of hybridizing that speed the process are still helpful, too. But, hybridizing is done the “old school” way at the nursery, as the Flemings long taught me that tissue culture or radiation were not helpful or progressive methods in the end, compared to hard work and persistence. No matter what, a plant has to have its own distinct personality from what’s already on the market before we release it.

A rich, dark purple foliage color is a characteristic for which Fleming’s Flower Fields is known. Pictured here are the leaves of Small Wonder, a new dwarf selection.

The newest releases are called the Fleming Dwarf Hibiscus, and they have tropical-hardy genetics and consequentially, the most dwarf size, darkest purple leaves and the newest flowers colors without sacrificing super-hardiness. Having a long-term strategy of holding on to and testing some of the shortest varieties for future release was always part of the plan to keep the nursery 20 years ahead of its time.

Fleming Filligree Crape MyrtleT are among the hardiest-and most dwarf-in the world. Red Filli is seen here with nursery dog Shibby.

The future of Flemings

From 1947 until 1987, the Flemings propagated and sold their unpatented hybrids from their own nursery. After 20-some years and nearly 40 patents later (30 in the United States and 10 in Europe), having licensed almost a dozen well-respected nurseries to grow and sell their Fleming Hybrids, Flemings Flower Fields is again growing and selling their own to fill the demand. This was the final piece of the Fleming brothers’ dreams for their nursery – especially for Bob: that Fleming’s Flower Fields also grow and sell these patented gems they helped select.

Some of the other new developments at Flemings Flower Fields were also started around the time I joined the nursery, such as growing organically. This was at Jim’s request, as he had explored the world of horticultural sprays and chemistry for so many years that he decided that insecticidal soap and the preventive methods they usually relied on were the safest for the environment. This really led to the exploration of the whole natural approach to nursery and crop maintenance and today Flemings Flower Fields, 15 years after its transformation to users of only natural chemicals and manual prevention, are applying for organic certification.

To ensure that our plants stay true to type and as healthy as possible, we also propagate our hybrids from cuttings only (with no tissue culture involved); the other licensed nurseries that grow our hybrids are refreshing their stock or taking cuttings only from original stock, following Flemings Flower Fields example. Within the past year, Imperial Nurseries, Granby, Conn., and Willoway Nurseries, Avon, Ohio, have been added to the list of licensed growers.

There are still hybridizing and testing gardens in Lincoln, Neb.; a propagation nursery and large display gardens in Visalia, Calif.; as well as a new satellite nursery in Florida, all owned and operated by Flemings Flower Fields. The hybridizing and growing plows on so that new seedlings can be sown.

It’s nice to know in these times of excess and corporate greed that a quality nursery business like Flemings Flower Fields can survive through the years to show others how ethics override shortcuts and remind us that the simple pleasures like 12-inch flowers with purple leaves can still bring us the most happiness.

Gretchen Zwetzig is owner and general manager of Flemings Flower Fields. She can be reached at flemingsflowerfields@msn.com. Kerry Cooper is manager of Flemings Flower Fields. The company has three web sites that serve the industry in different ways: www.flemingsflowers.com can be accessed for plant ordering and point-of-purchase items; www.flemingsflowerfields.com is the “Flemings Hibiscus Hut,” offering gifts for home and garden; and www.homeofhibiscus.com is the source of information about care and history of hardy hibiscus and more.