Mike and Monique Pease appreciated the unusual history of their 1922 Queen Anne-style farmhouse in Seminole Heights. It's an oddity in a community of bungalows and foursquares, and its solid oak floors were crafted from the rungs of discarded 1920s rolling library ladders. The couple knew the names of all the previous owners, from original farmers William and Georgia Webster to the couple who stayed the longest, mailman Frank Joyner and his wife, Minnie.
But it wasn't until 1997, nearly 10 years after they bought the home, that they learned they were living in an unsung national — maybe international — landmark.
That's when they got the letter.
"It was addressed to Joyner's and it was from a guy who wanted to order caladiums," Mike recalls.
The letter writer, Leo Tosel of Minneapolis, also requested a new price list.
"My list of 1957 . . . is out of date ha!" he wrote.
Mike, a retired Tampa Bay Times photojournalist, wrote back, explaining that the Joyners bought the home in 1931 and were long gone. Leo responded by sending that original caladium brochure, which included the names of varieties created by Joyner's Caladium Specialists, 5102 Seminole Ave., Tampa 3, Florida.
That's the Peases' address, minus the old postal zone code.
"When we got this, we were, 'Oh my God!' " says Monique, the gardener in the family.
Some of the world's most popular caladiums were bred right there in the Peases' back yard. Showy, scarlet, fancy-leaf Postman Joyner is one of the five bestsellers at Classic Caladiums in Avon Park and a longtime top seller at Happiness Farms in Lake Placid, the nation's two largest commercial growers. Postman Joyner and Rose Glow, another F.M. Joyner hybrid, are among eight "favorite caladiums" profiled in a 2011 Southern Living magazine article.
Before I go on, a word about caladiums if you aren't familiar with them. These are some of the best plants for providing vibrant color, particularly if you like to garden with a good novel in one hand and a glass of iced tea in the other.
Prized for foliage that ranges from deepest crimson to sparkling white, more than 2,000 named varieties offer an array of sizes, colors and leaf patterns. They're rain forest natives, so most do best in filtered sun or part shade. They grow from tubers, like bulbs, so once you plant them, they should return year after year to color your beds from June through November.
And that's what they do, with punctual reliability, at the Joyners' former home.
"I don't grow them, they just come up by themselves," says Monique of the many caladiums that haunt her flower beds.
"They used to pop up in the middle of the lawn," Mike adds. "Sometimes, a new one will come up in a place we've never seen one before."
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• • •
The man who planted them is credited with kick-starting an industry with his backyard experiments in the mid 1900s. Central Florida is now considered the commercial caladium capital of the world. Despite that, and his popular eponymous plant, Frank Joyner is mentioned only briefly in newspaper and magazine articles. Not even his obituary notes his horticultural contributions.
That, says granddaughter Gail Dee Russ of South Tampa, may be because Frank Joyner never made a big deal of his accomplishments.
"He didn't make a lot of money. He lived very simply," she says. He was a man who measured wealth by what he could learn.
"He taught himself everything he wanted to know. He taught himself to type!"
Taking up the saxophone in his later years was one of his less-than-brilliant ideas, she says.
"He wanted to play the sax but he had no rhythm," Gail remembers. "So my Aunt Mabel had to pat his foot to keep the time for him. He finally gave it up — to everyone's delight."
The couple had three daughters, Mary, Frances and Mabel. In 1992, Mabel, then in her 70s and living in Georgia, knocked on the Peases' door and asked to see her childhood home.
At the time, Mike had no idea of her father's claim to fame. He showed her around and asked if she had photographs of the house from the old days. He and Monique, a customer service associate for Pottery Barn, were restoring it and wanted to stay true to its history.
In January 1993, Mabel mailed them a letter and four old slides.
"We only took pictures of daddy's caladiums and pictures of people — so I do not have a picture of the upper story of the house," she wrote, providing the barest hint to her father's renown.
No one realized they were witnessing history in the making, says Gail, who grew up spending many happy weekends with her grandparents.
"Everyone in the family had a caladium named for them," she says. "He named them for friends, neighbors and all sorts of unusual people. I could name every single one in his yard. His garden was always full of them."
Frank, she says, was a letter carrier for some years, then had an indoor job at the post office. He was a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers for 50 years according to his obituary, and the Tampa Men's Garden Club.
"He did all of his experiments and hybridizing in the back yard," Gail says. "He had things in my grandmother's refrigerator."
The yard was nowhere big enough to test all of his experiments — he created more than 15,000 hybrids, he told a reporter for Flower Gardener in 1960. At that time, only 130 met his standards for reproduction. He sent his new creations to L.L. Holmes' farm in Lake Placid for trials.
Minnie, who helped a lot with her husband's caladiums, died in 1970, Gail says. Three years later, Frank moved in with one of his daughters and sold the house. He died in a nursing home in 1977 at age 89.
• • •
He was an easy-going guy with a sense of humor, Gail says. That's evident in his 1957 brochure, in which he adds commentary to some plant descriptions.
The variety he dubbed Mrs. F.M. Joyner — his favorite, Gail says — he described as "medium tall of sturdy stature. . . . One of the best."
Totally Grandma Minnie, Gail said, laughing, when I read it to her. "She was very 'sturdy'!"
Mike and Monique, who have added grass, landscaping, a deck and irrigation to their yard, once considered augmenting their volunteer caladiums with new ones. But when they learned how very special theirs were, they decided against that. Which makes Bob Hartman of Classic Caladiums a happy man.
"You've been to his house?" he asked when I called to learn more about the F.M. Joyner caladiums. "Where is it? How big is the yard? Is there a greenhouse? . . . Are there caladiums?"
• • •
Bob's a plant pathologist, president of Classic Caladiums and the guy in charge of breeding new varieties. From a historical perspective, he has been interested for years in learning more about the mysterious Tampa postman whose work has benefited generations of growers and gardeners.
From a scientist's perspective, he has struck gold. Old plants often hold the genetic keys to heartier, disease-resistant new plants, he says.
He's hoping to get his hands on some of the Peases' caladiums for testing and cloning. Frank Joyner's work may pick up where it left off.
Which also makes Mike and Monique happy.
"It's pretty neat that we're at least keeping part of the history alive," Mike says. "The house is more than just a house . . . It's like a living museum."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Penny Carnathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more local garden stories on her blog, www.digginfladirt.com, or join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.