JARS v53n4 - Happy 100th Birthday, Fran Sumner!

Happy 100th Birthday, Fran Sumner!
Becky Steinbruner
Aptos, California

A lady does not often divulge her age to the general public. However, when that lady is about to celebrate one hundred years of life, I think the news ought to be broadcast to the world! So...I will. This November, Mrs. Fran Sumner becomes a centenarian! As one of her admirers and a caretaker of her Aptos garden, it is my pleasure to write this tribute in her honor.

Those of you who know Fran Sumner and knew her late husband, Maurie, are probably already aware of their long list of accomplishments and contributions to the American Rhododendron Society and general enthusiastic promotion of rhododendrons. "If it isn't a rhododendron, it's just a weed!" Maurie once told me.

I first met Fran and Maurie about 10 years ago, after first stumbling across their fabulous 3-acre rhododendron garden in Aptos. Never had I seen such beautiful variety and stunning height of mature plants. And I was curious about the roomy tent pitched near the pond in the lower part of the garden. I visited the garden often that spring, and on into the summer, and noticed that it seemed dry. So, after talking with the manager of Monte Toyon Camp, whose land surrounds the Sumner's 5-acre parcel, I began watering the garden and hoping to sometime meet its owners. Finally, one warm August day, my husband, Dave, and I had the delightful pleasure of finding Fran and Maurie at their garden. They thanked us so graciously for watering their garden; they had been entertaining so many guests at their San Francisco home that they simply hadn't been able to get down to their Aptos garden. Well, it has since been my family's pleasure to care for their lovely garden, but even more so, to have made the acquaintance of its charming owners, Fran and Maurie Sumner.

The garden, a 3-acre island amidst Monte Toyon Camp's 110 acres, got its start in the 1950s. Fran and Maurie purchased the parcel because their San Francisco garden overlooking Golden Gate Bridge had run out of room for their rhododendrons, prizes of many world-wide trips. Nestled on a hillside of coast redwood, coast live oak and Douglas fir, the land was a thicket of wild berries and poison oak. Maurie got busy with a chain saw and removed more than 20 trees to let in enough light for good rhododendron bud set. Their long-time friends, Hank and Betty Winters of Salinas, helped them clear the brush and brambles. Then Maurie brought in a water supply line, had a small access road built, and together, the two rhododendron enthusiasts fenced the garden perimeter to protect their tender plants from deer.

In the beginning, Fran and Maurie planned to someday build a cottage on the land. But in order to focus their energy on getting the garden established, they pitched a tent in the lower part of the garden, walking arm-in-arm at night with lanterns to admire their garden's beauty. "Well, we just never got around to building that cottage," Maurie once told me, "and we've gone through several tents; that's cheaper than any building could have been." Indeed, they spent many a happy day together watering, planting, and tending their rhododendron beauties and slept in their cozy tent until both were nearly 90.

Together, they planted all but two of the more than 1,000 plants in the garden themselves (I planted 'Fran Sumner' and 'Catherine Tice'). However, in 1982 a devastating winter storm re-arranged a good many plants for them via a mudslide. A wall of oozing mud and forest debris washed right through the middle of the garden, uprooting and burying many, many large plants. Unable to get to the garden for three weeks, Fran and Maurie brought friends (including the Winters) and several people from their church congregation (including the pastor) to help salvage plants. For hours they sloshed through the gooey mud, propping up mud-covered rhododendrons and cleaning leaves with paper towels. Wherever the slide left the plant, that was its new home. The pastor propped up one bedraggled Rhododendron davidsonianum and lovingly cleaned it up. That spring it bloomed magnificently. "You redeemed it!" Fran told her pastor. And indeed, at ARS shows, its trusses and sprays often won a prize! One plant remained buried for several months, hidden in the mud..."And can you believe, it bloomed! I think it was scared to death we didn't love it anymore!" Fran laughs. Fran was an English teacher and Maurie was a lawyer, but hybridizing and collecting rhododendrons was their shared hobby...well, passion. They are well-known for their many hybrids, including 'Mi Amor' (featured on the cover of the summer 1999 ARS Journal), 'My Lady', 'My Guy', 'Martha Wright' (named after Fran's mother), 'Saffron Prince', and 'Spanish Glory'. 'Spanish Glory', a nearly translucent double red, was almost named “My Lady” in Fran's honor. "But she isn't behaving very well," Maurie remarked to the then president of the Cal Chapter, pointing to the naughty foliage. "Well," their visitor said, "why don't you call it 'My Old Lady'!" After a good laugh Fran suggested "Spanish Glory." Maurie later named a beautiful fragrant Maddenia cross "My Lady" and planted three of them near their tent. "She was more well behaved," Fran laughs.

Fran Sumner holding 'Mi Amor'
Fran Sumner holding 'Mi Amor' with 'Life' in the background.
Photo by Becky Steinbruner

Whatever it was that Fran and Maurie did, they did together joyfully and playfully. Maurie had an idea for a hybridization but he asked Fran to do the actual pollination "so if it doesn't turn out, my reputation won't be muddied!" he laughed. So, Fran made the cross and harvested the seed. The resulting plants grew to be truly lovely large white, intensely fragrant trusses of trumpet-shaped blossoms. They gave a cutting to a friend which he subsequently rooted and planted in his Scotland garden. A few years later, the friend phoned them. A truss from that plant had won highest honors in the Royal Horticultural Society show. What was the plant named? Fran wanted to call it "Maurie", but Maurie would have none of it. Undaunted, Fran asked her housekeeper how to say "my love" in Spanish and quickly decided "Mi Amor" would be a lovely name for the new hybrid. “Maurie was agreeable to the name, and it was still close enough to 'Maurie' that I felt like I still got to have my way!" Fran laughs delightedly.

Their life story is as sweet as the perfume of 'Mi Amor'. They met at the age of 12 while playing run-sheep-run in their neighborhood. Immediately they took a liking to each other. "We were too young for this to be love at first sight, but from then on we knew we were for each other," Fran remembers. Throughout their 67 years of marriage, the two enjoyed life and each other's companionship. Strangers often asked them if they were newlyweds after they had celebrated more than 50 years of marriage! Indeed, their playful sense of humor and sweet love for each other kept them forever young-at-heart.

After Maurie died in her arms on July 19, 1993, Fran wrote and self-published a charming book entitled The Love Affair of Fran and Maurie . "I wanted to write it as a tribute to Maurie," she said, "and as a piece of inspiration to young couples just beginning their married life together."

Indeed, their life together is an inspiration, as are their many outstanding contributions to the world of rhododendrons. They were founding members of the ARS Cal Chapter, the first California chapter. Maurie served as Cal Chapter's second president. Fran and Maurie served as judges at many chapter shows, and enthusiastically taught other new ARS members how to judge. They served as "rhododendron ambassadors," travelling to visit lovely gardens in England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea. They collected seed and cuttings that later became some of their beautiful hybrids and a part of their outstanding collection in their Aptos garden. Naturally, they were always very generous with their material, giving plants and seeds to the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and many rhododendron chapter members. "Our rhododendron hobby really was a passport to paradise," Fran says.

But to me, the greatest gift Fran and Maurie Sumner have given to the world is their Aptos garden. They lovingly and playfully cleared the land, planted the rhododendrons, and cared for their beautiful garden together. As I walk now amidst the fragrant 'Mi Amor' grove, I can feel the love, respect and commitment they shared all those wonderful years. And many a time I have come upon someone visiting the garden in its glorious peak of bloom, "I love this place,” one man told me last week in the garden. "My wife and I have driven here from Oakland every year for the last 14 years to see this garden blooming. There's a gentle peacefulness here that just fills us up, and then we take it home with us. We love it."

Indeed, it is a treasure. But in my mind, the true gems will always be Fran and Maurie Summer. Last week, as Betty Winters and I pulled Fran around the garden in a garden cart "rickshaw," she laughed delightedly and said, "Well, never in all the times I pulled hoses and shoveled buckets of dirt did I ever think I'd be someday getting such a fun buggy ride around the garden!"

The pleasure was mine. Happy Birthday, Fran!