A Brief History of Nat DeLeon in the Bromeliad World

By Alan Herndon

Nat's interest in bromeliads began after he became Director of Horticulture at Parrot Jungle. In the early years, bromeliads were not easy to find in cultivation, so Nat traveled to different parts of the state and sent off for every nursery catalog containing exotic plants that he heard of. He also developed an extensive correspondence with collectors and growers from Europe and Latin America in his quest for new plants. Finding the commercially available supply inadequate to meet his needs for mass plantings at Parrot Jungle, he turned to hybridization and raising plants from seed early on.

In 1959, several bromeliad growers in Dade County decided to form a local society devoted to the study of bromeliads and to seek affiliation with the still young Bromeliad Society, Inc. (now Bromeliad Society International or BSI). Nat served as President of the Temporary Board and the first President of the Bromeliad Society of South Florida (BSSF) for the period May 1960- May 1961. Once BSSF was awarded affiliate status with BSI, Nat was made, as was customary at the time, an Honorary Vice President and Director of BSI.

In 1962, Nidularium deleonii was described by Lyman B. Smith (Bromeliad Society Bulletin 12(6): 104-105.) based on specimens collected by Nat in Colombia. In an accompanying article (pages 105-107), Nat provided more information on the conditions encountered while collecting the plants. The plant was transferred to the genus Ronnbergia shortly thereafter. Twenty years later, a second plant from the same collecting trip was recognized as a distinct species and formally described by Harry Luther as Ronnbergia neoregelioides (Journal of the Bromeliad Society 33(1)).

By 1964, BSSF had grown considerably, bolstered in part by a strong contingent from Broward County. When the size of the society threatened to overwhelm the meeting facilities, Nat encouraged the Broward folks to start their own society. He became a charter member and aided the young society through yearly programs and donations of plants to their sales.

At this early date, Nat's plants at Parrot Jungle and in his private collection were also drawing wide attention. Visits with Nat formed the basis of articles in the BSI journal in 1966, 1973 and 1978. In 1968, Nat's hybrid Aechmea 'David Barry' was featured on the cover of the journal (volume 18, number 6). The plant had not yet been named and was identified only by its hybrid formula. Two more Nat hybrids were featured on the back cover of the journal in 1970 (volume 20, number 6). Again, these were identified strictly by hybrid formulas.

In 1977, Nat was instrumental in forming the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies (FCBS). The immediate purpose of the council was to provide a support group for the Bromeliad Society of Central Florida with the World Bromeliad Conference /30th Anniversary of BSI scheduled for Orlando in 1980. This also provided the impetus for BSSF to begin a series of annual shows that continues to this day (the BSSF staged shows before this, but I don't know that they were annual shows). In any case, the numbering system for shows in use today began in 1978. During this period, Nat also assumed the presidency of the BSSF for the second time (1979-1979) and was a consultant helping guide the development of the new Bromeliad Identification Center at Selby Botanical Gardens.

One of the ventures of the FCBS was Grande magazine (4 issues published in 1978-79). In the first issue of Grande, a visit to Nat's private collection formed the basis for a feature article, and in the third issue, Nat, as president of FCBS, authored a major article on the need for "responsible hybridizing". This article (representing official FCBS policy), called for scrupulous record-keeping in hybridization programs and for discouraging the propagation of hybrids that do not represent some improvement on the parents. In furtherance of this policy, the FCBS adopted a rule not allowing unregistered hybrids to compete for major awards in shows by member societies. The article also called on growers (and particularly) sellers to make every effort to ensure that they use correct names on plants.

Nat was soon taking on a more prominent national role. He was elected president of the BSI at the 1982 board meeting and took office in 1983. The board meeting took place in conjunction with the World Bromeliad Conference at Corpus Christi. At that Conference, Nat also played a major role in organizing an auction to support the Bromeliad Identification Center at Selby. As the newly installed president, he was profiled in the first issue of the Journal of the Bromeliad Society for 1983. In 1985, Nat became the Hybrid Registrar for the BSI. From this position, he attempted to standardize the naming of bromeliad cultivars and hybrids. This was a long-standing project of Nat's. He brought up the issue in the Grande article mentioned above, as well as in an article introducing Guzmania lingulata 'Superb' (JBS 33(1): 21-22,29). Coincident with this appointment as Hybrid Registrar, he published an article on the treatment of variegated plant names (JBS 35(1): 34-36.), pointing out how misleading it was to use Latinized names that gave an aura of taxonomic respectability to plants that arose in cultivation.

With the responsibility for hosting a World Bromeliad Conference coming up in 1988, Nat again took the helm of the BSSF in 1986 and 1987. During that period he focused the society on producing a wildly successful show. His presidential messages in the Advisory were full of encouragement and practical suggestions for the society members involved in the show. This show, aside from being financially successful beyond expectation, raised over $10,000 for the still young Bromeliad Identification Center.

In more recent years, Nat has strongly supported the Evil Weevil Project, a project aimed at eradicating or controlling the population of a recently introduced beetle with an appetite for our native Florida Tillandsia species. He helped organize a project to collect seeds from native populations and grow the seedlings for eventual replanting in native environments.

With this history, it is not surprising that Nat has been repeatedly honored for his contributions. In 1996, he was inducted in the Florida Foliage Hall of Fame. In 2000, he was elected an Honorary Trustee of BSI. FCBS honored Nat again in 2006, at the Bromeliad Extravaganza (hosted by BSSF) with a special award.