Meeting Cy Happy by Ian MacGowan
"In the English-speaking world there lingers an air of nostalgia and almost forgotten folklore about the primrose and its cousin the cowslip," wrote Cy Happy in an article that appeared in The American Horticulturalist in 1992. For hundreds of years the history of trading, exchanging seeds, growing and hybridizing these plants has created a path from England and the Continent to the United States and Canada.
Here in the Pacific Northwest we have our own culture with its own stories of people and plants that reaches back up the chain of history to England and beyond. We also have our own story of the American Primrose Society: how it started here and who the early members and growers were. Cy Happy was part of that development and he kindly agreed to reflect on this story.
He lives in a beautiful little house near Gravelly Lake just south of Tacoma, Washington. It is surrounded by overgrown perennial gardens and the skeleton of an old greenhouse. I asked him what happened to the greenhouse. He said his sons took it down in 2000 and that was when he stopped growing auriculas. However, he had 60 years of pleasure, and there comes a time when some of those special things in life must come to an end.
Cy met with me and Candy Strickland, who was also part of the APS community in Washington State during its active years, to talk about the history and culture of primrose growers in the Northwest. Cy figures it was about l948 that a chapter of the APS was formed by some local growers from the Seattle and Tacoma areas. In the early years there was also a group in Portland, Oregon, and in Vancouver, B.C. This was important because, unlike today with the internet, the relationships between growers were by mail or word of mouth or by meeting at clubs. These groups created a place for small, personal cultural information exchanges, most helpful because there were so few people growing primulas. By 1950, primula shows started in Tacoma and Seattle, at fairgrounds, malls, community houses and labor temples. The first show Cy attended was when he was just out of college. "It was at the Laborers' Hall in Tacoma. There were no auriculas in the shows but I can remember one of those half barrels of blue primroses. It was solid blue, Howard Larkin’s pot, and it was just beautiful." He was hooked.
Cy started growing primroses just after college and joined the APS in 1952. "I was president twice, in 1957/58 and again from 1991 to 1993, and I was editor of the journal from 1977 to 1981." APS has steadily grown and become the network that unites primula growers.
"By the 1950s and 60s there were more growers in Seattle, but the largest APS group was in Tacoma. The Tacoma group covered a lot of territory in those days and growers were just starting to discover auriculas. I started with them after my mother was up in Vancouver BC and stopped by a nursery (probably Frank Michaud's nursery in New Westminster) and bought about half a dozen named varieties. She brought them to me and said, 'Here'. It was wonderful. There were some old varieties like 'Snowden', which I used for hybridizing for quite a few years." Cy made the decision to become a serious hybridizer of auriculas and set about learning how to grow them in this climate. There were no mentors at the time and there was only a limited amount of literature, all from England, so the American growers had to teach themselves.
"It was Peter Klein, who influenced me the most. He gave me a couple of plants (including the one on the cover of American Horticulture), as did some friends in Canada. We started trading and sharing seeds". There were only about 6 growers around here at that time in addition to Peter. Herb Dickson became a major primrose nurseryman in the northwest and established the Chehalis Rare Plant Nursery. "In his nursery the ceilings were high for great ventilation and he had masses of auriculas: reds, blues, green-edged, yellows and whites. They were separated by type and color and he had some named ones too. He sold mostly to collectors and not much by mail order. There were masses of plants." The nursery stock was eventually sold to April Boettger who moved it to Vader, Washington in 1996 when Herb retired. "She still grows some auriculas and I see them now and then when we stop off for a visit, but Herb was the source for all of us in the early days. Other growers were John Shuman, Ralph Balcomb, June Skidmore, Rosetta Jones and Rae Berry." In addition to these growers, the main sources for auriculas in the 60s and 70s were the growers in British Columbia such as Mrs. Hibberson in Victoria and the Michaud Nursery just outside Vancouver.
Cy became a recognized grower of auriculas both here and abroad: "I specialized in edged auriculas and was selling white-edged seed. I used Peter Klein's green for seed. I sold a little envelope of 10 seeds I hybridized for $10. I sold them all over the country and sent a lot to England too. There is one plant from my stock that lasted for over 20 years: I hybridized ‘Copythorne,’ a named green-edged introduced by Haysom in England, with Peter Klein's green. I got seedlings I labeled alphabetically from 'A' to 'N' but it was 'N' that was the best. In the 1960s I produced another one, 'RDG', from a cross of 'Sloden' with Peter Klein's green. It was grown in the area into the 1980s."
We asked Cy about growing auriculas, what was the magic that created such wonderful plants. He said, "Our house was down on the shore of American Lake. It was in the country club, very exclusive, and I set up a greenhouse on the beach, alone, not very bothered by neighbors. An old houseboat was up on the beach and that's where my greenhouse was, too, in those days. The compost there was wonderful. I had an endless supply of rich dark oak leaf mould. For grit, I used to go up to the mountains and get native pumice - It’s sort of round. My neighbors said, 'Help yourself to the oak leaf mould', and I sure did. They raked the oak leaves and dumped them down the hillside for at least 50 years. I didn’t use much fertilizer and didn’t have any soil to add but this made a fine potting mix. We didn’t have plastic pots then; I used regular 4" round clay pots and they tended to dry out a bit in the summer. A few years into growing this plant collection I bought one of those grinders and I ground up everything I could get. Some of the plants liked it and some didn’t. I also had the benefit of the cool breeze off of the lake. It was a winning combination. There is still nothing like that oak leaf mould to really make it work." His adage about auriculas is "If they like you they will prosper".
All through the 1980s Cy would come up to the alpine garden show in Victoria every spring. From the late 1980s until 1998 he was asked to judge the primula classes. Here he met Maedythe Martin who brought in auricula plants for the show, and Cy began giving her plants such as 'Dusty Double', 'Old Irish Green', 'Cornmeal' and a few named exhibition alpines. Maedythe went on to hybridize from these and other auriculas, keeping up the tradition started by Cy.
Cy isn't involved much anymore in the auricula world. He used to attend the Tacoma group that met at Candy Strickland's house. He has not gone for some time now but he still gets the odd visitor. "There don't seem to be as many primrose people who just get together for fun today. The chapters used to have lunches, and visit at the shows. They would praise and critique each other's plants, trade plants and have a good time with each other. The best group in recent years is in Vancouver BC. They know what enjoying primroses is all about." (Members of the B.C. Primula Group still grows some of Cy’s plants and do have a good time at their semi-monthly meetings.)
Cy has played an important part in the primrose world in the Pacific Northwest and is an icon in the annals of the American Primrose Society.