SOLVING THE FIREBALL MYSTERY

By: Nat DeLeon

1987 FCBS newsletter, reprinted in February 1998 newsletter

Neo fireball
Neoregelia 'Fireball'

In 1959 I wrote to a Mr. Walter Doering of Sao Vicente Brazil, in the state of Sao Paulo. Mr. Doering was primarily an orchid collector who had earlier written an article on the bromeliads of his area for The Bromeliad Society Bulletin, the forerunner of the Journal of the Bromeliad Society.

During that time, I wrote to whoever I could in the hope of being able to purchase or trade for new bromeliads not already in cultivation. In this instance I was primarily interested in buying at least half-grown plants of Vriesea gigantea and Vriesea hieroglyphica. He had several other species I was interested in as well. Once Mr. Doering had confirmed that he would sell me the plants, I inquired about the possibility of buying other species as well, even if he had only a few plants of each. He replied that yes, he did have others but they were unidentified. I then suggested that all such un-identified plants be numbered so that we might have a common reference point to refer to on any specific plant in the future. I would grow the plants to flowering, have them identified and, should they prove ornamental enough, I would order additional plants by name and number. Mr. Doering was agreeable to this.

Correspondence was slow and Mr. Doering needed time to collect and prepare the plants for shipment. This was no small order. In March, 1960, almost a year after my initial inquiry, the plants arrived. There were more than 200 plants in the shipment. Losses were heavy, particularly of Vr. hieroglyphica. Only eight out of some fifty large plants survived. Losses of other species occurred also but were far less severe.

This shipment proved to be very important, for it rep-resented the first bromeliad introduction into American horticulture of the following species: Vr. bituminosa, the large form of Vr. incurvata then Vr. rostrum-aquilae, Vr. ensiformis, Vr. flammea Vr. erythrodactylon, Vr. phillipo-coburgii, Vr. scalaris, Vr. vagans, Nidularium rosulatum, Nid. rubens, Nid. rutilans, Neoregelia doeringiana, a new species to be named Neo. maculata and our mystery plant, Neo. 'Fireball'.

Only one of the four plants, later to be called Neo. 'Fireball' survived. As I remember it, the smallish plant was almost all green, with a faint hint of red, when received. Mr. Doering remarked about the plant in the brief note he sent with the unidentified plants. "Neoregelia or Aechmea, small plant, all mahogany colored. Flowers not yet seen." After the plant started to grow, exposed to the great Florida light, the mahogany color continued to intensify. Before long it sent out its first offset, revealing its stoloniferous habit.

The late Ralph Davis and I were rather close bromeliad buddies. As long as either of us had more than one of any given plant, his plants were my plants and vice versa. We lent one another plants for hybridizing or selfing. We also collaborated on several importation ventures. Ralph visited me one day and almost swallowed his cigar butt when he first saw my mystery plant. Of course Ralph had to have one and since by that time the plant already had two offsets, the first vegetative propagation took place. Since I was concerned about confusion in plant names even in those days I made Ralph promise he would not part with any plants until it flowered and I could have it identified.

Several years passed and our stocks of the mystery plant were getting quite large but there was still no sign of flowering. In the meantime, many people were starting to pester Ralph for a plant, which made it great 'trade bait'. I didn't have that problem since at that time I grew most of my bromeliads at the Parrot Jungle, away from public view. Ralph wanted to start letting some plants go and I agreed, provided we gave the plant a temporary name. Ralph told me that every time he referred to the plant he called Neo. 'Fireball' and I told him "That's a great name, let's call it that." The rest is history.

During the latter part of 1966 I was getting ready to treat some Neo. carolinae plants with calcium carbide to induce flowering. Just for the hell of it, I decided to treat a single mature plant of 'Fireball' as well. In February of 1967, I saw my first 'Fireball' flower ever. I had waited eight years to see this. By contrast, I had flowered and had identified all of the other unidentified plants in the importation group.

During those eight years I wrote to Mr. Doering several times, hoping to be able to order more 'Fireballs' and other species as well. I had also hoped to obtain in-formation for Dr. Lyman Smith on collection sites for the various species being identified, but I never heard from Mr. Doering again.

My records show that on February 28, 1967 I sent the first flowering 'Fireball' plant to Dr. Smith for identification. It bore my number P.130. I have a letter of confirmation of that specimen, saying it needed further study, Years later, I have yet to receive any word of its status. I was told by several people that the National Herbarium does not have a specimen of 'Fireball'. I can only assume it somehow got misplaced or perhaps included in the file of some other neoregelia.

During the last decade or so, Neo. 'Fireball' has been a point of much confusion. It has been assumed to be a hybrid. This is understandable as many people in horticulture assume a plant is a hybrid if it does not have a latinized name. Yet there is nothing wrong with giving an unidentified species a temporary cultivar name. I have sometimes used the name of the town or area a plant was collected from as a reference point. One of the plants from this collection I called Nid. saopaulo. It was later identified as Nid. rutilans. Yet I still see plants around labeled Nid. Sao Paulo and it is usually referred to as a hybrid, which it is not.

Bob Wilson also used this method of identification. Plants he sold as Neo. Tingua were later identified as Neo. carolinae. Plants he sold as Aechmea Tingua turned out to be Ae. lingulata. The name Tingua referred to the town in Brazil near which he collected the plants.

A few years ago, the name Neo. schultziana was being applied to 'Fireball'. How this started I don't know. The name is not listed in Dr. Smith's monograph.

While I am still hopeful that Neo. 'Fireball' will someday be properly named, I have not pursued the matter. After 26* years, it would be difficult to refer to Neo. 'Fireball' by any other name.

*Ed. It is now 38 years and the mystery remains.


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