Flower find is getting popular Bloom: Two young brothers discovered a new columbine 30 years ago and named it for the town where they grew up.

September 12, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

When two brothers found a wildflower they had never seen before growing in the village of Corbett, nobody suspected they were adding to the body of botanical knowledge.

Andrew and Larry Clemens were boys then. Now they are men, with children of their own. It took a long time for the flower they found in a field of columbines to become known in the garden world as the Corbett columbine, native to Maryland.

"It was very unusual to find something so strikingly different," said Richard Simon, a longtime owner of Bluemount Nurseries in Monkton and a neighbor of the Clemens family in northern Baltimore County.

After verifying that the exquisite butter-yellow bloom was indeed a new variety -- "a chance seedling in the wild" -- Simon propagated its seeds for several seasons. He then introduced the new columbine in the Bluemount catalog in 1992.

Five summers later, the flower marketplace is going wild over the Corbett columbine, formally named Aquilegia canadensis Corbett.

From a field in a small village in Maryland, its seeds are being sown across the continent and as far as Europe, thanks to the Clemens' curiosity.

"It's now widely distributed to various growers in the United States, Canada, Holland and Germany," said Simon. "It will grow from northern California to British Columbia."

His daughter, Martha Simon Pindale, who has taken over the family nursery, said she was glad to see a native wildflower grow coast to coast and appeal to gardeners.

TC According to Muffin Evander, president of the Horticultural Society of Maryland Inc., the columbine attracts hummingbirds, blooms best under full sun, cuts well for bouquets and makes a good spring starter for next year's garden.

The seeds, said Andrew Clemens, are "smaller than pencil points."

Remembering the thrill of discovery, he said: "They wanted to name it after us, but we said we wanted it to be named after the village."

The circumstances of life in Corbett in the 1960s lent themselves to finding an unnamed flower.

"Things were different 30 years ago," said Andrew Clemens, 44, a Baltimore elementary schoolteacher. "You could go walking in farmland, meadows, the old railroad tracks.

"When we were younger, the railroad was still running, the farmers' fences were open and there were wide-open vistas," he said. "You could see everywhere."

The Clemenses, a family with four sons, lived in a gray clapboard house built in 1890 at the top of the main lane.

The two nearest neighbors had eight and six children, plenty for the softball game that never ended before dark. The doctor down the hill had ponies that loved to eat chicory. The old sawmill was closed but the building still stood.

For candy and soda, the boys went to the general store in Monkton, a walk up the tracks. "Penny candy was really a penny," said Clemens. "For a quarter, you could gorge yourself."

Cows in a pasture along the route chased the Clemens boys home more than once.

On a steep, rocky hillside near Gunpowder Falls and the Northern Central railroad line, which ran between Baltimore and Harrisburg, Pa., he and his younger brother Larry spotted a cream-colored blossom in the midst of a clump of common wild red columbines.

Larry Clemens, now a 40-year-old Naval Academy librarian, was the first to bring the new flower home when he was "somewhere between 10 and 13," as he recalled. He was intrigued by the splash of pale yellow, he said. "That's what caught my eye."

A married couple of botanists from the John Hopkins University, living nearby, had inspired his interest in native flora, he said.

"We planted it in the wildflower garden," said his mother, Shirley Clemens, 77, who lives in the Corbett homestead. "I don't think we made very much fuss about it."

After about three years, the strange columbine didn't bloom again. "We figured it died, it was gone, one of those things we would never see again," said Andrew Clemens. Their Hereford High School science teacher told them it was most likely an albino breed of red columbine. Then, in the 1970s, Andrew Clemens saw the mysterious flower again near the river and the railroad.

"Lo and behold, there it was growing out of the crevice between two rocks," he said. "Because I knew it was rare, I decided to collect the seeds. We gave it to a lot of neighbors. The more people that had them, the better."

The seeds eventually circulated through county church circles to Simon, who looked through the books and determined the flower was unknown.

Referring to his botanist neighbors, Andrew Clemens said: "A botanist always wants to find a new species. I don't think they ever did. It's ironic that we kids did."

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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