Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ilie Gaceu

Ilie Gaceu renaissance gardener

I first met Ilie a few years back at the San Francisco botanical gardens at Strybing arboretum. He has shoulder length hair and a full beard. He moved swiftly through the greenhouse where volunteers methodically repot plants for sale. I pepper him with questions about everything I can see because the plants in the collection are individual gems in their own right. Flowering Erithriyna catches my eye. Countless epiphyllum hybrids hang by the hundreds above tables of tropical plants rooting in perlite. Species Salvias (non-hybridized) sit neatly in rows awaiting sales. The heat and the humidity of the greenhouse hit my face as I enter just like exiting an airplane cabin at Miami airport.
It seems in the landscape business there are the construction types who lay plumbing, drip irrigation, retaining walls and fencing. Then there are those who choose to focus on plant materials and hire out for any construction. Never have I met someone who knows the sheer volume of Latin names and can pour cement without throwing his back out. Ilie is a combination of plant enthusiast and construction worker. He is muscular unlike so many plant collectors. He can however debate taxonomy like a seasoned botany professor. I always leave him trying to remember other questions about plants I can’t find answers to elsewhere.
I usually find Ilie at the volunteer area by the greenhouses in the back of the botanical gardens. Frankly, there are many people here I could write about at length. Ilie is one of many bright characters that wander the gardens path tending plants and solving plant mysteries. He invites me to his house and I am not struck by the plant collection he has amassed but the arbors and home made greenhouses he has build using a wide variety of found materials. His cement foundations could clearly outlast any earthquake California might throw at it. I wonder how he can make such robust structures and still have time to touch pistils to stamens and create the multitude of unique hybrids of countless plant species. He is truly a renaissance gardener.
The second time I am to meet him, Ilie is too busy to interview. As I approach he is mixing soil for volunteers. It is a cold and foggy morning and the fog is so thick there is water dripping off of everything. Ilie moves like a hummingbird in the cold morning air. He maneuvers a wheelbarrow around a car and because some parked too close to another car, he can’t get the wheelbarrow out. He picks the whole wheelbarrow up and tiptoes past the cars. Ilie takes me inside the greenhouse where I see plants virtually unknown outside botanical gardens. Many plants are kept in here to protect them from the cold. Ilie tells me about his recent trip to South Africa to collect Clivia Seeds. Clivia were named for lady Clive. I am told of one plant collector who has a ranch hundreds of acres long and a driveway nearly a mile long. The tour stops in the front and is told not to take any seeds or cuttings. The tourists obey and after a long tour, the people prepare to leave. Ilie manages to ask the homeowner about his rare plants and gives seeds from his private collection to Ilie to grow. He has a very friendly active interest in plants. It is infectious. Plant collectors know when they are in front of rare plants, the desire to get seeds is almost unbearable. Much of his collection came in similar ways. His persistence pays off as he has an astonishing collection.
I am taken to a hillside area which once was unplanted however in the last decade, the blackberry has been cut back and Mexican and South American plants are planted. A family of foxes moved in and I am amazed how many holes are dug in the hillside. The erosion caused by the foxes it evident. I have always heard about the secret animal life in Golden Gate Park but here is clear evidence of it. Iliea tells me that the fox is not the only creature digging trenches. Skunks too have taken up residence. Apparently Iliea has been attacked a number of times by skunks when watering. Thankfully he was quick with the hose. I can smell skunk as I nervously scribble down these notes. I remember the old black and white, slow motion footage of skunks doing handstands, spraying in a lab after being provoked. I remember how the blobs of liquid wobble and tumble toward their target. As this plays over and over in my heard, Iliea quickly weeds the area and replaces the plants, which toppled over.
Ilie was always curious. He recounts how he got in trouble in school for carving on his school desk. He tells me how, after his father mentioned how he liked an antique mosaic pattern, he used mud and tiles and proceeded to redecorate his fathers’ hallway. When he came home he asked if his mother had hired his cousin to do this. When it was discovered that it was Ilie, his father was impressed and encouraged him to pursue his love of the arts.
We move across the garden to the South African section. Ilies hybrids are everywhere. A few of his plants were uprooted by one of the gardeners with his hose. I find it ironic but it’s true. The hose is one of the most helpful and most destructive tools in the garden. I see the elusive yellow Clivia. I remember when they were $100 a plant in the early 90’s. The seeds, which can take five years to bloom, are about $5.00 apiece. Ilie tells me a bout his travels to Kirstinbosch, the massive South African botanical gardens which have more Clivia than anyone.
Ilie takes me to his latest project he created with his business partner Mike Gonzalez. It’s a fence and arbor on the Vulcan stairs in the upper Castro near goat hill. His fence is the most beautiful arbor I have ever seen. I ask Ilie what will grow on it and I actually think it would look better without a flowering vine. It is obvious it must have been a brutal job as the hill is steep and the foundation of the fence had 36” deep holes. I am amazed how many talents reside in Ilie. He is an intellectual and extremely tough construction worker.
Back at his house, I am led through sawdust trails to his own private garden. He pours cement and carves flowers into his work. Most people just pour cement. Ilie creates elaborate molds. Most cement one sees has sharp edges. Ilieas molds the cement to look like carved marble. I spend a full ten minutes inspecting the cement and remarking how beautiful it looks and yet it is only a year or so old. Ilies work has a timeless old world charm. The cement work has a beauty that rivals the plants they are designed to hold.
I look at Ilies epiphyllum collection. One plant in particular catches my eye. It is called “Ilie Gaceu”. I am surprised that Ilie would name a plant after himself and he reassures me that it was a breeder who decided to give it his name after he noticed how much he loved the flower it had. I ask him if he named a plant what name would it get. He responds that he would name it after the native people who had it before it was “discovered” by the outside world. As I prepare to leave, he takes me through the house to look at his remodeling. I see his kitchen is full of cut herbs and dried chili peppers. I see that he cooks and as I look at the custom windows he installed, I see that he does windows too. For more information on Clivias go to http://www.cliviasociety.org/