I have written before in these pages of my friend Charlie Drew. To me, growing up in Burlington Ontario, in everyones opinion that mattered he was almost certainly the local master fish breeder. He bred cardinals. He bred emperor tetras. He bred discus, and in the 1960's yet. While Herb Axelrod was running around East Germany in a Trabant taxicab, trying to hook up with Hans Jochaim Richter to talk to the "first" man that bred cardinals he could have saved a whole lot of time and money by getting off the plane in Toronto. But as anyone who knows Charlie can tell you Charlie is like that; understated, modest, extremely humble and soft spoken.
It was 1974. It had been one year almost to the day betweeen getting my first fishtank and meeting Charlie and it went something like this: my brother asked for and received a tank for his birthday. My father had answered some newspaper ad or something and got a 5 gal steel framed tank and all the goodies you would expect in 1974: a bag of coal (technically carbon I suppose), plastic plants, inside corner box filter with glass wool. All the good stuff that today belongs in some sort of museum of bad aquarium ideas.
I thought it was neat, went to the library and took out all the books about tropical fish, locked myself in my bedroom and came out at the end of the week speaking Latin.
A chance occasion seeing "Aphyosemion calliurum ahli" (which was the incorrect nom du jour for the fish we now call Aphyosemion gardneri) prompted an instant and lifelong infatuation with killifish that led six months later to meeting Charlie Drew, for if you mentioned "killifish" in the aquarium club of that region in that time you were told simply "Charlie breeds them - he breeds everything" that's really what people said - and indeed Charlie was and still is some kind of Rosario la Corte of the neo-arctic - there were not many poeple breeding discus, angels, killies and cardinals in the middle of the 20th century but Charlie was one of them. But he also had an overwhelming interest in plants both aquatic and terrestrial.
Tucked away in the laundry room corner of his basement Charlie kept all sorts of different and odd plants none of which you'd find in your average grocery store display of "assorted mixed tropicals". Orchid cactus, lots of them. Wandering iris. Wandering all over and around like they own the place, to name two.
But nothing was to prepare me for what I saw next. Imagine what it must feel like to finally see a room where people breed lots of killifish; I had expected to see a lot of fishtanks (check) and I'd expected to see lots of species of killifish (nope, 4 or 5) but I had not expected to see a dozen tanks full of gold australe, that's a bit of a mind blower ("they always sell, they're orange" - Charlie was seldom wrong, if these was such a thing as a commodity-always-saleable killifish this is the one - orange australe). I was xpecting 40 tanks with 2 fish in it, not 700 gold lyretails in a half a dozen tanks, but to suppy this pipeline of lyretail killfish production there were 8 or 9 small tanks, abot 10" wide and 4" square in a side containing nothing but two spawning mops and two very large gold australe. No filter was in the peaty brown clear water.
Nor had I expected to see a single large tank with only one species of plant. This tank looked pretty beat up if not downright ancient, probably made around the time of the Spartan wars. It was about two feet on a side; a perfect cube. It had a metal frame which was rusting horribly - indeed you could see flakes of rust sitting on top of the #2 silica sand gravel which may as well have been black. It was DARK in that tank. It was full of stems. Weird.
It was a somewhat odd display - leaf stems with leaves pretty much floating on the surface. "Nice swords" I said and was told they were not swords at all they were Cryprocorynes. I knew right then that this man was nuts, swords just don't get that big. But swords didn't look like these plants either. Could he be right? Could these things actually be some mutant rare giant Crypt? Nah, couldn't be. There's no such thing in books I had seen and almost certainly not here in my little home town, these kinds of exotics could, I reasoned, only be found in large American cities or at best in Toronto on rare occasion.
Charlie lifted the hood to expose the purple-pink glow of a single 20 watt 24" T12 gro lux fluorescent tube and a sea of leaves covering the surface. There were leaves upon leaves upon leaves. Big ones - no, huge ones, this was supposed to be a Cryptopryne, and Crypts are two to three inches in the shops, sometimes 6 inches, but not twenty four inches tall, no way, not ever.
Now, I had read every book available on aquarium plants in the day (both of them - ha ha, the TFH Stodola book and the TFH Rataj and Horeman book) and neither once had any mention of a giant crypts, not one with dark dark olve leaves with screaming purple undersides. Nope, that would stand out. I'd remember that.
It turns out Charle had bought the plants in the early 1950's from Shirley Aquatics in England. They sold it as "giant red crypt - Crypt grandis" which is all he could remember, and in the years since he had them he'd sold a couple at fish club auctions from time to time (on his words: "Geez, people sometimes pay $20 for these things at the C.A.O.A.C auction) and had now about 30 to 50 very large plants and lots of new plants emerging.
I was used to seeing new things, I was 17 and in 1974. Veritably the stone age as far as fishkeeping went. I saw a saltwater tank maybe once a year - in Toronto, 50 miles from where I lived. Your world was the 7 books the library had, the two local petshops and the local fishclub, which to an enthusiastic teen seemed more like a bunch of old people interested more in smoking and donuts than any hard core fishgeek interests. Lake Nyassa cichlids were known only in pictures; it was a very vanilla world fish-wise.
It came to pass that I would visit Charlie's maybe half a dozen times in the next decade and each time that tank of giant red crypts would still be there and each time I'd still never heard of them or seen them anywhere else, nor did anybody I'd met or talked to know anything about "Crypt. grandis" or "giant red crypts". "Might be C. blassii" was the only substantive comment I'd heard and I knew that was wrong - but probably close, "blassii" just don't get that big. Charlie's plant didn't seem to exist, so, what WAS this freak giant crypts doing at Chrlies place?
For ten years I lived in Los Angeles where I can faithfully report there as no sights or sounds of any large crypts, red or otherwise. Moving back to Canada, I discover upon checking in with Charlie that he replaced that old tank full of crypts which pretty much made my heart stop. I may not have known what they were but I knew they coudln't be found anywhere else. That tank had been replaced alright, wonder of wonder, mircle of miracles, Charlie was dragged kicking and screaming into the 1990s and had an all glass aquarium. That's right, the rusted out hulk of the old metal framed tank was still round the side of the house with the rest of the trash waiting to be picked up. There was not much left of it! Charlie offered it too me and for sentimental reasons I gave some serious thought to taking it home where it would undoubtedly delight my wife (not) and if not for the fact it would not under any conditions fit anywhere in my car... well, you know, that old tank is now dead, Jim.
Charlie had had the same tank remade in glass. 24" on a side, one giant cube with brand new gravel and about 15 giant red crypts. He'd given some away and now it semed to me the species hang by a thread in new gravel in a tank with cloudy water. I had visions of the things metlting down. I had visions of there being no more Cyrptocoryne what-ever.
But, they were fine, and still are to this day. There are four square feet on Burlington that seem to forever hold a stand of giant red crypots. And in fact they've all but taken over his set-in-the-wall 100 gallon show tank.
But what ARE they?
There were no search engines in 1994. Not that worked anyway, Altavista was a ways off and Google would not come until years later. Remember gopher? Probably not. It was the search engine moral equivalent of coal for aquarium filters. There also didn't seem to be anybody else on the net who was real serious about crypts. Four years later, after the explosion of the dial up Internet for $30/mo it was a different landscape. One day I received an email from some fella in Holland called Jan Bersteimeijr. Jan seemed to be the Internet liaison to the European Cryptocoryne mafia - and while Jan is not an aquarist his interest in Crypts transcends the differences between submersed (aquaria) and emersed (aroid fancier) hobbyists and scientists. The "aroid guys", mostly in Europe all grow their Crypts emersed in tanks, palludariums and herbariums but Jan has such enthusiasm and passion for Crypts that no matter what he context, "he's da man". Jan's "Crypts pages" website while not meant specifically for aquarists, is and has always been the resource for these plants - and the aquaria side of the hobby is not ignored. I'd talked to Jan over the years and one day mentioned Charlie's giant red Crypt.
So I as a bit taken aback when in 2005 when having once again brought up the subject of Charlie's giant red crypts, that Jan told me he'd located a Shirley aquatics catalog from the 1960s that mentioned "C. grandis", however the location was listed merely as "Borneo". Ridley described the plant from near Matang in Sarawak (the former British Borneo) and if this plant is what Shirley aquatics sold then the plant would today be C. cordata grabowski.
But Jan points out that in Kalimantan and in Narathiwat in Thailand there are also very large forms of cordata.
Whatever it is it's a very rare plant. But all of a sudden it's not so mysterious - it has a name now. Or maybe it does.
With plants of the genus Cryptocoryne nothing in certain until they flower as the leaves can display great differences depending on their environment and Charlie had never ever seen a flowering spathe in any of his plants. So we can't compare them properly and C. cordata grabowski is little more than a guess right now - a tentative identification.
While some crypt are always available (C. wendtii for example) and while some are sometimes availabe (C. balansae for example) some are available very infrequently (C. usteriana, C. aponogetifolia for example). But, some are just not around and while it's not fair to say they do not exist in the hobby it is true that they exist in very small numbers in only a few peoples tanks or palludariums and usually only can be found in care of people who have collected them from the wild. They command very high prices. $150 for a small plant is not uncommon. So if you ever bought a "Giant red Crypt" from a C.A.O.A.C. auction for the $20 or $25 they usually command there you have no idea what a bargin you got.
So, is the mystery of the Giant red crypt solved? Maybe. Probably. Who knows? There are a few large forms of cordata known and while it's likely to be graboswki, to be certain a photograph or a dried flower must be examined and as of yet no photographs exist of the flowers of this plant. But, take heart, Charlie now has a digital camera.