I was tracing my early steps last weekend. Guess I had a little too much time on my hands.
I grew up in Texas, adopted out of San Antonio to a college professor and his wife, a college librarian. I grew up in College Station, and I guess somewhere in there my biological DNA blended in with my environmental upbringing of having a Ph.D. botanist for a pop to instill in me a love of horticulture. I knew from age 11 or 12 that I wanted to grow.
My first encounter with a rock star plant guy was when Mom and Dad took me to Houston to meet Lynn Lowrey. He’d been recommended as someone who was bringing Texas natives into the industry. It was a treat to meet him and to see a real Houston nursery.
I remember hounding my folks to drive me up Texas Avenue (Highway 6) to visit Dyess Nursery in Bryan. Mr. Dyess helped me bootleg my way into a nursery license so I could sell from my back yard as an eighth-grader. Mom and Dad must not have been too worried that their son was spending a lot more time learning about gaillardias, grasses and groundcovers than girls.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
We did most of our shopping back then in Houston. College Station was still very small. Knowing we’d be going to the city, I’d study the Saturday garden sections of the Houston Post for several weeks to line out the nurseries I wanted to visit while we were down there. And they’d take me!
One spring Friday when school was out at A&M Consolidated, Dad took me to see Cornelius Wholesale Nursery, the growing division of Cornelius Nursery of Houston.
It was the first time I’d ever seen a huge wholesale nursery, and my eyes were opened forever.
And to think that 35 years later I’d share a table with Sterling Cornelius at the big annual nursery trade show in Dallas as we chatted over hot dogs. You could as well have put Mickey Mantle in that chair across from me. What a wonderful memory of a very kind man.
I worked alongside Benny Simpson, research horticulturist for Texas A&M, while I was with the Extension Service serving 17 counties of North Central Texas. Like Lynn Lowrey, Benny spent his career seeking out native Texas plants and nurturing them into the Texas nursery trade.
Mention his name to any veteran nursery person and you’ll see an immediate smile. And Benny introduced me to Dr. Don Egolf from the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. as he was conducting his exhaustive research on crape myrtles that brought us 29 varieties with Native American tribal names such as Natchez, Muskogee and Tuscarora.
I had the chance to meet and know Ralph Pinkus, the founder of North Haven Gardens in Dallas, in 1970. Ralph and his wife, Muriel, became good friends of my wife and mine for 45 years, and in one of the biggest honors of my life I, a Lutheran for all of my married life up till then, was asked to present to Ralph and Muriel the Jewish Family Service Award in front of 600 Jewish leaders at the annual banquet 12 or 14 years ago. Dear people.
I applied for the rights to produce the Sesquicentennial Calendar for the state of Texas in 1986 and was granted permission. As such, I did what I called “a gathering of historical horticulture” for our state. I wanted to feature leaders in the nursery industry from each of our large cities, and the men that I’ve mentioned certainly were included. So were three from Fort Worth.
O.P. Hilscher left the dry cleaning business in Brenham to begin selling plants in Fort Worth in 1922. In 1925 he opened the family’s first retail nursery. In 1937 his son L.J. (“Jay”) joined the firm. At that time almost all of their plants were sold bare-rooted.
Jay was an early sponsor of my radio broadcasts, and he was my friend. He represented Fort Worth well, serving both the Texas and American Association of Nurserymen in the capacity of president.
William and J.B. Baker opened a nursery in Fort Worth in 1883 selling fruit and shade trees at Seventh and Houston streets. The brothers went on to open seven retail locations in Tarrant County and branches in Dallas, Midland and Lubbock.
J.B.’s sons Edward and Bob Baker continued the family business through the end of 1984 – more than 100 years. Trees from the Baker Brothers Nursery still line streets off Texas 121 in near northeast Fort Worth. Bob Baker personally drove my sons and me around the old neighborhood, giving me all of this information only weeks before he died unexpectedly.
N.E. Archie Sr. began as a landscape contractor in 1934, later opening one of the first full service nurseries in North Texas in 1949. Archie’s Gardenland became the destination garden center for folks from west Fort Worth and westward.
The grandson of the founder, Rick Archie, served the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association as state chairman of the board, and the friendly family, now in its fourth generation of nurserymen, continues to run the nursery today.
Calloways Nursery is based in Fort Worth as well. While Calloways is not as old as these other legacy nurseries, my friends and longtime sponsors, founders Jim Estill (now retired) and John Peters and their team have carved the company name into horticultural history forever.
Sharing the common thread of leadership in the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, Calloways has brought our nursery industry light years ahead.
Texas has a long and rich horticultural heritage, and the story is still just getting started. The next time you’re out nursery shopping, say “thank you” to someone who’s helping write the next page.