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Nursery Tales: Misadventures With Plants

by Nancy Schramm

I had so much fun reminiscing about my nursery childhood in last December's O & A column that I couldn't resist doing it again. Let's call this installment "Misadventures With Plants."


These days, just about everyone knows what Oleander looks like, and that it is poisonous. It's probably the most commonly planted freeway plant there is. But when I was little there wasn't quite so much Oleander around (fewer freeways, too!) and I certainly didn't know much about it. One time some of our Hawaiian cousins were visiting, and Kate was helping me weed the cans of Oleander in the nursery. At that point in my life (maybe 9 or 10 years old) I would often sample the flowers in the nursery just to see if they were tasty. Well, the Oleander were blooming, so in goes a flower. It only took a couple of chews to realize I'd made a mistake and quickly spit out the vile tasting flower.

That's when Kate, unaware of what had just happened, told me that Oleander grew in Hawaii, and how poisonous it was ­ how she had heard about a family who had cooked a pig in the ground with Oleander wood for the fire, and how the whole family had been killed when they ate the pork. I knew then that I was going to die that very night. Despite getting a stomachache, I didn't dare tell anyone, for I was sure my parents would "kill" me for being so stupid. It was years before I shared that misadventure.


 My sister Diane also kept a plant secret for years.

She was fascinated with a plant called Gunnera.

This is a very dramatic plant, with huge (sometimes 3' or more) leaves that are rigid, prickly, and shaped something like maple leaves. Diane discovered that when she walked past the Gunnera plant, she could poke a hole in the leaf with her finger, with a very satisfactory sounding "pop."

One night at the dinner table she suddenly heard Dad saying to Mom "and I can't figure out what bug is making all those holes in the Gunnera leaves."

It was many years later when Diane confessed to her actions. She was really praying for invisibility at that moment.


Diane wasn't the only one who inadvertently tortured the plants. Many pretty leaves and berries ended up as decorations on our mud pies, and I was constantly picking flowers for elaborate Barbie doll weddings. And one rather unique plant in the nursery, Dioon (similar in appearance to Sago Palm) had long rigid leaves with pointed leaflets that I could break off for perfect Barbie doll swords. I never noticed that the missing leaflets marred the symmetry of the leaf.

On occasion, the plants did fight back. My sister Trisha discovered after a day of potting up Primulas (primrose) that she was allergic to those very same plants, and got a rash similar to that which poison oak causes. Once I was grooming some rice paper plants (Tetrapanax), removing the dead leaves, and inhaled some of the fine hairs I had disturbed ­ they were like dust in the air. That irritant left me coughing for over an hour. And I always wondered if the reason we didn't grow many roses or cactus was because of their ability to draw blood from the inattentive. But in general we all got along.

Both of my sisters and I grew up working in the nursery. At the time I think we must have complained endlessly, but now we recall those days with fondness and much amusement. Trisha told me that her starting salary was 50 cents per hour. When she got her first raise (ten cents more for a total of 60 cents each hour) she still remembers how excited she was when she figured out that she was getting one penny for every single minute that she worked. And she felt like she earned all of those pennies when she was confronted by (as she put it) "billions of burlap bags of green french fries (a.k.a. ice plant) to make cuttings from."

My playmates often envied the "huge"nursery I had as a "playground," not realizing that the plants had to be cared for before we, as a family, could leave on vacation, or even for the day. Don Dillon, Jr. of Four Winds Growers in Fremont explained how the nursery even impacted his family's sleep when he told me about "The Frost Alarm." Freezing weather is a serious risk of growing Citrus in Northern California. In the 1950s, Don's dad rigged a large bell ("The Frost Alarm") through the phone line to a thermometer at the nursery. When temperatures approached freezing, the alarm would ring, forcing the family to race to the nursery and light orchard heaters to protect the plants from the cold.

That's all for now-see you next year!


Copyright. Out and About Magazine

           Third generation owner of Carman's Nursery, Nancy Schramm and her husband recently moved the nursery from Los Gatos to Gilroy where they have lived for 24 years. The nursery is known for growing rare and unusual plants including bonsai starters, dwarf conifers, rock garden plants and (of course) less common fruiting plants. Nancy has been a member of the Western Horticultural Society since 2003. She follows in the footsteps of her father Ed Carman, the founder of Carman's Nursery. Ed was one of the charter members of the Western Horticultural Society and also served on the first Board.

Contact Nancy at

Western Horticulture Society
PO Box 166, Mountain View, CA 94042
(650) 948-4614 or (650) 941-6136