A PASSION FOR PLANTS: November 2008
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!
and About Magazine
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 email@example.com