We are pleased to present Eric Hsu’s first Guest Rant.
When I was growing up, the narrative of North American horticulture, especially ornamental horticulture, was through the prism of a Euro-centric, if not Anglophilic lens. It was not through the perspective of an immigrant one. There was little or no acknowledgment of horticultural legacy that immigrants left in the U.S., even in the annals of horticultural history in my university curriculum. What I learned instead was how early American botanists and nurserymen fulfilled the British hunger for New World plants, especially its trees and shrubs in the 18th century, or the popularity of Japanese plants was closely tied to the Japonisme, the craze for Japanese arts and culture in western Europe and United States. Whether for the prevailing xenophobic attitudes, lack of documentation, or its perceived irrelevance in history, the contributions of immigrant communities have not been acknowledged consistently in a significant way. Last year on my trip to visit gardens and nurseries in the Bay Area, I learned that the old greenhouse ranges we spotted in Richmond were once used for growing roses and carnations. The greenhouses had a sad, forlorn, look of what once had been thriving businesses, although the glimpse of a few roses growing and flowering against such adversity was a bright moment. However, it scarcely occurred to me to connect these greenhouses with the Japanese American community.
Asian immigrants, especially Japanese Americans, in California oversaw farms and nurseries because these economic endeavors thought to be less threatening to whites. In Northern California, the East Bay and the current ‘Silicon Valley’ (San Mateo, Mountain View, Redwood City), became the hubs for these horticultural businesses since real estate was (and still is today) expensive in San Francisco. With its sunny days and cool nights, the climate was ideal for growing plants. In addition, the expansion of the railroad system in the region meant convenient and direct links to San Francisco where sales were conducted.
Among the Japanese American nurseries in the Bay Area that caught my attention was the largest and most influential one, the Domoto Nursery. Whereas other nurseries were largely preoccupied with growing cut flowers like chrysanthemums, roses, and carnations, the Domoto Nursery was one of the few concentrating on ornamental plants for gardens and landscapes. It too was a major conduit through which plants new to American horticulture were introduced and popularized. Kanetaro and Takanoshin Domoto, the two brothers who immigrated from Wakayama, Japan, had started the business in 1885. The Domoto Nursery soon gained the nickname ‘Domoto College’ for the multitude of young men trained and employed there before opening their businesses as well. At its height, the nursery spanned 40 acres; the San Francisco Call in February 1912 noted that the greenhouses covered 230,000 square feet and the shed 300,000 square feet. The economic woes of the Great Depression severely affected the Domoto Nursery, leading to its foreclosure and its re-possession of the land in 1936 by the city of Oakland. If Kanetaro was concerned about the nursery’s legacy consigned to anonymity of time, he hadn’t need to worry. His eldest son Toichi carried on the family tradition, cementing the Domoto name farther into history.
Raised in the family business from a young age, Toichi never envisioned that he would follow his father into the same profession. He had gone to Stanford University in 1921 to study mechanical engineering, but later transferred to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for horticulture. Toichi had realized that career opportunities outside of the agricultural and horticultural industry were limited to those of Asian ancestry. Reflecting upon his childhood among the plants, he said matter-of-factly, if not a bit resignedly: “For me that’s all there was to do. When I was small, I played in the Domoto Bros nursery. As I grew up in the nursery. Later I started my nursery.”
When Toichi returned to California in 1926 after college, he purchased 26 acres in Hayward to start his nursery. The site was ideal for its water and fertile soil while the real estate prices were affordable. Through a series of bartering for building materials and plants and financing from the principal, Toichi slowly built his nursery from the ground up (during the Depression, he had less than three dollars some days to feed his family from his selling gladiolus flowers in San Francisco; food was scarce). However, the nursery’s development was sadly interrupted when the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066 that ordained the internment of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans in camps. Sensing the imminent arrival of authorities for their forced relocation, the Domotos left the nursery in the care of an employee and moved inland to Livingston in hopes of delaying their inevitable transfer to the camp. Eventually the family was split up, with some in Amache Relocation Center in Colorado and a few returning to Japan. His father, already broken emotionally from the foreclosure of Domoto Nursery, later died at camp, as did another uncle who had been relocated to Milwaukee. Released momentarily through a sympathetic camp administrator, Toichi had to pay a guard to escort their ashes to the family gravesite in California.
With time for breeding and propagating squandered to internment, Toichi recovered what he had lost and reassumed the nursery work. Because anti-Japanese sentiment was still high after WWII, he was considerate of his presence affecting the business of the nurseries he sought for plants. The plant orders were retrieved early mornings before the nurseries were open for their customers; for instance, his truck would arrive promptly at 6 am to pick up the camellias from Nuccios Nurseries, which was a ten-hour round trip from Hayward to Altadena and back.
One silver lining of being away in internment camp was that the seedlings in the peony fields (5-acres) had matured and were flowering, allowing Toichi to evaluate and keep the promising ones. When Toichi began to concentrate on tree peonies, breeding them was still in its infancy. Although tree peonies could be easily bought from nurseries, they were largely imported from Japan and Europe where flowering plants could be bought inexpensively and marked up once arrived in US. The few people engaged in hybridizing and selecting tree peonies commenced their programs around the same time Toichi became interested; among them was Professor A.P Saunders, still regarded the most successful and prolific breeder of peonies who only named 1 percent of his seedlings, whom Toichi corresponded in letters. Saunders was encouraging of his efforts: ‘You’re a young man yet. Plant as many seeds as you can, and see what you get.” Another individual was Roy Klehm who graciously advised on propagation difficulties, especially with grafting since Toichi was experiencing problems with poor quality rootstocks. Klehm himself had visited the peony fields at the Hayward nursery. In addition to the tree peonies acquired from Japan, Toichi imported the yellow peonies from Victor Lemoine of Lorraine, France; Lemoine had crossed Paeonia lutea with Paeonia suffruticosa to broaden the color range and his cultivars, like ‘Alice Harding’ and ‘Chromatella’ are still cultivated today. Most of the tree peonies today attributed to Toichi’s breeding were named and registered by Roy Klehm, but the best one ‘Toichi Ruby’ has won superlatives from tree peony fanciers for its rich rose red color, fragrance, and clean foliage.
Given their slow maturity and lengthy propagation, tree peonies alone were not lucrative for the nursery to sustain itself. Camellias became the bread and butter because they were becoming popular as plants and cut flowers (camellia corsages accounted for a portion of the nursery income during the first three to four years). One of Domoto’s significant introductions to US for his breeding was Camellia reticulata‘Captain Rawes’, which had been grown in Europe for over a century by that time. Imported from China by its namesake to UK, ‘Captain Rawes’ did not flower in a greenhouse until 1826. This plant became the type specimen (the sample that taxonomists use to describe a new species) on which the botanist John Lindley recognized Camellia reticulata in the Botanical Register (1827). In 1936, Domoto imported scions of ‘Captain Rawes’ from the Hiller Nurseries, Winchester, UK, but his grafts nearly all failed, forcing him to request another shipment of grafted plants instead. Seeing that the grafted plants from Hillier’s were side and whip grafts rather than the cleft grafts popular in US, Domoto broadened his perspective on grafting camellias. Reticulata camellias are uncommon in gardens, given their large size (plants can reach up to 50’ in the wild), propagation difficulties, and winter hardiness. When pressed for these camellias’ lack of popularity, Domoto remarked: ‘It’s a big flower, and it’s a rangy-looking plant. You really don’t get the full impact of these varieties until the plant gets good-sized, in order to make any show’. He had hoped to capitalize on their brief popularity but was unable to produce saleable plants in time. On the other hand, his work with the fall-flowering Camellia sasanqua was successful. Its smaller and tighter growth, evergreen foliage, and vibrant flower colors were attractive attributes that possessed enormous potential for good garden plants. ‘Dwarf Shishi’, a seedling of the well-known ‘Shisi-Gashira’, was acclaimed for its compact, slow growth and large dark pink flowers.
Toichi continued to work with camellias throughout his life, and one of his lifelong friendships was with Julius Nuccio, the co-proprietor of Nuccios’ Nurseries in Altadena, California. Julius and his brother Joe were Italian Americans who developed a burgeoning interest in azaleas and camellias from their parents’ back garden into a full-fledged 40-acre nursery. Julius and Toichi had met through a mutual friend who was a train express messenger fanatical about camellias. When Julius and his wife traveled up to San Francisco, Toichi and Alice would entertain them at their home –likewise the Nuccios would reciprocate the hospitality in Los Angeles. Decades later Toichi still recalls the boisterous Italian American dinner that Julius’s mother had prepared, calling it the best Italian dinner he and his wife had eaten. When pressed for possible cultural misunderstandings between the Japanese Americans and Italian Americans, Toichi acknowledged the potential for conflict, but pointed that both groups were on equal footing due to their mutual experiences they faced from discrimination. In fact, Julius’s childhood neighbors were Japanese, and there were frequent shared meals at each other homes. Today Nuccio’s Nurseries sells a seedling named after its namesake breeder ‘Toichi Domoto’, a formal double rose pink flower with dark pink stripes.
Toichi’s friendship with the Nuccio family was reflective of his generous and sociable personality that made him an ascendant star in the Californian gardening scene. The respect accorded to his knowledge and ease of working with people were affirmed when in 1957 Domoto was appointed the president of the California Horticultural Society, which counted several influential Californian horticulturists and nursery people among its members. Some of these members included Walter Bosworth (W.B.) Clarke whose breeding, selection, and propagation of woody plants, like his namesake Prunus mume and magnolias at the San Jose nursery enriched gardens, San Francisco-based plantsman and nurseryman Victor Reiter of Geranium pratense ‘Midnight Reiter’, Golden Gate Park director Roy Hudson and director of Strybing Arboretum (now SF Botanical Garden) Eric Walther. The society was formed to gather and compare information on hardiness after the Great Freeze of 1932, which caused widespread losses of specimen plants and collections in gardens. At the jovial society meetings, the members would bring in new plants, discuss their growing requirements and their use in gardens and parks. Domoto provided valuable insights as he was outside of the cool ‘fog belt’ of San Francisco where some members resided, and he stepped in with specimen plants for the society’s annual exhibit at the Oakland Spring Garden Show. The Californian Horticultural Society (https://calhortsociety.org) still exists and holds their monthly meetings at the San Francisco County Fair Building.
If there was one social activity that Toichi refrained from partaking, it was visiting the gardens of his customers, many of whom were wealthy and enthusiastic about plants. He felt strongly that gardens were private domains, not vehicles for ego: “[A] person puts a garden in and you don’t like to have every Tom, Dick and Harry. The thing is, that the people that you should like to have come in are the ones that respect that. The ones that you would just as soon not come in are the most brazen that come in.” The one garden that Toichi did have a close professional relationship with was the country estate of Mr. William P. Roth and Mrs. Lurline Matson Roth, heiress to the Matson Navigation Company, Filoli. Enlisted by the previous owners the Bourns who had built the estate, the landscape designer Bruce Porter already had laid out the formal garden between 1917 and 1922; Isabella Worn the horticulturist oversaw the plantings and their maintenance. When Mrs. Roth later became more interested in azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons, she had Worn visit Domoto Brothers and later Toichi’s Hayward nursery to select and pick up plants. It was through Toichi on his first visit to Filoli did Mrs. Roth reveal her desire to see Filoli preserved as a public garden. Mrs. Roth’s confession and acknowledgement of her mortality may have encouraged him to consider the future of his nursery.
When Toichi realized that his two children, Marilyn and Douglas, were not interested in inheriting the nursery, he began to downsize his business by phasing out his nursery stock. Several dozen camellia seedlings were sent to Nuccio’s Nurseries for evaluation. Downsizing the nursery proved wise because he was able to relax unburdened and maintain his passions in breeding plants. His energies never faltered into his nonagenerian years, although health issues later forced more confinement in bed at home. Every morning at 5 am, he would wake up and go about his routine watering, feeding the cats, reading the newspapers and magazines.
For someone who experienced racial and societal injustices, Toichi Domoto was remarkably gracious and optimistic. He betrayed no hint of anger or bitterness when reflecting on his significant achievement, which was anything but horticultural:
“Having gotten along with my friends in life, and having gained their respect. I feel that more than anything else, human relations…But the fact that I got to know certain people real well, intimately, so that regardless of their color or race or religion, I knew them as a person, I think that was—those are the two things that I really cherish more than anything else.”
Domoto poignantly added: “When you are out working with plants and flowers, you can’t have hate in your heart.”
Eric Hsu is a writer (his blog is www.plinthetal.com) and gardener with interests in bulbs and woody plants; in addition he is the plant information coordinator at Chanticleer.
Growing Community: Pioneers of the Japanese American Floral Industry. Retrieved August 1, 2020 from www.janurseries.com
Toichi Domoto, “A Japanese-American Nurseryman’s Life in California: Floriculture and Family, 1883-1992,” an oral history conducted in 1992 by Suzanne B. Riess, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1993.
Nuccio. J. (1995). A tribute to Toichi Domoto. The Camellia Review 57(2): 10-11.
Schmidt, W. (1969). Toichi Domoto, Nurseryman: Over sixty years’ experience with flowers. California Horticultural Journal 30: 66-73.
Ukai, N. (n.d.). The Domoto Maple: Bonsai Part I. Retrieved August 4, 2020, from The Domato Maple: Bonsai: Part I.