Friday, August 26, 2016

Mitsch Memories

The coffee/book room

Old Mitsch catalogs

The room that adjoins the office is lined with books and nursery catalogs. It also contains the coffee maker. I usually make a cup in the morning and then again at about 3 PM, and each time I pull something from the shelf to read. Thus I encountered a pile of old Mitsch Nursery catalogs, and though they are no longer in business they were my main inspiration to grow the types of plants that have made my career.

Actually there's quite a lot of difference now – I am much more into maples for example. Mitsch was almost exclusively a liner nursery, whereas I grow most of my plants to larger sizes. Mitsch thrived in the heyday of the nursery industry, virtually supplying other wholesale nurseries with their product line.

The catalog I picked up to examine was the fall 1980 - spring 1981 Wholesale Lining Out Stock. John Mitsch had already been in business for over 30 years, but that was the first year for me. I went to visit him and in less than an hour's time my head was spinning and overwhelmed with the cultivars of Chamaecyparis pisifera, thyoides and obtusa. I had very little money to invest, so I focused primarily on Tsuga and Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivars. The first seven years since my nursery's establishment I worked full time for other companies, then I would come home at night to pot and propagate, often with a head lamp in the dark. In the beginning I was essentially a mini-version of Mitsch Nursery, selling liners to keep the cash flowing.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Lutea'

Mitsch Nursery was considered “progressive” in the sense that you could buy old tried-and-true varieties as well as the newer plants. Let's take a look back at what was happening 36 years ago. Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Lutea' was new to the West Coast, and the catalog describes it as “rare,” and a cutting was going for $0.45 apiece. By comparison, most of the Chamaecyparis pisifera selections were $0.20 each. The 'Nana Lutea' originated as a sport of the well-known 'Nana Gracilis', which was discovered in 1966 in the Netherlands. For what it's worth, Jan Spek of Boskoop, the finder, gave the plant an invalid name, for Latin was against the rules for cultivar names as of 1955.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'

And speaking of Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis', Mitsch called it “one of the best of all dwarf conifers.” True, it is a beautiful dark-green plant that is “one of the most attractive and best selling of all dwarf Hinokis.” Two-inch pots were offered at $0.75 each, but it would still take another three years before the grower would have a saleable one-gallon pot. The same with the 'Nana Lutea': neither are very profitable.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Juniperoides'

Germinating seed from C.o. 'Nana Gracilis' can yield many different colors and forms. C.o. 'Juniperoides' (or 'Nana Juniperoides') is one offspring that was raised by W.H. Rogers & Sons at their Red Lodge Nursery in England in about 1915. I've never seen the original – if it still exists – but I wonder what a 100-year-old 'Juniperoides' would look like. Even less profitable to produce, the tight-bun hinokies, at least in Oregon, can burn or die back in winter, and there goes your 10-year-old investment. Mitsch says that it takes about 20 years to grow a 6” plant, and that it is “not recommended as a shade tree.” Ha ha.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana (true)'

Equally as slow as 'Juniperoides' is C.o. 'Nana', which Mitsch calls “rare and choice.” The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) claims that their specimen attained only 75cm high by 1m wide at the base in 40 years. Hillier reminds us that “the stronger growing plants found under this name in many collections throughout Europe is 'Nana Gracilis'.” I invented the name 'Nana (true)' for my plants because we have the same knucklehead nurserymen in America too. Interestingly the true 'Nana' was introduced from Japan by J.G. Veitch in 1867.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Pygmea'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Pygmea Aurescens'

Mitsch was selling many other obtusas, such as 'Pygmea' and 'Pygmea Aurescens'. They are not bad plants – I used to grow both – but they get big and wide fast, and they have absolutely fallen out of favor with the gardening public. In fact most of the obtusa cultivars that Mitsch used to produce are ones that I can't sell at all today.

The Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Sanderi' is described as “Semi-dwarf upright. Mostly plumy, juvenile foliage; makes it very distinctive.” One reason it is very distinctive is because it is not a C. obtusa – it is Platycladus orientalis. I don't have a photo because I never liked it and never grew it.

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Baby Blue Ice'

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Harvard Gold'

Buchholz Nursery used to produce about 20 cultivars of Chamaecyparis pisifera, all originating from Mitsch. Generally they are easy to root, easy to grow and also very winter hardy. Today we continue with only two – 'Baby Blue Ice' and 'Harvard Gold', neither of which were available in the 1980's. I suppose some of the golden thread-branch selections are still in the trade, but nobody asks me for them. Besides they are considered “cheap” plants; but if you grow and can sell lots of them at a dollar profit each, there are nurseries that like those odds. That's what the neighboring nursery did for the past 30 years, however they recently went bankrupt.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Minima Aurea'

Of course Mitsch nursery produced Chamaecyparis lawsoniana cultivars, especially the dwarves, and in 30 years that would be thousands and thousands of them. There is no way to know for certain, but I suspect that the vast majority are now dead, having succumbed to root rot (Phytophthora lateralis). Major nurseries continue to root and sell them even though their longevity is questionable – the plants, that is – and the reason is greed, pure greed. They root almost 100% and they tend to be sold in small pots, similar to our QT (cutie) pots. While they thrive in production they are also addicted to fungicides, and of course the clueless gardener won't keep up the habit. It is disgusting for sure, although John Mitsch never had any evil intentions. I know, I know that I rant about it too often, and tell you how wonderful I am for grafting lawson cultivars on disease-resistant rootstock, and hopefully this will be the last time.

Tsuga canadensis 'Betty Rose'

Tsuga c. 'Pendula' at Buchholz Nursery

Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' at Mitsch Nursery

Mr. Mitsch was an accomplished propagator, and he pioneered the rooting of hemlocks in Oregon. He always sold out in the old days, so I copied him and rooted them also, and they were very easy to market. Eventually the fun stopped with the invasion of the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (Adelges Tsuga Annand) which was discovered in Connecticut in 1985, and by the mid 1990's orders began to peter out. We still sell a few each year, but they're no longer a major part of our company. Old specimens still exist in the Display Garden, and I imagine I have the largest Tsuga canadensis 'Betty Rose' in the world. Mitsch's 1980-81 catalog lists 19 different hemlocks, and eventually we were propagating every one of them, with T.c. 'Pendula' in the greatest number.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray Gold'

I bought plants from Mitsch, always to get a start, and then I would produce them myself. He knew what I was up to but didn't seem to mind. Actually I sort of stole some of his customers because I had cuttings and grafted liners. Again, he didn't care, and I was very proud when he bought his first Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray Gold' from me.

Premna microphylla bonsai in Taiwan

Even though he was a conifer expert, John Mitsch also propagated tons of “broadleaved evergreens, deciduous shrubs, ground-covers and miscellaneous.” One such plant was Acer buergerianum 'Jako kaede' – the “musk scented maple” – which was easy to root but absolutely impossible to graft onto A. buergerianum. According to J.D. Vertrees in Japanese Maples (1978), leaf samples were submitted to Dr. Tanai of Hokkaido University, “a noted authority on leaf venation, particularly on paleobotanical determination.” The expert Doctor concluded that the maple in question was actually Premna japonica (or microphylla), a plant in the Verbenaceae family – now Lamiaceae – so no wonder it would root but not graft. I never saw the plant, but decided that I didn't want it if it wasn't a true maple.

Cotoneaster microphyllus 'Cooperi'

Mitsch propagated every Cotoneaster imaginable, and that's another sure 100% profitable endeavor as long as you were able to sell them. I didn't care for C. apiculata, the “Cranberry cotoneaster,” but I did like the more dwarf C.a. 'Tom Thumb' and I have sold quite a few over the years. Yes, they too are considered “cheap” plants, but I think that's because they are so easy to root and grow, but it does not diminish the fact that 'Tom Thumb' grows into a choice dwarf ground-cover. Even better is Cotoneaster microphyllus 'Cooperi', although it is only hardy to USDA zone 7. The species is from the hills beneath the Himalaya and I was pleased to see it – or whatever I saw – in the wild twenty years ago. What is most confusing is that the Royal Horticultural Society lists cooperi as a species, not a mere cultivar, from Bhutan, Tibet and India. Hillier concurs, and describes the species as a “medium-sized to large shrub.” So, just what's up with the identity of our dainty ground-hugging creeper?

Berberis thunbergii 'Crimson Pygmy' in summer

Berberis thunbergii 'Crimson Pygmy' in fall

It seems like ancient history now, but we used to be kings of Berberis production, with my starts usually coming from Mitsch Nursery. B. thunbergii 'Crimson Pygmy' was by far the most popular, and one year we rooted and sold over 12,000. That's incredible to me because we haven't propagated any for the past 20 years, and even if I did now nobody would buy them. That's the unstable situation characteristic to horticulture, that you need to quickly jump onto – then off – the bandwagon. 'Crimson Pygmy' has been replaced by countless other dwarf cultivars, always patented, and I concede that some look very nice. Every day I drive past glowing beds at the neighbor's – bankrupt – nursery. My employees were most thankful when I dropped Berberis production, because no mater how careful you were, a barberry thorn would imbed itself into your finger or thumb.

Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea'

Mitsch had a cool-looking Ilex aquifolium – at least I thought it was cool back then – called 'Ferox Argentea Marginata'. Its common name was “Silver Striped Porcupine Holly” to John while Hillier calls it the “Silver Hedgehog Holly.” If I read Hillier's Manual correctly, the male Ilex won an Award of Merit in 1988, but amazingly it was introduced in 1662. I didn't realize that non-edible and non-herbal horticulture went back that far. Ferox is a Latin word meaning “fierce,” and again my employees were happy I discontinued with the thorny thing.

Pieris japonica 'Bisbee Dwarf'

Pieris japonica 'Pygmaea'

Pieris japonica 'Bonsai'

Perseus Saving Andromeda
I've always liked cultivars of Pieris japonica, and both 'Bisbee Dwarf' and 'Pygmaea' came from Mitsch Nursery. I always thought my prices were fair, but everyone else was selling theirs for half of mine, so except for 'Bonsai' I have discontinued with Pieris. Be sure to never ingest the leaves of Pieris because they are poisonous and the toxic substance is andromedotoxin. The common name of “Andromeda” is due to the chain-like flower panicles. In Greek mythology Andromeda was the daughter of the Ethiopian King Cepheus and his wife Cassiopeia. Poseidon was angry about Andromeda's great beauty so he sent a sea monster to strip and chain her naked to a rock as a sacrifice to sate the monster. Fortunately Perseus flew in on his Pegasus to save her and later they married.

Calluna vulgaris 'Robert Chapman'

I have a nice-sized old Calluna vulgaris 'Robert Chapman' in the Display Garden, and I acquired it by buying cuttings from John about 35 years ago. My specimen is still attractive even though it also serves as a root weevil hotel. 'Robert Chapman' is a dazzler in the spring garden due to its bright yellow foliage, then in winter it changes to orange and finally to red. Callunas root so easily that Mitsch charged only $15 per 100. At one point I had a large Calluna and Erica collection, all planted out in the gardens, but a severe cold snap reduced it greatly. I could have begun it again, but instead moved on to more hardy plants.

Mitch's "automated planting devices"

There were a number of successful spinoff nurseries from Mitsch Nursery, such as Colony Nursery and Steve Germany Nursery. Even though I never worked there in a sense I was a spinoff too. John was a kind and humble man, never bragging about himself, and even when he knew everything about a subject he would reply “that could be” or “maybe so.”

The Father of Oregon horticulture.

John Mitsch played a vital role in the development of the Oregon nursery industry, and though he'll never lobby for himself, the fact that he was never enshrined into the Oregon Association of Nurseries Hall of Fame means...that said Hall has no validity. Imagine the millions and millions of dollars in American horticulture that was generated at Mitsch Nursery, then later by me and all of John's other copycats. As George Washington is the Father of our country, John Mitsch is the Father of Oregon horticulture.

Geri & John Mitsch, 1980

A final note: I have taken the liberty to plagiarize some photos from the 1980-1981 catalog. I hope I won't be hearing from John's attorneys.


  1. Thanks for another informative and well-written post. I had the good fortune of spending the better part of the summer of 1983 on a Western tour. One of my fondest memories of that time is my visit to Mr. Mitsch's home and nursery. Despite the fact that I arrived unannounced at suppertime, Mr. Mitsch led me on an extensive tour of his place. Like you, I was impressed with his humble demeanor and friendliness as much as I was by his intellect and considerable knowledge of ornamental plants and the nursery industry. Shame on the Oregon folks for not recognizing his contributions.

  2. Great post as usual Talon!...history and humour wrapped up in one informative blog.Love it.

  3. I was lucky enough to have visited Mitch nursery and meet John Mitsch. It was the day he had just received Juniper Blue Star. Sadly it did poorly in Oklahoma and have not even tried to grow it here in South Florida. I have got to find a cold storage place to chill my maples as the business I was housing them in the winter has gone out of business

  4. Once again a fun and informative look at my true loves, those darn maples...Pretty sure I'm gonna dream about Peve Starfish tonight----