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Unwritten Plant History

I get to hang out with a lot of old guys.  I love them; they teach me.  But they also remind me that there’s a whole lost generation of men in between us, who should have been my mentors too.

My imagination and awe for the WWII guys has been overstimulated this week.  I’m stunned when I’m reading about the man who became the father figure to 7,000 navy men heading for the Philippines, the decisive naval battle of WWII — most were teenagers and most had never been on a boat before.  The man who became their father figure?  He was 24 years old.

After seeing the world, they couldn’t go back to the farm; they flocked to cities.  Their younger friends and brothers followed. Some of those immigrants to cities sought work and fortune.  Some sought cultural and personal freedom; the energy and magic of New York, Boston, Paris or Mexico City must have been special, letting a mingling exploration chart new paths for artists like Robert Courtright and Jasper Johns and artist/gardener John Fairy.

Yesterday, I had lunch with one of these guys.  He told me he was a barefoot boy in Elmwood, then how extraordinary things unfolded.  He left small town South Carolina in the ’40s and got a job at the New York Public Library.  He loved arts, including gardening styles, and would spend days at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  But the world was big. “I loved opera, but when I saw Street Car Named Desire on stage in New York, I was enchanted by New Orleans.  So I moved to New Orleans.”

He also told me the story of an Ilex vomitoria selection that he named years ago to honor a young horticulturist friend.  It’s a plant that I’ve used for years as a sheered hedge.  We walked into his back yard to see the original plant, and he told me the story of Michael James, a North Carolina born horticulturist who lived in Columbia for a while but studied gardening in Belgium and London.  Mike knew plants, garden style and garden history— inside and out.  I asked my old friend, the WWII guy telling me the story, why he’d named the holly for Mike James.  He got little teary, and I got the feeling he’d never said this, never used these words until now, “You see, Mike had Aids.”  When Mike could no longer work, my older friend would take him on slow, teetering walks in the garden.  Mike found the holly, recognized it had a distinctive leaf and encouraged it to be sent off to the National Arboretum.  After all that, after Mike was gone, this new, little leaf holly needed a name.  So it forever honors Mike.  Michael James is part of the lost generation; he should have been a mentor to me. Mike, Jerry, Gerald, Joel…..all these men had come through a struggle to be out, to be great gardeners. They were bold, brash and yeah, a lot of them were prissy queens. They changed the face of horticulture.  Imagine how much more creative the garden world might be if they hadn’t died en masse.

Today, I’m their age.  Of course, I mean the age of most of those guys when I met them.  When they died.  And right now, at the moment in fact, I’m planning a lecture for 500 Future Farmers of America highschool students.  It’s the kind of event I don’t really get to participate in: professional guest speakers interspersed with songs from a live country western band. But when I stand up there tomorrow, I’m representing all of those fellas who, on their spindly legs and with rolling IV drip bags, taught me to understand history, to appreciate it, then to revolt against the dumb parts, to buck trends and make gardens all my own.  Today, I’m a little sad.  But tomorrow, when I stand up in front of those students, my mentors will all be with me,  encouraging me to say what I think and  being proud that some of those youngsters will understand that history is inspiration and lesson, not pattern.



Ilex vomitoria 'Mike James' sheered as a small hedge.

Ilex vomitoria ‘Mike James’ sheered as a small hedge.

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13 Responses to Unwritten Plant History

  1. Avatar
    Trish December 1, 2014 at 2:10 pm #


    You just brought tears to my eyes. I’m an interior designer, and I know and I feel the loss similarly. But more importantly, there are at least two young people in my extended family, who would have been far more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than the rest of us. I pray that they remain healthy, beautiful souls always.

    • Avatar
      Trish December 1, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

      Sorry, tried to edit from “know” to “feel”, but hit the send button too soon.

    • Jenks Farmer
      Jenks Farmer December 1, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      Hugs Trish. I know young people who are a bit caviler about it but they, we’re all more safe simply because we don’t try to hide it.

  2. Avatar
    Linda WEiss December 1, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    Jenks, your heartfelt story is a beautiful one. I’ve also loved it when you talked about the wisdom you gained from sitting down and talking to old men. Yes, you can learn a lot from them about life. But, you already know a lot about life, and one of these days someone will appreciate your long talks as an old man. You will have learned that by the time it comes.

    • Jenks Farmer
      Jenks Farmer December 1, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

      Thanks Linda. I was so lucky to grow up with all ages of people all around me.

  3. Avatar
    Holly Shimizu December 1, 2014 at 5:50 pm #


    Mike James was a mentor to me during the year we worked together in Belgium. Osamu (now my husband) and I worked with Mike and traveled every weekend to see plants and gardens throughout Europe. He made me see things in new ways and taught me about roses and other plants, he was a gifted person. We talked about everything and we tried to make him more comfortable with himself. He often mentioned his time working with William Hunt. We miss him – thank you for writing about Mike, Holly and Osamu Shimizu

    • Jenks Farmer
      Jenks Farmer December 1, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

      Holly I’m so glad you saw this. I’m envious of you all spending time working and traveling to see plants together in Europe. Now, I think of you when I pass my holly.

  4. Avatar
    John December 1, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

    Great story JF. You are a kindred spirit. I’m probably older than you but you are a hero. Botany and microbiology were my best subjects (well, second best) and I had to go into computers. Well it was the 80’s. Now I have a little piece of Paradise here in SC and another one in California and I will have Crinums everywhere before I die, from your fields.

    • Jenks Farmer
      Jenks Farmer December 1, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

      We have to meet!

  5. Avatar
    Elvie Fornshell December 1, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    I miss a childhood friend who committed suicide. We did not know as kids that he was gay.
    I have no idea what his life was like beyond childhood but it pains me to think how horribly he was treated before there was any tolerance of or rights for gays.

  6. Avatar
    K Gamble December 2, 2014 at 9:12 am #

    Thank you Jenks

  7. Avatar
    Gary Dexter December 2, 2014 at 8:50 pm #

    Beautiful thoughts and powerful insights, Jenks! Thanks for putting them down as inspiration to us all!

  8. Avatar
    Karen Murphy December 3, 2014 at 9:20 am #


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