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San Gabriel Nursery Thrives Despite War, Fire, Change

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On a hot, dusty corner in San Gabriel, just south of the rumble from the train tracks the San Gabriel / Nursery & Florist's large sign towers over the single-story storefront packed with neat rows of plants and flowers of all genus that spill onto the sidewalk. Inside, a woman in her 80s sits at a dark oak dining room table in a back corner of the flower shop. A man wearing a gardening hat and green vest kneels beside her telling her a story. Later, I find that same woman behind the cash register smiling as she rings up my purchase. In the rapidly-changing San Gabriel Valley, where suburban bungalows are quickly being cleared for new mansions and shopping centers, small dusty pockets of its past can still be found. Since 1924, the San Gabriel Nursery and Florist remains alive with members of the Yoshimura and Uyematsu family still operating it at its root.

Though this nursery has been part of this San Gabriel neighborhood for just over 90 years, it's history and legacy remains quiet, unknown to most of its neighbors. The home I grew up in is less than a mile away from the nursery and not only until recently, unexpectedly did I learn of it.

The San Gabriel Nursery and Florist has survived war, disenfranchisement and a fire. The Yoshimura family has preserved its nursery with perseverance and an unlikely connection to one of Los Angeles' most historically-rich, botanical retreats -the Descanso Gardens.

The Descanso Gardens, once privately owned by E. Manchester Boddy, a Los Angeles newspaperman, holds a similar existence to other rich estates turned tourist gardens in the San Gabriel Valley such as The Huntington Library in San Marino and Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia. Boddy was a significant but almost forgotten figure in LA's newspaper history.

The estate is sprinkled with mostly trivial information such as "On this very bridge Ray Bolger once shot a Dr. Pepper commercial," yet I took pause at one informational plaque. It was entitled "A Defining Moment".

It reads:

The moment that forever defined Descanso occurred in February of 1942. Boddy, long an admirer of the Japanese in America, purchased the entire inventory of two Japanese-owned camellia growers, F.M. Uyematsu of Star Nursery...and F.W. Yoshimura, whose Mission Nursery continues to this day under the name San Gabriel Nursery. Uyematsu and Yoshimura, as with Japanese Americans all over the western United States, had been disenfranchised and exiled to internment camps by Executive Order 9066 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Combining opportunism and compassion, Boddy provided Uyematsu and Yoshimura with reasonable compensation for their life's work...

I was immediately struck how callously one family's severe misfortune was rewritten as another family's "defining moment." The narrative of one family's loss and another family's gain seemed to depict the injustice of wartime profiteering. Yet I questioned if Boddy's opportunism could co-exist with compassion for the Uyematsu and Yoshimura family.

After all, their business continued to thrive in its hometown while Boddy and his family had long ago sold off their estate to the county and moved away.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese community leaders around Los Angeles were targeted by the U.S. government, and Mr. Fred W. Yoshimura--the family patriarch and nursery founder--was picked up by the FBI and detained for several months without any notice or information to the family. Soon after, the Yoshimuras received word that they were to be interned in compliance with Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, which proclaimed California (and other western states) a military zone and Japanese and Japanese Americans enemies of the state.

While her husband had been missing for months, Mrs. Mitoko Yoshimura had the sole task of figuring out how to liquidate the family assets and close the nursery, at the time already an established, nearly 20 year-old business. According to the Yoshimura's family history, Boddy was the only buyer who approached Mrs. Yoshimura, who had the tenacity to hold out when her compatriots sold their businesses at a fraction of the cost to the first buyers, with a fair price. This "allowed her to pay off their loans and also give a small bonus to each of her workers." Furthermore, Boddy paid for the property in installments allowing the Yoshimura family to receive checks while in camp, which helped them build capital for after their release. A friend and former employee, Gene Perez, looked after their personal belongings.

Once they were released, they were able to rebuild their business at a new location across the street from the original nursery, at that time still owned by Mr. Boddy. Today, the San Gabriel Nursery continues today at that same second location (632 South San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel). In 1969, the nursery was destroyed by an arson fire and once again were faced with the task of re-building. In the years since, not only have they recovered, but they have also expanded, adding a second location on Potrero Grande in Monterey Park. They have gained popularity for their specialization in several plant hybrids, including their "Mission Bell" azalea, named for the city's San Gabriel Mission. In addition, they also claim to have introduced and popularized the "Good Luck Money Tree", a ubiquitious plant in the San Gabriel Valley.

The family has survived not only on sheer tenacity, but also in its ability to respond to changes in the San Gabriel Valley. In fact, the nursery was founded on innovation as Mr. Fred W.Yoshimura, a 21-year old man from Yamaguchi, Japan, learned to garden in the many then-new, aforementioned estates of the San Gabriel Valley that have since become public grounds. The following generations have also learned to adjust with the times. Mary Ishihara Swanton, CFO and granddaughter to the Yoshimura's, proudly explains that in the 1980s there was a first wave of Chinese immigrants to San Gabriel, the family found a Chinese importer selling the Pachira aquatica Guiana Chestnut (money tree). At the time, Lunar New Year was still a new celebration in the area, and only the new Chinese immigrants were buying the tree. Today Lunar New Year is the nursery's biggest holiday, and the money tree can be found in almost every house--no matter the culture--in the San Gabriel Valley.

On a hazy summer day, a walked through the nursery is a colorful treat. Tags mark their genus name, common name, and Japanese name. Below the tables are rows of red radio flyer wagons that costumers use to pick and carry their purchases around the property. A Chinese woman haggled with the Japanese manager over a flat of flowers, "Oh, that is too expensive." Then she agreed to buy them saying, "I can stop driving around now," and they both laughed. The nursery's customers and staff are an array of cultures and backgrounds. According to the head nurseryman, on any given day, you can hear up to seven languages being spoken on the grounds.

This family business has survived the calamities of war and destruction more with steady pragmatism than with streaks of heroism. "You had to do, what you had to do," says Mrs. Swanton. It's this same practical sensibility that today drives the nursery's latest changes.

After operating just over 90 years, the nursery is in the midst of downsizing. According to Ms. Swanton, though they've overcome economic recessions and adjusted to changing demographics, they have decided to cut-down on operations as family members get older and newer generations show little interest in the nursery business.

And yet, these changes are un-panicked, not marked by the flames of catastrophe, but rather by the natural cycle of a family's life as it grows, ages and reinvents itself. As such, the family's camellias, and Mission Bells azaleas will continue to flourish, scenting the gardens of families and former tycoon estates with its quiet history.

San Gabriel Nursery and Florist continues to serve the multi-cultural constituents of the San Gabriel Valley |  Photo courtesy of San Gabriel Nursery and Florist.
San Gabriel Nursery and Florist continues to serve the multi-cultural constituents of the San Gabriel Valley | Photo courtesy of San Gabriel Nursery and Florist.

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