By Maarten van der Giessen
Time is an unbroken line, but history is the intricate web woven in and out of that line. Strands of history disappear only to reappear closer to the center, or strong lines snap and fade away. This is certainly true of the nursery industry in Mobile County. Its story bobs and weaves through Auburn University and the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. If the Southern Pacific Railroad hadn’t sold its holdings outside of Houston to a Japanese lawyer, Mobile would have a far different nursery industry today.
The great Mobile nurseryman Robert O. Rubel, whose Longview Nursery sold arguably the most varieties of camellia in the U.S., wrote about early camellias in Mobile (American Camellia Yearbook 1952, “Early History of Camellias in the Mobile Area”), and traced back as far as 1835 to find the first documented shipment of camellias arriving in Mobile aboard the ship Minerva from Liverpool.
In the article, Rubel walks the streets of Mobile and points to the old nurseries: Bay View on the Old Shell Road (container terminal), James Crawford’s Gulf City Nursery at Ann and Government (now CVS Pharmacy) and the John Seed Florist and Nursery (now Crawford Park adjacent to Magnolia Cemetery). But he notes the largest and most important nursery was the Langdon Nursery at Langdon Station in Citronelle.
Charles Carter Langdon (pictured above, left) came to Mobile from Connecticut in 1825 and was a large figure in Mobile’s history by anyone’s reckoning. He was the editor of Mobile’s two daily newspapers and mayor of Mobile from 1849 to 1855. He was also one of the founders of Alabama Mechanical and Agricultural College, now Auburn University. He ran for governor in 1872 and 1888 and served as secretary of state in 1885 and 1888.
In the early 1850s Langdon established the most progressive nursery in Alabama, originally called Vineland Nursery, later Langdon Nursery. His early catalogs have extensive lists of peaches, pears, apples and, yes, camellias and azaleas. There is a surprising number of Alabama native plants as well. Certainly he was a pioneer in the true sense of the word.
Langdon ran his nursery until his death in 1889. The nursery was sold to Sam Lackland in 1925. Lackland was responsible for establishing Mobile’s Azalea Trail. Langdon’s nursery was closed, but cuttings from the plants he introduced to Mobile would be used by an unlikely Japanese nurseryman drawn in by the World’s Fair.
The World’s Fair in 1904 in St. Louis was large and elaborate. According to u-s-history.com, nearly 1,500 buildings were constructed on 1,200 acres. The head of the Japanese Exhibition for the fair was a Mr. Myakawa and Consul General Sadatsuchi Uchida. Uchida was interested in establishing rice plantations in the U.S., and during his visit to the World’s Fair he convinced Seito Saibara (pictured above, center), a lawyer studying theology in the U.S., to purchase land from the Southern Pacific Railroad outside Houston.
Saibara’s business extended to growing fruit trees and ornamentals. He brought many talented people from Japan, including Tsukasa Kiyono (pictured above, right). Saibara saw opportunity to the east of Texas and established a 370-acre division of the Saibara Nursery in Mississippi. That nursery was managed by Kiyono. A couple of years later Kiyono and his wife, Tomoe, would establish the first nursery in Semmes, the Kiyono Nursery.
Kiyono rode the wave of camellia popularity in the 1930s. He was featured in Life magazine in 1939 as one of the largest camellia growers in the South. Kiyono ran his business until a 1941 buying trip to Japan ended his career. Return ticket in hand, he was not allowed to leave for the U.S. He was instead forced to remain in Japan during World War II while his nursery was attached by the U.S. government and sold at auction.
The thread of our nursery history is winding and complex, so many great people having woven their stories into the tapestry: the Smiths, the Dodds, the Sawadas. Their stories will have to wait until our next installment, tentatively scheduled to run in the space in February.
The author, Maarten van der Giessen, is president of van der Giessen Nursery in Semmes.
GARDEN EVENTS THAT MAKE GREAT GIFTS!
What: Bellingrath Gardens Magic Christmas in Lights
When: Through Dec. 31 (closed Dec. 25), 5-9 p.m.
Where: 1204 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
Tickets: Visit bellingrath.org for more information.
What: Mobile County Master Gardeners 2019 Spring Seminar
When: Monday, Feb. 18, 5:30-8:30 p.m.
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
Speaker: Vince Dooley, legendary Georgia football coach, author and Mobile native, shares his passions and experience with gardening, growing camellias, hydrangeas, Japanese maples, roses and much more.
5:30 p.m. — heavy hors d’oeuvres, wine, silent auction
6:30 p.m. — Coach Dooley’s presentation, “Football and Flowers”
7:30 p.m. — dessert, book-signing, silent auction
Cost: $40; nonrefundable advance reservations required by Feb. 8. Mail checks payable to MCMG to 2221 Dogwood Court N., Mobile, AL 36693, or call 251-209-6425 to pay by credit card.
For more information, call 251-574-8445 or email email@example.com.