Written by davethetreecenters • January 11 Jean Iseli – King of the Conifers

The world of conifers is an enormous and diverse one, from the many hedges of Green Giant to the tiniest miniature collector’s tree, and from towering redwoods to flat groundcovers – there is a conifer for every garden situation. It’s only fitting that a world so large should have a king, and if the Conifer Kingdom has one it would surely be Jean Iseli. It’s likely that even if that world was a democracy, the elected President would be the same person – Jean Iseli.

His Early Years – a Mix of Talents

All of us are a mix of different inclinations and passions, and Jean, the son of immigrants, was certainly that in spades. His family came from Switzerland, and they were plant people – professional nursery growers who set up their New World dream in the fertile and mild climate of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Perhaps it reminded them of the lush Swiss valleys of home. Jean was the youngest in the family, and grew up among the challenges and hard-work of succeeding in the always-challenging world of commercial horticulture. With older siblings ready to take on the family business, young Jean was free to dream of a different future, and he became a skilled mathematician. There could hardly have been a world further away from plants that that one.

When he graduated from the nearby Linfield College (today Linfield University) he went to Washington to work for the Department of Defense. There he was among the team who developed ARPANET, a defense project that evolved into the internet. He also worked on missile guidance systems for the Vietnam War. Perhaps it was the turbulent times, or the restlessness of a young man, but there was more to Jean than math. The Iseli lineage had art in its genes too, and the important Swiss artist Rolf Iseli could have been a relative. Whatever the reason, there was an artist in Jean too, and he painted a little and even had an art gallery for a while.

The Lure of Rare Plants

 In the end, with all his varied talents, it was plants that drew him back, and by 1975 he had found his passion – conifers. That was the year that he and his brother André opened their own nursery in the mild climate of Boring, Oregon, just 50 miles from his parents. From the beginning he was dedicated to what had become his passion, collecting unusual conifers.

It wasn’t a conifer, though, that helped him build an enormous global network with collectors, but a Japanese maple called ‘Red Filagree Lace’. Today available to everyone, this plant was once new and extremely rare. Found in the 1950s by another Oregon nurseryman, William Curtis, the original plant changed hands several times, and when Jean Iseli saw it, the owner was John Mitch, a friend and fellow nurseryman. John had a plan to patent it, but when Jean Iseli saw it he was smitten. After intense negotiations the tree had a new owner, and $10,000 crossed the table. The story of this staggering price spread through the grapevine of the world of collectors.

Jean Iseli at his nursery

Jean then did what others hadn’t been able to do – he worked out how to propagate this rare beauty. The resulting baby trees became his calling card. He would write to collectors across the country whose names he had found, sending them this rare new plant and asking if they had other interesting plants to share. Flattered with such a valuable gift, a stream of rarities flowed into Iseli Nursery, becoming the ‘stock plants’, as nurserymen call them, for his vision, and for the practical work of propagating the rare and beautiful. One plant became many because of his extraordinary skills as a propagator, which he passed on and encouraged in his employees. The first was Ridge Goodwin, who today continues that passion at Gardens at Half Moon, in Pennsylvania, as a broker trading in specimen rarities. Other ‘eccentrics’, often with backgrounds in anything but plants, fell under the Iseli spell, and became loyal, dedicated employees.

A Vision Fulfilled

Jean Iseli had a vision. Unlike other collectors, who found the value of their plants in their rarity, Iseli loved them for themselves, and for their beauty, like works of art. He wanted to share his love with the world. He became a missionary, and his mission was to convert everyone in the world into lovers of dwarf conifers. To a considerable degree he succeeded, because today what was once worth $10,000 can be yours for $50. Nurseries like ours are filled with plants that were once the preserve of collectors, who jealously guarded their plants, sharing only with other enthusiasts. Iseli connected with the growing love of nature that so many of us find in our gardens. We love the abundance and variety, and a beautiful plant is certainly still that, no matter how widely grown it might be.

A Fitting End

One morning Jean got up to go to work in the early hours as usual, intending to walk through the gardens around his home to the greenhouses just 200 feet away. He never got there that morning in June, 1986. His brother André continued to run the business until 1997, and built the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden around the main office to honor his brother’s unique contributions to our gardens.

Growing Iseli Plants Today

Iseli Nurseries grew from one man’s passion into a successful business, and multiple rare varieties carry his name as a tribute to his success. For example, one is a slender blue spruce that fits into the smallest garden, making a wonderful column of blue. Called the Columnar Blue Spruce, it is more correctly, Picea pungens ‘Iseli Fastigiate’, a tree Iseli discovered around 1980. There are many others that carrry his name, as well as many more with different names – all unique individuals that he discovered with his keen eye for variations, combined with a sense of when a plant would be a success. Look among our up-coming spring collection for Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’, another of his unique plants. Always willing to share, he also promoted and popularized plants other growers found, like the Confucius Hinoki Cypress, found in an obscure nursery in New Zealand. Or, coming soon to the Tree Center from Poland via Iseli Nurseries, the beautiful Amber Gold Arborvitae. Iseli Nursery continues to be successful, and still a leader in new conifer introductions.

Jean Iseli had such wide influence that we are sure to have more of his introductions coming into our evergreen tree catalog over the years. There you will find lots of unique smaller plants along with large evergreens for lawns, foundation planting and hedges. Why grow the ‘same old’ when you can grow the special just as easily?