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Written by Dave Gs • March 01 Louis Boehmer, the Man Who Sent Us Plants From the East

Never heard of him!”, did you just say? That’ not surprising really, as few people have. But Louis Boehmer was responsible for the arrival in Europe and North America of many of our most valued plants. He shipped hundreds of plants from Japan and China during a time when access to those countries was difficult. He built a ‘nursery empire’ that supplied gardens with not just a few seeds, but boxes of plants ready for planting, and his work is behind many of the most popular bushes we grow today. His nursery also pioneered bringing Bonsai to the West.

Bringing New Plants to Everyone is Not So Easy

It is one thing for botanists to collect dried specimens of plants, and give names to one that are new to Western science. There is a big gap from that to seeing those plants available in nurseries, and being able to grow them in gardens. Many plants were first introduced by sending packets of seeds, but that is only useful for wild plants. We often forget that in both Japan and China people loved gardens and garden plants for centuries, and many desirable plants were selected garden varieties that could not be grown from seed. It took years for one of two plants, carefully carried across the oceans on long voyages, to be reproduced by Western nurseries. With these difficulties it needed people on the ground able to organize large shipments – but both countries, especially Japan, were very cautious of the West, and made it difficult or impossible to just arrive and set up a business.

The Beginning of a Unique Career

Louis Boehmer was born in northwest Germany, in Saxony, in 1843 and he began his working life as an apprentice gardener. He was obviously ambitious, and before long he was caring for the Herrenhausen, the Royal Gardens in Hanover. When only 23, following the traumatic period of the Franco-Prussian War, he emigrated to America, and started a gardening business in Rochester, New York. Japan had only recently opened up to the West, and was enthusiastic to learn from it. The Japanese government had hired Louis Capron, a Commissioner in the USDA, to advice it on modern farming practices, and through mutual contacts Boehmer was able to move to Japan in 1972, where he was put in charge of an experimental farm outside Tokyo. There he grew many different vegetables and fruit trees, seeing which ones were suitable for Japanese conditions.

Boehmer Makes a Tasty Brew

While exploring the countryside and studying local agriculture, he discovered the Ainu were growing hops. The Ainu are an ethnic tribe predating settlement of the islands by the Japanese. He contacted Capron and suggested setting up a brewery, which he went on to work at for several years. Everyone today has heard of the of Sapporo Breweries, Japan’s oldest beer, which is what Boehmer’s brewery became.

A Business is Born

Boehmer and Capron had been originally contracted to the Hokkaidō Colonization Office, whose main task was to colonize the Ainu territories in the north with Japanese settlers. In 1882 that office was disbanded, leaving Boehmer out of work. He decided to stay in Yokohama and set up his own nursery – L. Boehmer & Company – in the Yamate part of the city. Know to Westerners as ‘The Bluff’, this was where foreigners lived, and it included Christian churches, homes and businesses. His was the first nursery to export plants to Europe and America and over the years the nursery shipped thousands of plants from East to West. Some of them he grew, and others he bought from local nurseries, as well as from an extensive network of seed and plant collectors across Japan and China.

Competition Develops

In 1890 Boehmer was joined by Alfred Unger. Like Boehmer, Unger was a German immigrant to America, and it seems likely that this younger man had been found through Boehmer’s contacts back in America. Clearly he had arrived to take over, because after a few months Boehmer retired, leaving Unger in charge of the nursery. By now Japanese growers had noticed the profit to be made selling plants to Westerners, and in the same year Unger arrived, the Yokohama Nursery Company began business. It was founded in part by Uhei Suzuki, who had worked at Boehmer’s nursery since it began. (It seems Boehmer forget to put a non-competition clause in Uhei’s contract!) This new nursery quickly gained an edge by producing a lavish catalogue, with full-color illustrations in the Japanese wood-block style.

Eager to compete, Unger hired Takejiro Hasegawa, a Japanese publisher with a special interest in the West, to create his catalogues. Hasegawa would develop the wood-block illustrations, and Unger’s American-born wife, Mary Elizabeth, would write the text. To boost interest in Japanese plants, Mary also wrote a book of her discovery of Japanese plants, called The Favorite Flowers of Japan, published in 1901.

As an example of Unger’s methods and reach, consider the Korean Spice Viburnum, Viburnum carlesii. Although described in 1885 by an amateur botanist in Korea, this beautiful shrub had not reached the West. In 1897 Unger went to Korea looking for new plants, and brought back the Korean Spice Viburnum. He propagated it, and shipped the first specimens to Europe and America. Without the nursery, who knows when or if plants like that would have been available to us?

The End of Things

While Unger faced intense competition in Yohohama, and in Europe too, where local nurseries were beginning to propagate from plants Boehmer had originally sent. Boehmer became sick and returned to Germany in 1894, where he died two years later. Unger continued until 1908 trading as L. Boehmer & Company, and after that we lose the thread, and the nursery seemed to have disappeared. Certainly the outbreak of WWI in 1914, when Japan and Germany were allies, would have made boxes of plants a ‘low priority’ cargo.

Bonsai Trees

One of the most enduring introductions of Boehmer and Unger were bonsai trees. Boehmer’s catalogue already included stone lanterns and sets of dishes like those used for growing bonsai. Descriptions of these dwarf trees – seen as bizarre curiosities – had been known in Europe, but not plants. That changed when Beohmer and the Yokohama Nursery Company changed when they began to ship bonsai trees, which appear in their catalogues. By 1890 there was some objections, like this writer to The Garden magazine:

Japanese tree monstrosities… tortured by a system of root and branch strangling that should have no place in English gardens!

Mostly, though, the little trees were greeted with enthusiasm, and once details on how to keep them alive were published, enthusiasm for them spread, and of course continues to this day.

***If you want to check the availability of any of the plants mentioned here, go to our Home Page, click on the ‘Search’ button in the upper right, and type in your choice – both common names and botanical ones will work. If, sadly, you find the item sold out, click on the ‘notify me’ box beside the size you want, and you will get an email the moment that plant is available again – it’s easy.