A man with a passion for plants

Jean Iseli, the founder of the wholesale grower, Iseli Nursery, passed away at 5:00AM June 16, 1986 while at home preparing to leave for the nursery office. His home was just 200 feet from the propagation greenhouses and surrounded by an exquisite collection of plants rivaled only by the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden constructed at the main office, by his brother André.

Jean was a gentle, deliberate man of infinite intelligence. The intensity of his early years as a mathematician transformed in 1975 to an intensity for plants, especially rare and dwarf conifers and Japanese maples. Jean voraciously studied plants and communicated with collectors and plant lovers world wide. Capturing the imagination of hundreds of people, he formulated the collective dream of many – commercialize the rare and share them with the world.

Jean Iseli
Jean Iseli

With the assistance and cooperation of many he began his quest. While some knew Jean only via his voluminous letter and plant exchanges, many more eventually met this conifer catalyst in person. Jean revered the self taught and highly respected the professionally educated in horticulture. His employees, an eclectic group from nearly every walk of life, were overcome with enthusiasm. Sometimes bewildered by his confidence in a particular plant, they became believers in his genius as his indomitable personality promoted, cajoled and coaxed interest in the previously unrecognized botanical delights. His passion for plants was the common denominator of all who enjoyed his company.

There were many that believed his fanaticism for the dwarf conifers would be his financial undoing. He kept urging his employees to grow more, assuring them they would sell themselves once the gardeners of the world saw them. He prodded employees to experiment with unique grafts. Multiple scion on mature plants, unique combinations of plant scions on one understock and scions grafted on standards of various heights. He directed experimentation with pleaching and interplanting to present the illusion of trans-species graft compatibility creating new unique plant forms. Others had previously made some of these presentations as a lark or novelty, but none had done it with such gusto and on such a grand scale.

The nursery became a must-see for all interested in horticultural endeavors, and Jean a must-meet in the plant world. This quiet man, actually a little bashful at first introduction, blossomed into a fountainhead of enthusiasm and passion as soon as he began sharing his “babies” with his guests. If you hadn’t communicated by letter with Jean, one of your friends had, and you couldn’t wait to return to share, in person, of your experience with Jean.

The nursery enjoyed only modest financial success during Jean’s lifetime. Much was spent expanding the plant production facility and the plant numbers – and there were so many plants to multiply. Regretfully, Jean passed away a few years before the market could begin to consume the fruits of his labor. His foresight and perseverance has been vindicated. While he left early, he provided his employees – his friends – a great gift and sadness. Sad that Jean was not there to realize it, but satisfied knowing they played a part in his dream and vindicated in the knowledge that the love Jean had inspired in them was now being shared throughout the world by those who cherish these little gems of nature.

Jean, thank you for inspiring us; through the plants, you live.