INTERVIEWEE: CARL SCHOENFELD
INTERVIEWER: DAVID TODD
DATE: 13 NOVEMBER 2004
I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re on the Rice University campus in Houston. It’s November 13, 2004, and we’re all meeting here as part of the Lynn Lowrey Symposium that was put on by Peckerwood Garden, and it’s given us a chance to talk to a lot of people who knew Lynn Lowrey well, who was a noted plantsman, plant collector, plant prospector, plant propagator. And the symposium has made it possible for us to meet right now with Carl Shoenfeld, who has had an interesting career with both Peckerwood Garden and is currently the owner and operator of Yucca Do Nursery. And I wanted to thank him now for taking the time to talk to us about Lynn and Lyn’s impact on his life. Carl could you help us start by telling us how you first became aware of Lynn Lowrey or how you first met him?
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First heard about Lynn through working at, you know, Peckerwood Garden where I worked at as a college student. And it came initially, the name associated with plants, you know, there would be a particular penstemon whether it was native or exotic that was being passed around. And it always came with the—kind of like the initials, so this came from Lynn, or Lynn had collected this somewhere, or so—it’s—it’s—it’s rather strange because I try and recall, you know, when I first met Lynn and—and I really don’t recall
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the first meeting because it’s like you’re so slowly introduced to him because he kind of had a legend going on at the time, that when I finally did meet him—i—it was no different than the plants and all the information I’d heard about him. So it was—it was rather kind of—I don’t know whether I should be shocked and ashamed that I don’t recall or but it’s—it’s interesting how it evolved. So I—and—and I didn’t meet Lynn really until the last nine years of his life, so I—I actually met him after he’d owned the numerous
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nurseries that he had around the state and the landscape jobs that he had done for people in Houston and in and around. So I really kind of came in at the tale end and I knew him then of course, you know, when he was older. And I know one of the things that I really liked, or most impressed me about Lynn is when I did meet him for the first time is—is that you’re immediately aware that you’re dealing with a special person. And that was my immediate sense is that—and I guess everyone has d—done this—where they’ve met someone and in their mind it clicks and they go, “I need to treat this like the last time
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I’ll meet this person.” And that’s what—how I dealt with Lynn because he was so humble and—and—and you may ask me, “Well, what do mean by that?” Well, he—he allowed everyone to come to him and bring whether it was plants or information, and he let it unfold in your own mind. He didn’t add to it by inserting his position in time like, “Oh, I collected that 18—you know in 1980’s over by so-and-so, where did you find it?” It was like, “Oh, wow, you ought to—you ought to do this with it.” Or, “You ought to try it in the ground.” Or, “Let me get—I mean, I’d like some seeds of that.” And that’s what
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immediately stuck in my mind, is how differently this person operated, how he thought and the pictures give it away. If you notice—if you saw these pictures of Lynn, you notice he’s always looking to the ground. He’s always—kind of almost kind of bent over, and almost kind of the caricature is—is humbleness because he rarely would look at you in the eyes when he was talking, like we’d—he’d never talk like this. Just wasn’t—just wasn’t in his character, just didn’t happen. And when you meet people like that it—it
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does stick in your mind. And so, maybe that’s why when trying to recall when I first met him, it’s like the first time I did meet him, I treated it so special, and every time after that, just being constantly aware that, you know, this is a very rare individual, and—and—and you notice that a lot of people, even like right now, this is ten years later, my secretary that I have at my business, she had gone to Lynn Lowrey’s nursery. And I asked her, I said, you know here I’ve been writing this paper for three weeks trying to describe a
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person who really deserved to be spoken about and mentioned and I asked her, I said, “What were your impressions?” And there was like two words that came out of her mouth, and—and it was “humble, giving,” well three words, and “very generous” and I questioned her more about that and I said, “What do you mean by that?” and she says, “Well, you know we don’t know much about plants, but he made you feel like you did.” So he was really good at jumping in at whatever level a person was and operating within it and cultivating it. That’s way I always say he really engendered a lot of interest in plants and a love of plants because he’d let people unwind themselves, or discover
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themselves. He never act like a—a –kind of a student/ professor sort of relationship. It just wasn’t that way.
It sounds like he cultivated people like you might have a plant. Is that fair to say?
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Yeah, that’s a very good analogy to make because every person and every seed and every circumstance is different, and he really was that way, a—a very spontaneous. You’d go to see him and—and if it was around lunch time he says, “Oh, let’s get something to eat.” And we’d go off and go get something to eat and then you never went directly to the restaurant. “Oh, look over there,” or—e—or—e—or you’re going down this road and he remembers a certain plant or something he hadn’t seen before and he’d turn the truck around and we’d go over there and investigate it. He really was an observer. He really
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was aware of the environment that was—that he was in. And—and as maybe some of the other speakers here would have mentioned, I found out along the way he was colorblind. So it was interesting when at times we were looking for plants with specific colors, that later on I found out well he was color blind, you know, there’s a lot of these sort of paradoxes that were going on with Lynn. But eventually we would eat and it may be three o’clock in the afternoon. His sense of time was really different too, because he wasn’t really regimented whatsoever, and—and I can see, you know, how that would make it difficult for people to deal with Lynn, I mean, his family. You know, we look at it strictly
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as his contributions he did—did to horticulture and—and gardening and—and all the other activities associated with growing, growing plants. So he’s—it’s—you can imagine how difficult it would have been on his family. I mean it’s—it’s—you know, we always get the positive, but there’s a negative to it, I mean his spontaneity is like, “Tomorrow I want to go to Mexico. Would you like to go?” And you’re special in the sense that he asked you to go in the first place, and how could you say no. And so it’s—that’s like our first trip to Mexico is that is happened that way. It unfolded that we just happened to be
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at his son-in-law’s nursery and Lynn was there and he said, “Well, I—I’m going to Mexico tomorrow. Would you like to join me?” And that’s how it started, our very first trip to Mexico, and…
Tell us about the trip.
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Well, the trip really opened up my whole way of thinking, not only just in horticulture, but where we are in the world. You know, when you’re—you’re—when you’re raised in and around your community S—where I grew up in San Antonio, just north of San—north of the city near Boerne, I knew that climate, I knew the terrain, I knew the people. And on a little larger scale, I—I knew the other cities and other places that we would travel within Texas and it was relatively the same. If you’ve traveled from Uvalde to Houston, there really isn’t that much difference, but when you go to Mexico you realize
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where we are, and when I say we it’s like, where you s—where do you sit geologically and clim—and climate wise. Ant that’s very important, you—you realize that, you know most of Texas is really a crossroads, you know the Great Plains to the north, the Great Piney woods to the east, the Tamaulipan savanna to the south, and then the Chihuahuan Desert, the rugged mountains in—of the Sierra Madre Oriental to the west. Then you start seeing where you are, and that’s very important if you are going to grow something because unless you know where you are, it’s very difficult to know how to
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deal with what you are trying to cultivate. You look at it as just failures, but when you go into these other regions you can say, “Oh, well that’s why that doesn’t grow.” Because of this, you know, elevation or amount of heat gain or the amount of cold chill that’s needed for something to flourish. Well, Lynn opened up Mexico. So here we go, Mexico, flat Tamaulipan scrub, which I was familiar with, you see in south Texas. But all of sudden in the distance is hazy, kind of blue mountains, real mountains, not just the hill country, this looks like maybe what Colorado would look like, which I hadn’t seen. So
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here it was mid summer, hot, see blue mountains, a rugged sort of chain at a distance and kind of billowing clouds on the top of it, and we get closer and closer, and literally you watched the—the flora, the plant and—and the—the geography slowly unfold. It went from low elevation scrub to a transition between plants, particularly like the yuccas became larger, more animated, more—it looked like little people, an—or up to ten meters tall, whereas the yuccas that I were familiar with were always man-sized. They were like
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six feet tall. Now these things were giants, these were Golathic, go—I mean, Goliaths. And so that was—it made sense, I mean we’re going form one point to the next point so you saw this transition. We got into the mountains and these were real mountains, sheer cliffs of two thousand feet, and that was the first time that I really got to experience that, and it was magical because it Texas in the summer it’s hot, it doesn’t change. Here we’re going into the mountains and you actually, depending on the elevation you got—you got cool. It was cooler at night and so there you see—you start seeing temperate flora, and as
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my travels around the country expanded and I went to say New York to give a talk, or something like that, I would go out in the woods and I would see a chimaphila or some ericaceous plants, and then I would start connecting that with the same sort of plants that I was finding up at maybe nine or ten thousand feet elevation in Mexico. Well Lynn lo—introduced us to all that, so that’s how magical that introduction was, I mean to start to be able to position where you are—to me that’s real important, but only to me. (laughs)
No, it’s interesting.
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It’s kind of like a reference point. You know, it’s like how can you know how to attack a problem unless you know where you are in the world? Where’s your position? Because it’s—it—give you an example, it’s kind of like when I’ll ask people, I’ll s—they’ll call me on the phone and they’ll say they want to grow a particular plant, and the first thing I
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have—I want to know, “Where—where are you located? What’s your elevation? What’s your zone?” I have all these questions, and most people now, because of computers, they think they’re everywhere. They think they’re—everything’s the same. It’s not the same, you have to know their zones, and that’s what we learned in that first trip to Mexico.
And how did Lynn teach you these things? How was he as a guide or a mentor when you were on of these trips to Mexico?
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Well since he had been before, he basically laid the groundwork. He knew where to go, which is real important, I mean, you could easily just take this road and dead end into a big city, industrial city like Monterrey, and could get a—not such a favorable impression, but Lynn had been there, I don’t know how many times before, and he knew where to go, and so he basically taught us. He says, “Well, if you want to find woody plants, temperate plants, you need to go to this particular elevation.” And he would bring out maps and the old Stanley volume, which is a 1921 book on the flora of northern Mexico. He’d bring
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this out and he would say, “Well, now we’re at four thousand feet. Here you’ll find the
plants you would see in east Texas. There will be horn beans, such as carpinus, there may be dogwoods. So he started showing us the association, “Oh and in this area we’re in a temperate woodland.” So it—a lot of the plants we noticed were similar to east Texas. Then he pointed out, by saying, “Well this plant is similar to,” let’s go for styrax
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for instance, snowbells, styrax are found around the world. Well he showed it to us in Mexico. He said, “Well, this styrax, another species is located in eastern Texas, and there’s remnant populations, which a word and a whole concept I’d never heard of before until I met Lynn, and he’d talk about remnant populations. He said, “Well, there’s—styrax are also found in hill country in remnant populations. What does that mean?” Well those are like isolated little colonies, relic populations, that are existing from times past since,
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you know, glaciation when it’s become dryer, and these are basically plants that have been stranded. And then immediately my mind just kind of flashed like a light bulb going off, it’s like, “Now I understand what is going on.” These mountains are like literally islands, where the climate was such that when the glaciers retreated, and it became hotter and dryer and that moisture was sucked up out of south Texas and western Texas, that that chain of flora that existed from Nova Scotia went all the way down to Guatemala. And a lot of that was laid out by Lynn, not telling us that but alluding to it by
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telling us that these plants are found in the eastern United States because I have no horticulture degree. I have no background in that. I have an incomplete degree in architecture and philosophy, so that’s kind of how it unfolded.
Speaking of that, can you say what it was about Lynn that might have helped somebody with a very different kind of training and background in architecture or philosophy to come to something like horticulture and being a nurseryman which is, it seems to me, you know, a big jump.
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Well, what I kind of left out is as a child in San Antonio, my earliest memories were going out into the local fields where I lived and digging a—a cactus. I loved cactus, and my mother and my grandmother were quite avid gardeners and had—grew a lot of things. So I was always going out and digging things up which until today I didn’t—you know se—seems natural that I found out that’s exactly what Lynn did. Lynn did the same thing. So I—I was always dealing in and associated with plants. Even when I was in college I
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had a—a cactus that I grew and I—when I was in high school I grew orchids and native plants. And growing up even—even before that in junior high, I remember my mom ordering hostas and Thompson seedless grapes in the catalogs that would come in the mail and—and—and always wondering, “Why did these all fail? Why did they fail?” You know and the reason was—and—it—well I’d go back, I’d say, “Well, why didn’t my cactus that I dug up, why didn’t that fail?” I could dig it up and move it into a—
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another area of rocky soil, because I lived in northern San Antonio which is very caliche soils, “Why did the hosta die, and the cactus, why’d it survive?” Well, these things sort of unfolded s—very slowly, it wouldn’t be until I was much older, you know and met other people like John Fairey, who I learned immense amounts of horticulture knowledge and just—and then Lynn Lowrey that all this stuff just starts to make sense. Now I know that
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hostas are native to Eurasia. They’re found at certain elevations there. They’re found growing usually festooned to waterfalls. That’s where the sense of place is so important. You need to know where you are, because we’re bombarded; things fly over in airplanes and arrive at our doorstep and most people have not a clue where they’re from, or how they got there. And those are all the questions that you have to answer, and you have to be aware of.
Why don’t you talk a little bit about now, of how your early upbringing and some of your times as a child or in high school and college might have brought you where you are today. I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about Lyn’s impact on your career running Yucca Do Nursery. How has that influenced you there?
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That question I can’t answer directly because he is bas—the—the whole nursery is a result of Lynn. And the nursery started the year before we went on our first trip to Mexico. And the nursery came about as a desire to share some of the plants that we had grown for Peckerwood Garden, because I was working in the gardens, that we had multiples of. Or when—when people—many of the plant nuts, as Lynn used to call them would come by that we’d have things to share, because there was no money exchange. It was just always exchanging plants. So it kind of grew up in the driveway, and being a student of philosophy, obviously I was very concerned with the why do we do this? What you know, we have to have a focus, what is the meaning of it? It’s got to have, you
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know, be real in intent, on a purpose. And at first it really didn’t have—that first year did not have a focus. Well after the first trip to Mexico, in the second year of the nursery, I knew what the focus was going to be, and it was all spelled out. It was the introduction of counterparts to our Texas natives. And that’s how the nursery initially started out. And what I mean by that is, say that we have—let’s go back to the styrax analogy, styrax, the snowbell. There is one native in eastern Texas, there’s one native in the hill country,
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and there’s reportedly one native in Mexico. At that time that’s all I knew. In reading in literature and—and in the expanded horticultural contacts that we gained found out that well, styrax was also native to the Mediterranean, that it’s also found—species are found in California. Styrax just multiply like crazy in China. Wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to promote an unknown plant say like some of our Texas natives by showing the relationship that it has to the Asians, which are very easy to sell because of the
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indoctrination of growing azaleas and camellias, the things we were bro—brought up—brought up with. And you know it’s all in literature as a kid, we grow up we read about roses and tulips, you know, we don’t read in—we don’t in our childhood stories don’t come—talk about Texas natives. See what I’m talking about? That—that—so there—there was a connection there. It was an easy connection to make and it was scientific, so we would say Yucca Do Nursery—our purpose was to promote Texas natives by offering the Asian and Mexican and southeastern counterparts. So we would try to promote Texas natives by offering plants that some people would be more familiar with. And so that’s—
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and that was the root of the nursery. That’s how it started. And so a lot of the plants that we would sell, we would go in and we’d have multiples of the same genus. They would be chimonanthus which is a fringe tree. There’s one native to eastern Texas, and there’s one native to China. The Chinese one’s easy to sell; the Texas native one is not as—not as easy to sell, because it’s not as known. It doesn’t have the marketing. So we used a counterpart, and that was all derived from what we learned from Lynn. We—we found out that there was a wi—wider plant world out there, and how they were associated.
So Lynn helped you connect this network of remnants and…
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Remnant populations and plant associated with one another. And that became the jumping off point of having the nursery have a philosophy. That was our philosophy.
Well speaking, I guess philosophically, and generically, can you talk about if or how Lynn had an impact on landscape in general or horticulture, you know, people’s attitudes about the outdoors, beyond your life or beyond the scope of Yucca Do?
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I’m trying—let me think here. I’m not quite sure I understand your question—what you mean. Is—is—is—what is his legacy or…
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
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I think his legacy is engendering the love of growing anything, or something. And I think it’s his humility is a big part of that, that—ego is extracted out of it which is a difficult concept to get across to most people. It’s just not something that’s taught in schools really. I mean it’s almost—I mean Lynn comes across almost as a Maoist and—or a Buddhist in some of his—I mean he literally got rid of everything he owned all the time (?). That’s why he gave all the plants away. He didn’t like things. He would create and propagate and grow and then disseminate, get—get—get rid of it. And money was only a
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necessity as far as paying the bills and after that it, you know, it was not important whatsoever. And you talk about a concept that’s foreign to most people. It’s actually young people now, I mean that would be his legacy for most people is—is—is that humility and that sense of seeing something that exists in say a—a plant that has yet to be realized. So it’s all—it’s like potential, and that’s why it’s really difficult to pinpoint Lynn, because these are not things he said. These are things that he did and lived. And you had to—you had to—you had to see it in him. It was nothing he said, like all the things I’m mentioning are things he did not say, because you start to reflect, he’s out of the room, he’s gone. And matter of fact I got along really well with Lynn because—not that he did not get along with people but—what I mean by that is—is that I would lower
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my head and get close to him when I talked with him or spoke with him. And I have a tendency to talk fast, relative to Lynn, because Lynn spoke very slow, and there would be gaps between his thinking—not his thinking—but between what he said. And it was so easy for people to not see that, you know, the good qualities that he had, you had to be aware. That’s why I made the analogy that he was kind of like a comet, because he was very bright to people who were willing to look and—and search out something, but it’s nothing that you could grab a hold of.
Well said. Is there anything that you’d like to add about Lyn?
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There’s one analogy—there—or one story I’d like to tell because it’s ten years or more in the making. I’ll never forget Lynn giving me a plant of carex cherokeensis. It’s a sedge. It’s found all over the state. It’s just at that time ten years ago, to me it was just another grass, but because Lynn gave it to me and he was so absorbed in its qualities that it had, he knew that it was good—that it had good qualities—it was a good plant. You could use it in dry shade, you know, people are not—you know, “I know you appreciate that,” was kind of the statement he would make. “I know you’d—you’ll find a good use for this. Try it.” And at the time, when I’m thinking back on it, well—at—at—the time it was like, “I’m really going to look for qualities in this plant because he sees something in there that I don’t see. I don’t—it’s a green blob. And—but I know there’s something in there. I know there’s something in there. What is he seeing?” But you had to
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experience—you had to find it. We had to grow it which we did, we planted it, and it was just another a green grass, but it wasn’t a grass, it was a sedge, I wouldn’t learn that until years later. And the plant was either discarded, died or something and it wasn’t a—several years, five years back that I remember the name. I remember the name carex cherokeensis. And I said, “You know this really is pretty.” I was seeing it in the wild out near Hempstead, Waller County. I really think this would be a good plant to grow in—as a substitute, and then it was just like that flashbulb again, water crisis in the hill country.
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They’re always having to restrict use of water for lawns. This is a lawn substitute. It’s good in dry shade because look I’m trying to dig this thing out to the ground and I can hardly pry it out to the ground because of all the tree roots that are in it. This is August, the ground was bone dry and it still had kind of an ephemeral sort of early spring look to it. It was bright green it wasn’t tired looking, so maybe this is Texas monkey grass, let’s give it a good name. Brought it back to the nursery, started growing it. We’ve offered it at our nursery, and now I see attributes in that. And right now that plant is being sold by
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Pat McNeil who has a nursery and who has also been influenced by—by Lynn in Austin, and he has a nursery dedicated just to selling sedges. I sell another one called flaccosperma. We offer it through our web site, beautiful blue foliage, and I almost get a chuckle when I think about it because these are plants that h—he wanted us to work with. Now whether he knew what attributes it had, I don’t know. It didn’t matter. It was the passion, the energy that he presented it to you with that was the reason for growing it.
Well thank you for sharing that with us and helping us understand Lynn a little bit better. Appreciate it.
[End of Reel 2300 and end of Interview with Carl Schoenfeld.]