REEDS, Mo. (AP) - Chances are good that many of the peonies, daylilies and iris in floral bouquets and front yards coast to coast got their start at the Gilbert H. Wild and Son nursery, a Jasper County business whose roots go back 130 years.
“The story goes that a German immigrant on his way west to California got this far and his wagon broke down. He loved the Ozarks, and he founded the Sarcoxie Nursery,” said Greg Jones, who owns an offshoot of that nursery, which purports to be the largest seller of peonies in the world.
That German immigrant, James Hermann Wild, had a son, Gilbert, who in 1885 paid $45 for a crate of peonies from Europe that launched the business, The Joplin Globe (https://bit.ly/1Iuuhxm ) reported.
Peonies demand porous, loose soil that doesn’t hold water. The Wild acreage was perfectly suited for them. Gilbert planted some by the family home in hopes he could sell them as cut flowers. He did, but soon gardeners wanted bare root plants, and the business bloomed.
By the late 1950s, it had grown into a production nursery that was harvesting more than 1 million peonies a year. They were transported first to Sarcoxie, then were loaded on rail for Chicago. As the years passed, the family added daylilies and iris to its repertoire.
Today, the nursery on Missouri Highway 37 just south of Reeds grows more than 1,800 varieties of daylilies, 120 varieties of iris, and more than 600 varieties of peonies. Some of the flowers are already blooming, showing off their Mother’s Day best, but in another month or so - about mid-June - Jones said he will have 60 acres of daylilies blooming at once. He said people are welcome to drive by and look, but the business has no retail presence, so don’t expect to buy any.
Today the mail-order nursery sells an estimated 400,000 flowers via its catalog, and another 300,000 to 400,000 flowers wholesale.
“We say we’re the largest grower in the world,” Jones said. “No one’s refuted us yet.”
Jones bought the nursery for $110,000 in 1991 from Wild’s descendants.
Jones, whose horticultural experience includes the Michigan Bulb Co., Gurney’s and White Flower Farm, modernized the company.
“The fundamentals are the same, but the business has changed,” said Jones, now 60. “When I got here, they didn’t yet have a fax machine, and they typed the mailing list by hand. There was no technology, no credit cards accepted and no 800 number.”
Every order still is hand dug, Jones said, so it’s fresh.
“We’re unique in that aspect,” he added.
The company’s first mail order was in 1929, when its catalog consisted of six pages and required postage of just 2 cents.
This year, the nursery will mail five, full-color catalogs of more than 50 pages to a mailing list ranging from 30,000 to 125,000, depending on customers’ past purchases. It also will send three emails a week to 60,000 subscribers, and tout specials via Facebook and Twitter.
“It’s a nice business for a little town,” Jones said of Reeds, which has fewer than 100 residents.
He concedes the old-fashioned plants have remained popular because of their nostalgic appeal - they are “grandmother’s plants.” But reliability is what keeps customers coming back for more.
“I’ll see peonies in the cemetery that never get care that have been growing for 50 years and look spectacular,” Jones said. “When you put one in the ground, you know it will always be there, will always bloom.”
He says he’s not sure how much longer he’ll keep the company, which employs two office staff and about 22 in mostly outdoor and packing jobs during the season.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to sell it yet,” he said. “It’s something I’m wrestling with. I like getting up and coming to work. Especially this time of year. That’s when it’s the very best.”
His three children grew up helping in the business, but all pursued other careers. “I think they saw how hard I worked,” Jones said as he laughed. “I get here at 4:30 a.m. and leave at 4:30 p.m. during the season.”
It’s not a long commute, though - he walks over from his home next door - and he always is accompanied by Willie, his golden retriever. And he loves it.
“It’s actually a great lifestyle,” he said. “And when I sit out on my deck, I get to look at 240 acres of blooms.”
Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, https://www.joplinglobe.com
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