Brothers Tom and Jim Nuccio have devoted a lifetime to cultivating unique beauties, however you’d by no means understand it from their garments — well-worn denims and work shirts which have gotten their patina truthfully, by means of 10- to-12-hour days at Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altadena, the modest but internationally well-known camellia and azalea nursery that started of their grandparents’ Alhambra yard in 1935.
Because the enterprise grew, Nuccio’s Nurseries moved to the country, semi-wild location the place it’s in the present day, a sprawling website pushing into the undeveloped foothills above Altadena alongside the slim Chaney Path Street. The grounds are edged with towering oaks and eucalyptus and camellias planted so way back that they’re now sleek bushes as an alternative of shrubs.
The nursery sells greater than 500 types of camellias and azaleas. The very best time to understand the variety is from January by means of March, when a lot of the vegetation are blooming. Then, you possibly can wander by means of the rows, marveling on the varieties — some frilly like peonies, multi-petaled like roses or open-faced like anemones, in colours starting from lipstick reds to the faintest pinks and clearest whites. There are coral colours too, and even butter yellow. Some have gradient hues or stripes and will be greater than your hand or as dainty as boutonnieres.
This time of 12 months, the flowers are carried out, so all guests see is acres of staid, glossy-leaved shrubs in 5-gallon pots. To glimpse the blooms, it’s essential take a look at photographs, and even Martha Stewart’s web site, the place she waxes rhapsodic in regards to the Nuccio’s camellias she grows in her New York greenhouse for wintertime blooms.
However the vegetation nonetheless want potting and tending, and the brothers, each of their 70s, run the place by themselves lately. Their third accomplice and cousin, Julius Nuccio, died of most cancers in 2020, and there’s no new era ready to step in.
Which is an issue, after all, however it’s arduous to get these sturdy, good-humored males to speak significantly about something, not to mention the closure of the enterprise that’s sustained their household for practically 90 years.
“Tom by no means married,” Jim explains solemnly, “and has no kids … that we all know of.”
“Ha ha,” Tom retorts, and the 2 males chortle, however that is the center of the matter: Though Jim and their cousin Julius did marry and had three kids every, none of their offspring needs to take over the nursery the way in which Julius, Tom and Jim did when their grandparents and fathers stepped apart.
Certainly one of his sons may need been prepared, Jim stated, however backed away when he realized that he’d be within the enterprise alone and that he couldn’t afford to purchase the others out. Today, there’s extra money available promoting land than elevating tropical shrubs whose recognition has waned in dry, water-parched Southern California.
That’s why the household introduced in October that it’s promoting all its property, together with the 6-acre nursery, 7 acres of adjoining usable land and 65 undeveloped wild acres, to the Polytechnic College, a.okay.a. Poly, in Pasadena — a 115-year-old Ok-12 personal college in want of land for athletic fields and areas to conduct outside training and environmental science.
Julius’ son, Joe, stated in an electronic mail that he organized the sale to Poly after his father died, as soon as the household decided this was one of the simplest ways to proceed. “Our household believes in Poly’s values and is assured they are going to put the land to good use, whereas on the identical time defending the surroundings,” he wrote. “Having owned the land for 75 years, we’re thrilled on the prospect of a whole lot of kids and their households studying and taking part in on this land over the subsequent 75 years ….”
Some close by residents aren’t so thrilled and have fashioned a bunch, Altadena Wild, to oppose the sale, claiming the varsity’s plans will create noise and site visitors nightmares for neighbors and wreak havoc on the adjoining wild lands.
Poly Principal John Bracker stated the varsity has dedicated to completely preserving the undeveloped 65 acres for open area and trails and utilizing the nursery space for sports activities fields, athletic occasions and environmental training lessons.
The closure gained’t occur this week, and even this 12 months. Jim stated the association the Nuccios made with Poly offers them a 12 months to vacate the enterprise from the time escrow closes, though nobody appears positive about when that can occur. There’s nonetheless an environmental impression report to finish, extra conferences to be held and approvals to be gained. In the meantime, the opposition is floating different concepts, equivalent to discovering somebody to purchase the land for everlasting conservation or bankroll one other nursery there.
The brothers really feel torn. They’re pleasant with all people, Jim stated, so that they aren’t taking sides. “All we ask is that folks simply be civil and factual.”
Jim stated he likes to tease individuals who name, breathlessly asking, “‘Are you continue to in enterprise? How for much longer?’ and I say, ‘Nicely, by 4:30 in the present day it’s over, so that you higher get down right here.’” He laughs. “They scream, ‘What?!’ after which I inform them, ‘No, no, don’t rush up. We’re nonetheless right here for the rely.”
However the clock is ticking. Even when the take care of the varsity falls by means of, “the opposite facet of the household nonetheless needs to promote, so the enterprise might be gone sooner or later for positive,” Jim says. “For each one in every of our clients, this nursery has at all times been right here, so it’s sort of a hole feeling, however all people realizes that it needed to occur sometime. No person would purchase this as a nursery except they take it over as a passion.”
Neither the Nuccios nor college officers will verify the sale worth, however it’s effectively into the hundreds of thousands — clearly much more beneficial than rising and promoting camellias. The state of affairs is especially poignant for Tom, who lives within the little home on the property the place their grandparents used to remain to assist look after the vegetation.
“Sure, I’m going to be a millionaire,” Tom stated wryly, “however I’ll even be homeless.”
It was Tom and Jim’s father, Julius, who actually began the enterprise, the brothers stated. He fell in love with camellias and by age 11 knew they have been his future. He obtained a job working at a nursery that grew camellias, and in 1935, when Julius was 17, he began propagating camellias within the yard of the household’s Alhambra dwelling, with assist from his mom, Katherine “Katie” Nuccio, father Giulio and older brother Joe.
Throughout World Battle II, Joe went to work on the shipyard in Lengthy Seashore and Julius was despatched abroad to battle, however the household stored the operation going. When Julius returned, they determined the yard was getting too small for the nursery, so Guilio bought 38 acres for reasonable in Altadena the place they might unfold out and actually breed and develop camellias. (They have been in a position to purchase 40 extra acres within the Sixties.) For some time, Joe was rising some camellias at his dwelling in Santa Monica — therefore the title Nuccio’s Nurseries — however by 1946, the operation had consolidated in Altadena, the place it’s operated ever since.
It took some time for his or her sons to get on board. Joe’s son Julius was first to get entangled. Whereas Tom and Jim grew up working summers on the enterprise, they stepped away for awhile to go to school. Tom studied philosophy and briefly thought-about the seminary. Jim had a short stint within the Military after which punched keys for a number of years, again when knowledge have been saved on punch playing cards. However by 1981, that they had each joined the household enterprise.
The years crept up on them, however regardless of their age, Tom and Jim transfer across the nursery like wiry youngsters, lugging heavy pots stuffed with soil and vegetation, answering the telephone that by no means stops ringing or writing up receipts by hand, as a result of they don’t take something however money or checks. “It’s sort of the Stone Age right here,” stated Tom, pointing to a dusty hand-cranked including machine on the counter. “We inform folks we’ll take any card that works with this.”
Not one of the companions ever studied horticulture in school, Tom stated. “On-the-job coaching is all you want right here.”
Tom, the eldest, is 76, and essentially the most mischievous, with thick tough palms so cracked and scarred that they appear to be the earlier than photograph for a miracle salve. However get him to carry one of many practically 200 varieties his household has created — like Nuccio’s Gem, a white camellia so completely fashioned that it seems like chiseled marble — and his face softens like he’s holding a child.
“We name it the Chanel of flowers,” he says tenderly, and also you get a glimpse into how some seemingly boring shrubs have captured their hearts for therefore a few years.
See, we’re not simply speaking about vegetation right here. For generations, camellias have impressed ardour and artwork — French writer Alexandre Dumas’ well-known 1848 novel “La Dame aux Camélias” (The Woman of the Camellias) centered on a doomed courtesan who wore camellias to sign her availability — purple when she was menstruating and closed for enterprise; white when she was obtainable. The story impressed Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” in 1853 and plenty of English productions as “Camille,” together with the acclaimed 1936 film starring Greta Garbo.
Earlier than camellias have been cultivated for his or her blooms, nonetheless, round 1700 BC, the Chinese language found that the leaves of Camellia sinensis made a beautiful drink. They’re nonetheless used in the present day to make inexperienced, oolong and black teas. The Japanese are credited with growing decorative varieties, equivalent to Camellia japonica and the fall-blooming Camellia sasanqua. These vegetation have been cultivated in Europe after which America within the early 1700s and 1800s, first by conservatories and the very rich and later as flower crops and finally panorama vegetation within the Southeast U.S. and, after all, balmy California.
Today, camellias are most likely greatest generally known as museum flowers in Southern California, a part of famend collections at Descanso Gardens and the Huntington Library, Artwork Museum, and Botanic Gardens. However within the mid-Sixties and ‘70s, they turned a landscaping staple. Likelihood is, if your own home or constructing has mid-century landscaping, there’s a decorative camellia rising someplace on the property, since its shiny dark-green leaves are good-looking 12 months spherical.
They’re slow-growing, Tom stated, and have fallen out of vogue in the present day. Folks mistakenly suppose the vegetation are water hogs, he stated, however as soon as established, camellias are very drought tolerant, requiring solely occasional deep watering and a dose of cottonseed meal to thrive. They’ll get tree-size, he stated, however many sorts of camellias and azaleas additionally do effectively in pots.
The Nuccios count on to have not less than yet another winter when clients can go to when the vegetation are in bloom, however as soon as the nursery closes, one more slice of L.A.’s wealthy horticultural historical past might be misplaced, stated Bradford King, retired USC psychologist and president of the Southern California Camellia Society.
King, who has recognized the Nuccio brothers for greater than 30 years, is a daily on the nursery, including uncommon varieties to his personal assortment. It’s unhappy sufficient, he stated, that as these specialty nurseries shut, gardeners might be left with solely the extra generic picks supplied by large field nurseries. However even worse would be the lack of that prime assortment of flower breeding inventory.
The Nuccios have launched some 200 new types of camellias, however just a few of these hybrids have been intentionally made, King stated. Most have been created by bees, completely satisfied accidents of cross pollination amongst 1000’s of camellias blooming in the identical area, and the eager eyes of the nurserymen searching for stunning and/or uncommon new flowers to nurture and propagate.
It takes about 5 years to develop new varieties from seed and get them large enough to promote in 5-gallon pots, Jim stated. That’s numerous time spent coaxing seedlings, mixing soil, watering and repotting and retaining an eye fixed out for illness or damaging climate, since virtually all of their operation is outside. Which is why Tom and Jim are nonetheless at work when the nursery is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays, watering, potting, prepping vegetation for mail order shipments or driving large orders to nurseries and clients to the north and south.
In the course of the off season, from June 1-Dec. 31, they’re supposedly closed on Sundays too, however though the gates are closed, Tom and Jim are nonetheless on the job. “I talked to Jim the opposite day, and he stated he lastly had his first Sunday off in months, however he was getting in anyway for a number of hours to maneuver some vegetation,” King stated, “and they’re there early day-after-day, at 5 a.m.”
That is largely why many family-owned specialty breeding nurseries are disappearing, stated David MacLaren, retired curator of the Huntington’s Asian gardens. “It’s a giant dedication of time, and the price of land has gone up so excessive, they will make more cash promoting the land and investing the cash.”
Jim and Tom don’t like to speak about this stuff. For higher or for worse, that is their life, they usually clearly love what they do. So whereas the tempest in regards to the sale swirls round them, the brothers are simply carrying on, making an attempt to remain above the fray with a “what might be, might be” sort of perspective.
“Nobody’s completely satisfied we’re leaving, however all people is realizing it needed to occur some day,” Jim stated. “We’re nonetheless propagating day-after-day like regular, simply in case the sale doesn’t undergo, and we’ll undoubtedly be right here into 2024, however it’s sort of a bizarre deal for us. Neither of us has an exit technique. We’re too younger to do nothing after working 90-hour weeks for therefore many many years … possibly we’ll have to consider donating our time on the Huntington …. I’ll simply present up there and say, ‘Hand me a rake.’”