Descanso Gardens honors Japanese Americans during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Good Day LA interviewed me, Japanese American family members, and Descanso Gardens staff about my research and our collective efforts to change how Descanso presents and understands its history in relationship to Internment and the transformative contributions of Japanese American horticulturalists and flower growers to Southern California.

Much respect and appreciation to the family of FM Uyematsu, the “king of camellias” (Marian Uyematsu Naito, Amy Uyematsu, Mary Uyematsu Kao, and Mia Suh), who made lasting contributions to camellia horticulture in the United States; and to the family of Fred Waichi Yoshimura (Mary Ishihara Swanton, Saburo Ishihara) of San Gabriel Nursery & Florist, which remains a much beloved presence in the LA area today. Could not have done this work without the pathbreaking research and writing of Naomi Hirahara. Also want to recognize Chuck Currier, who has done so much to uncover and advocate for recognizing the Manhattan Beach part of the Uyematsu family story.

LOS ANGELES – One of Southern California’s most beloved public gardens is rethinking and rewriting part of its rich history.  Descanso Gardens’ collection of world-renowned camellias can now be traced back to Japanese-American growers who interned during World War II.

“Japanese-American flower growers right before the war made up 50% of the LA flower market. They were really instrumental in bringing those varieties to Southern California and really transforming the landscape into the beautiful landscape that we know today,” Wendy Cheng, Associate professor of American Studies at Claremont’s Scripps College explained. 

Cheng’s research reveals a Japanese-immigrant cultivar, F.M. Uyematsu, was the first to import dozens of the most beautiful varieties of camellias to the area.  But as Japanese-Americans were being sent to internment camps during World War II, the Uyematsus and another grower family, the Yoshimuras, were forced to quickly liquidate their life’s work.

E. Manchester Boddy, the owner of the La Cañada Flintridge Estate at the time,  purchased their nursery stocks before they were imprisoned.  For decades, Descanso Gardens had been told the rare camellias were sold at a “fair price.”  Cheng says in reality, Boddy had paid about a fifth to a quarter of its estimated value.        

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