Written by:  Joyce H. Munro, Morris Arboretum Archives Volunteer

The Palm House circa 1911

Hot houses by Hitchings & Co. were a hot item among East Coast business leaders and amateur horticulturists in 1895. It was all about defying the seasons in order to grow exotic and delicate plants year-round. Greenhouses were flying off the shelves, complete with “portable” cast iron framing, a thousand feet of piping, sloped glass panels. In the month of October alone, Hitchings had twenty-one greenhouses under construction. Vanderbilt was having one installed at Biltmore, Rockefeller at Sleepy Hollow, Hunnewell at Wellesley, Frelinghuysen at Whippany Farms.


Actually, John T. Morris had beat them to it—his greenhouse had been installed at Compton the year before. True, it went up in flames three months later, but since it was covered by insurance, Hitchings rebuilt it immediately. Roses and succulents, palms and ferns were once again thriving under glass at Compton. Now all he needed was a gardener.


Who better to supervise Morris’s rebuilt Palm House than a hot house man, one with experience at more than one hot house, in more than one country. Enter John Conrad Ohnemuller. Originally from Baltimore, Ohnemuller had gardened at several places by age forty-two. He trained in Edinburgh, Scotland, and worked as a florist in Loughborough, England. Then, in 1893, he brought his English wife and child to California and took a florist position in downtown Los Angeles. His timing was right, ornamental horticulture was taking off in LA and the forecast was sunny.


But just two years later, Ohnemuller traveled cross-country for the position as gardener to John T. Morris. After he and his family settled in a house on Allens Lane in 1895, Ohnemuller’s first task was planting the iris and peonies and maple trees Morris had ordered from Yokohama Nursery Company the previous winter.


One has to wonder if Ohnemuller’s real pride and joy were the exotics in the Palm House, like the vivid red flowering plantain that Joseph Meehan, brother of botanist/editor Thomas Meehan, came over to admire on a warm October afternoon in 1897:

Although long known to cultivators, it is rare to see in collections of to-day Musa coccinea, the scarlet flowered species, from Cochin China ... It was a treat to see this plant nicely in flower in the conservatory of Mr. John T. Morris.


Despite admiration for his handiwork, Ohnemuller moved back to Los Angeles the next year. Perhaps he longed for a hot house with the heavens for its roof. He had no position lined up, but placed a newspaper ad describing himself as a “competent, experienced landscape gardener, florist, horticulturist with best of references.” And Morris began making arrangements for a new head gardener.


Sources: Morris Arboretum Archives, ancestry.com, archive.org, books.google, newspapers.com