According to family lore, Ed Carman, my dad, had his first memorable encounter with the plant world when he was about eight or nine years old. The family was living with Ed’s grandfather, Xavier Weltz, on his ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One day the boys were playing in a nearby creek when a visiting older cousin innocently suggested that Ed collect “some of that creek mint over there.” “That creek mint” (Urtica dioica) is commonly known as stinging nettle. Despite learning at this early age that plants can indeed bite back, Ed became infatuated with them and went on to spend a lifetime working with and sharing his love of plants.
Ed’s dad, Hugh Carman, opened Carman’s Nursery in Campbell, California, in 1937. Ed and his three sisters all worked in the family nursery and the experience made a lasting impression. Returning from Europe after serving in the Army during WWII, Ed intended to teach at the local high school. But the daily pleasure of working with plants won him over, and in 1947 he went into partnership with his father. It was a heady time to be in the nursery business. Droves of ex-servicemen moving their families to the Santa Clara Valley created a housing boom, and all those new homeowners needed plants and landscaping advice.
Early in his career Ed took a correspondence course in landscaping, thinking the work might complement his father’s work at the nursery. But finding new plants, learning about them, and propagating them was his passion and his true calling. During the 1950s, Carman’s Nursery was a general nursery, but when Hugh retired in the early 1960s, Ed began growing more unusual plants. In 1970, Ed and his wife Jean moved the nursery and the family home to a new location on the outskirts of Los Gatos. The move proved to be the perfect opportunity to focus on interesting plants and leave fertilizers, potting soil, and other hard goods behind.
Ed belonged to numerous plant societies and associations and was always hunting for new plants to grow—although not necessarily to sell. Many thwarted customers who visited the nursery during the Los Gatos years encountered the phrase “That one’s not for sale.” But Ed was generous with plants and knowledge in other ways. He taught “Garden Maintenance and Landscaping for Homeowners” in adult education night classes for many years. He volunteered and served on the Board of Directors for Western Horticultural Society (WHS), Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation, California Horticultural Society, and the Peninsula Chapter of the California Association of Nurserymen. Ed wrote articles for Pacific Horticulture, the WHS Perennial and Vine books, American Nurseryman, International Plant Propagators Society and more. And his photos appeared in Fine Gardening, Sunset garden books, and Pacific Horticulture, as well as other garden books and publications. He also gave informative slide presentations to many groups.
But finding and growing new plants was Ed’s first love. California gardeners are no doubt familiar with silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae). Ed introduced this now-popular lovely, tough groundcover in May of 1976 when, at the suggestion of his friend Lyle Pyeatt, he imported 36 plants from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in South Africa. Other original introductions include the first kiwi, Actinidia deliciosa (syn. A. chinensis var. deliciosa) available to home gardeners in 1968. Ed first saw Rhodohypoxis on a trip to New Zealand in January 1972 and brought them to California the following year. And he hybridized Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Mozart’. But perhaps the greatest homage of all is the number of wonderful unnamed plants Ed grew and sold that ended up being named by others in his honor:
Juncus ‘Carman’s Gray’ (John Greenlee)
Juncus ‘Carman’s Japanese’ (John Greenlee)
Origanum vulgare ‘Ed Carman’ (Deborah Wigham and Gary Ratway)
Phormium ‘Ed Carman’ (Bob Hornback)
Wisteria floribunda ‘Ed’s Blue Dragon’ (Paul Turner)
Epilobium canum (syn. Zauschneria californica) ‘Ed Carman’ (Allan Robinson)
Mom and Dad shared their love of plants with each other, my sisters and me. Perhaps Dad knew that when I inherited Carman’s Nursery, it would lead me to find my own passion for unusual plants and a desire to share that delight with others—just as he had.