Toichi Domoto, 1902-2001

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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Toichi Domoto, 1993. A copy of the transcript of his oral history was presented to him at his nursery by staff members of the Oral History Department, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Photograph by George Waters

Toichi Domoto, 1993. A copy of the transcript of his oral history was presented to him at his nursery by staff members of the Oral History Department, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Photograph by George Waters

Perhaps it was destiny that Toichi Domoto should become one of California’s most respected nurserymen. He was born in his parents’ nursery in Oakland and grew up there, surrounded by the wide variety of plants that were the hallmark of Domoto Brothers Nursery. Even as a child, he found much to interest him on the grounds of the nursery; it never occurred to him to consider any other career.

The Domoto Brothers Nursery was a survivor from among the many nurseries that sprang up in the Bay Area in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Founded by two brothers who had left Japan for the United States, the nursery began near downtown Oakland in the mid-1880s, but ultimately ended up in East Oakland. The brothers imported great numbers of plants directly from Japan, as well as from Belgium, Holland, and Australia, and established a strong reputation as leaders in the introduction of new plants and exceptional cultivars to the California landscape industry.

Toichi studied the plants in the nursery in his youth and helped his father and uncle with deliveries. He received a degree in floriculture from the University of Illinois. In 1927, while continuing to work for Domoto Brothers Nursery, he purchased twenty-seven acres in Hayward where he began building his own nursery. The family business closed in 1930, but Toichi carried on the family tradition at his nursery, with new imports from Japan and new plants of his own making. He had a talent for selecting outstanding new plants from among thousands of seedlings and enjoyed hybridizing several groups of plants. Of particular interest to him were flowering quince, double-flowering gerbera daisies, wisterias, tree peonies, Japanese maples, azaleas, and camellias. He was influential in the wide distribution of camellia cultivars, both to the general public and to other growers, such as Nuccio’s in Southern California, who specialized in camellias. He was the first to import the only available Camellia reticulata cultivar (‘Captain Rawes’) from England, but soon was growing the many new selections that had been brought into the country from China.

Like so many Japanese-Americans in California, Toichi and his family were interned during World War II. Because of his experience with camellias, Toichi found work at a greenhouse in Illinois where camellias and other plants were grown for cut flowers. His dedicated nursery manager kept most of the nursery alive during the years that he was away. Returning to Hayward in 1946, he resumed operations, in spite of continuing distrust of Japanese-Americans. With the help of many other nursery people whom he had helped in their developing years, he was able to rebuild his nursery and resume his breeding programs. Toichi never officially closed his nursery. He lived on the property until his death and continued to sell plants (even from bedside), and to hybridize and select new plants, many of which he made available to others for propagation and sale to the gardening public.

Toichi’s willingness to share his thoughts on breeding, propagation, and the landscape value of new plant introductions was legendary. He was active in numerous horticultural organizations and served as an officer of several, including the California Horticultural Society. He generously donated plants from his collections to public gardens throughout the greater Bay Area. Many of his introductions are now available from wholesale growers such as Suncrest Nurseries in Watsonville.

Toichi Domoto’s reputation lives on as one of California’s foremost nurserymen and horticulturists—a warm and gentle master at the selection, propagation, and cultivation of some of our most beloved garden plants.

RGT