Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Life well lived: RIP Robert Johnson.

Agave utahensis

Bob Johnson, proprietor of Intermountain Cactus Nursery, passed away on Saturday, February 16, 2013. I met  Bob on three occasions, on almost ten year intervals. The first time was when the Wasatch Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society sponsored an Annual General Meeting of that group in the summer sometime in the mid 1990's. Bob gave one of the talks at that meeting about hardy cactus: it made a huge impression on me at the time: the wonderful pictures of plants I did not know as well as I wanted to, and his delightful delivery and repartee. It helped fan the flames of my love of these wonderfully prickly plants.


Expansive lawn with Joshua Trees at Bob's home

I finally visited his remarkable home and garden in Kaysville, Utah only three or so springs ago on a wonderful cross country trek I took with my son his last year of high school (spring vacation to be exact). We dropped by to visit Bob and typically I have lots of pictures of his garden--and none of him!

closeup of same
Here's a slightly closer view of the majestic Yucca brevifolia in front of the Johnson home.


Some of the specimen succulents at the Johnson's
I'm not sure why it took almost two decades to finally visit Bob in his home habitat: I probably had visited Salt Lake city ten times in the interim. So many people I know there and things to see. I am so glad I finally did drop in on Bob and see the extraordinary range of plants he grew and how he grew them--even if it was in the very early spring of a rather cold and nasty year...


Another view of one of the display beds in the front garden full of succulent treasure...


A grand entrance in March, lined with Forsythia in full bloom....


A hoary Yucca harrimaniae in the demonstration beds...

 
Gallon pots filled with Sclerocactus of various persuasions...
 

Seed flats filled with Echinocereus species...


More seed flats filled with Echinocereus seedlings in full exposure to the elements...


 A wonderful snowball Pediocactus species...

 
 Escobaria missouriensis seedlings...


Another view showing how Bob grew our unusual ball cacti...


The larger beds in the back yard--stretching over an acre--with the Wasatch front rising majestically not far beyond...

More views of the growing beds...

 
Another bed for growing larger specimens and Opuntia cacti.

 
Maihuenia poeppigii in one of the growing beds...

 
Another majestic specimen of yucca--probably of the harrimaniae persuasion...

 
Beds filled with Agave pups...

 
Some wonderful Cylindropuntia whipplei with the Wasatch in the distance...

 
A yucca with Agave utahensis, the one featured at the top of the blog...



A lone albino Sclerocactus was blooming during my visit--a ghostly premonition that this might have been my last time to see Bob. We all assume there is another opportunity, another chance. But this was it, which is why I post every picture I took that fleeting day. Imagine a sunny day in May or June with hundreds of opuntia blossoms, yuccas with glowing candelabrums, the spires of agaves. Bob selected dozens of outstanding clones of our native prickly pears--many of them unique. He shared these widely, along with the seedlings of precious ball cacti--helping fan the flames of appreciation of some of our most beautiful and neglected native plants.

He lived an extraordinarily rich life, surrounded by loving family, friends and a supportive community both in Utah and across the globe. Why then am I so sad at the passing of this giant of our hardy cactus world?

Like these pictures, taken at the end of winter, really--slightly overcast and pensive--I regret that the too few times we met (once in Denver when he visited on a sunny, glorious day at Denver Botanic Gardens)--that we did not have more time to enjoy one another's company...to share new discoveries and to revel in the old.

Thank you, Vince, for encouraging me to share these pictures and give testament of my few visits with the guru of Western hardy cacti--the Khan of the Intermountain succulent realm--Bob Johnson (whom I imagine finding lots of promising hybrids as we speak in the Elysian fields!)...

6 comments:

  1. To think we are celebrating the 20th year of the Wasatch chapter without him. I just barely met Bob last year. He'll be sorely missed.

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  2. Panayoti, Sorry to hear about your friend. The only cactus I have in my garden is Escobaria vivipara. It looks like it has been damaged, but I am hopeful it will survive my Northern zone 5 winter. If you can suggest another nice small cactus that would likely survive in my climate, I will plant one this spring in honor of your friend.

    James

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  3. Beautiful pictures, especially the utahensis. A nice memorial to a well-lived, plant-filled life.

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  4. Thank you for posting part of his life with us, I have mever met him, but have read about his garden.
    Thanks again for the memories you share of such great people.

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  5. When I'm constantly confronted with evidence of broken, chaotic lives around me here in Los Angeles, it strikes me as a miracle that some manage to build lives filled with useful work, love -- all those things Freud said was important! Hats off to Bob, and condolences to you on the loss of your dear friend.

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  6. Thank you for posting such a nice tribute to my father and for the generous condolences.
    In his memory, our family is going to attempt to keep his cactus legacy alive. Wish us luck!

    Ron Johnson

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