Twenty-five Years and Counting

History of the American Conifer Society: Part Four

by Jim Morris, ACS Historian

History of the American Conifer Society Part Four Twenty-five Years and Counting By Jim Morris, ACS Historian This is the last of four articles recounting some significant people, events and accomplishments of the American Conifer Society during its first twenty-five years.

The past three articles have focused on the Founders and the early leadership of ACS, the evolution of The Bulletin/ Conifer Quarterly, and the regionalization of the organization with the resulting adaptation of services to meet the growing and varied membership.

I want to end this series with an exploration of more recent history and to look at how ACS is moving into the next quarter century. The Founders clearly purposed this organization to enable the development, conservation, and propagation of conifers, with an emphasis on those that are dwarf or unusual, standardization of nomenclature, and education of the public.

It is apparent that we have made great progress toward fulfilling most of their aspirations. Where dwarf or unusual conifers were almost unknown in 1983, now they are a prominent part of most consumer nursery offerings. Today’s selection available from specialty growers vastly outnumbers those marketed 25 years ago. The founders created the Conifer Quarterly, now over 100 issues old, specifically to educate our members and the public. ACS is promoting meetings, workshops, rendezvous’ and even a trip to the Czech Republic in 2008, all to further conifer knowledge, to intrigue the members, and to educate the public. The trip to the Czech Republic fit nicely into our theme of how ACS (and the world) has changed. Throughout the early years of this organization and into the 1990’s, Bob Fincham and others recruited members to sponsor Eastern European coniferites who were prohibited politically from paying for ACS membership. We recruited sponsors for every applicant and regularly mailed Bulletins and other membership publications to our Eastern European friends. We were rewarded with some of our most intriguing Bulletin articles and visitors once the Iron Curtain fell and two-way correspondence and travel became possible. All of our trips to Eastern Europe are now enriched by that early outreach, driven by a mutual fascination for conifers.

ACS bought its first Apple II computer in 1987 to allow the Secretary to move membership records from 3×5 cards to our first digital database. The use of the computer has vastly grown over the years. In 1996, Lee Campbell created our first website and Anne Brennan worked under contract to upgrade it in 2001. Now we have up and running with an impressive amount of information about Society activities and with a huge database including 4500 records and more than 2000 photographs of conifers. The database was created privately by Bill Barger beginning in 1996 as a tool to help him learn conifer identification. He migrated it to ACS about five years ago, and served as our webmaster until 2012. Among others, Bill credits Dax Herbst as an important contributor of data and photos to the database. Interactivity is an important feature of the newest site. It encourages you, the ACS member, to easily add data to the Conifer Database, to post notices of conifer-related events, or to publish other conifer information you believe to be of interest to ACS members. In the near future Bill expects members to be able to extract specific conifer cultivars from the database, to create their own personal database of conifers they are most interested in, and to maintain the list on the website for their private consideration. He also hopes to encourage much more data sharing from conifer growers who will be able to greatly expand the information available to you on specific plants. The website is obviously an important part of our future. Our linkage with other sites multiplies the bits and bytes of conifer information readily available to our members and to the public and introduces ACS to the world. As an example of the facility of the website, your Historian has posted a number of lists recording past ACS officers, directors, award winners, etc. for the consideration of posterity.

Typical of the vast majority of non-profit corporations, ACS struggled financially through its early years. Things got so tight in 1997 that Tom Schlereth, the Central Region President, moved the ACS board to forgo reimbursement of board members’ personal expenses for attendance at a national board meeting. Over the years, the Board members religiously husbanded ACS income and costs, slimmed down the size of the Board itself, changed the financial relationship between National and the Regionals, and found new sources of income from generous coniferites. Now that membership has grown to a critical mass, it is more reliably able to support the services provided by National. Through the General Fund, The Jean Iseli Memorial Fund, The Endowment and Memorial Fund, plant auctions, and other giving opportunities, the Society has been in a better position to fund good works that further the purposes of the Founders. The website has listings of the various grant recipients, contest winners, scholarships and other awards ACS has given to encourage conifer education, research, and public conifer garden development. They amount to tens of thousands of dollars, even without counting the additional generous awards made by our various Regionals.

For those not just content to buy conifers from a nursery, the Society addresses numerous ways to propagate conifers. The volunteer-driven Seed Exchange Program is worth highlighting. Exploration of the idea of seed exchange began in 1985 and Scott Gregory Vergara developed the outline for the program. Joe Marano, Jr., as coordinator for the exchange, went public with it in 1990. Richard Larson, Charles Fooks and Robert Aebel devoted years to managing the program. Wayne Jope is now leading the effort, offering forty-three different varieties of seed last year according to the website. This program has led to numerous articles in the Conifer Quarterly about how to find, collect and clean seeds, and then nurture new life from them. Seed exchangers are a faithful group of ACS insiders who are attracted to this do-it-from-scratch practice that could not be more hands-on. While we are surrounded by twenty-first century corporate agriculture, it is encouraging to see the very personal level Seed Exchange thriving among devotees.

So, we have done great things in education, promotion and development of conifers. However, among the Founders’ purposes was conifer standardization of nomenclature and it is apparent there is much room for improvement in that area; though, here too, ACS is leading the way. Description and naming of plants, including conifers, has always been haphazard and unreliable when it reaches the cultivar level. It is common to see the exact same plant more or less successfully marketed under several names, confusing the student and frustrating the collector who is determined to have one of everything.

ACS made a definitive move toward standardizing the descriptive size names of conifers in 1993 (The Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 4) when it adopted member Tom Dilatush’s nomenclature for size standards for miniature, dwarf, intermediate and large conifers, and persistently publicized them.

Compared to size descriptions, plant names have been a tougher herd to corral. Modern international plant registration originated with the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants in 1953 and was designed to insure that one named cultivar did not duplicate another named cultivar. The Royal Horticultural Society took on that international responsibility in 1970. On those occasions when new plants were registered through the RHS, the registrations were published in the International Dendrology Society Yearbook, but the publication was irregular. In 2001 ACS contracted for the Conifer Quarterly to become the official publication for new registrations of United States and Canadian conifer cultivars as determined by ACS founder Susan Martin, Regional Registrar. The first Conifer Quarterly list of newly registered cultivars was in Vol. 19, No. 2. Lists have subsequently been published in Vol. 21, No. 1, and in Vol. 22, No. 1. There was a lull in the process while a new official was brought on board at the Royal Horticultural Society. Now that Susan is retired from the U.S. Arboretum she expects that publication and registration will become more frequent. One interesting ACS aspect of registration is found on the Conifer Database where Bill Barger has worked with Susan to note duplications in cultivar names, identify the original registered plant, and strike through inaccurate names for the same cultivar.

The last piece of the Founders’ purposes that I contend is reaching fruition is the creation and designation of reference gardens. Though not named in the Purposes Statement, reference gardens were mentioned as early as 1983, our first year, when Dr. David Young, Tom Dilatush, Jean Iseli and Ed Cope were named as a committee to explore the creation of a National Distributed Reference Garden. It was proposed that four or so widely separated gardens would be established to test a large variety of conifers and report on their suitability for various climes and habitats. To illustrate the early interest in this concept, in Vol. 1, No. 2 of The Bulletin, Dr. J. C. Raulston wrote an article proposing a similar trial garden project. The idea was kicked around over the years but in 2008, the Northeast Region, under the leadership of then-President Larry Nau, created criteria for a Reference Garden program and designated at least four which you will find listed on our website. The Southeastern Region has created somewhat different criteria and now has many gardens in the program. The two Regional plans differ and it will be interesting to see how the variations play out in time; but both promise to greatly enhance exposure of conifers to the public, increase their viewing pleasure and move the science of conifers forward. The reference gardens projects are examples of how many conifer projects are now being led by the Regionals, which are making adjustments to meet their local concepts, while National encourages the projects with money and management support.

Neither a history nor vision of the future of ACS could be complete without recognizing the importance of the independent contractors who staff our central office and actually carry out the directives of the President and Board of Directors. We first hired central office staff in 1989 when Carville Akehurst served as Executive Secretary until replaced by his wife Nancy in 1992. The multi-talented Charlene Harris took over the position in 1993 and turned it over to Maud Henne in 1996. John Martin managed the office from 2000-2013, and Steve Courtney is our current National Office Manager. Charlene, Maud and John earned accolades from every president they served. All of them have been and continue to be essential volunteers for the ACS despite also earning a stipend for some of their work.

Charlene became the National Meeting Coordinator in 2002, the first and only person with that title. Go to a meeting and you will be convinced that nobody could replace her.

ACS funds also provide some compensation for the payment of the editors who were named in the second of these articles. Other paid contractors have developed and operated the website, indexed every article ever printed in The Bulletin and The Conifer Quarterly, and accomplished other short term tasks that required time and/or talents beyond the expectation of volunteers. We continue to benefit from their devotion to our mission.

Finally, here is a list of presidents of the American Conifer Society from the beginning to the known future. If you happen on to them, thank them for nurturing this Society.

1983-1987 Robert L. Fincham
1987-1989 Bill Wells
1989-1990 Cindy Lou Pease
1990-1992 Andr W. Iseli
1992-1994 Bill Thomas
1994-1995 Justin Chub Harper
1995-1996 Larry Stanley
1996-1997 Frank Goodhart
1997-1999 Jordan Jack
1999-2002 Marvin Snyder
2002-2004 Dennis Groh
2004-2006 Don Wild
2006-2008 Tom Cox
2008-2010 Ellen Kelley
2010-2012 Ethan Johnson
2012-2014 Larry Nau
2014 – Brian Jacob

By the time you read this, some fortunate ACS members will have celebrated the twenty fifth anniversary of our Society at the National Meeting in Dubuque, Iowa in June 2008 and a new business year will be starting. I began this series by apologizing for not producing a complete history, knowing that I would be leaving out many people who performed wonderful services for us over the years. Please understand that the errors and omissions were entirely my fault and were due to my ignorance and poor judgment, not to malice or disrespect. I did not live this history. Being a very recent member of ACS and a volunteer myself, I had to gather my facts quickly and from limited resources. I am greatly indebted to the founding members and others who returned my phone calls and emails, offering great insight into ACS. Researching the story greatly impressed me with the quality and devotion of the founders who envisioned and actually created a Society that would better a small part of the world in this unique way. More than that, they then recruited and inspired 25 years of similar heroes who have brought us roaring into this new century with even increased vitality. It’s enough to make you want to hang around and see what happens next!