Book Review: Bob Fincham's latest

By Jerry Belanger in Book Review

Bob Fincham’s new book on old friends, 'Gone but not Forgotten', captures the essence of the ACS

Whether you’re a founding member of the ACS or you joined yesterday, you owe a great deal to those who were fascinated by unusual conifers more than half a century ago.And if you joined the society to enjoy the company of like-minded people as well as trees, you will also appreciate learning about those who paved the way for today’s camaraderie. Many of these people are gone, but thanks to Bob Fincham’s new book, not forgotten.
Bob discovered dwarf and unusual conifers in his 20’s and owned a respected nursery in Pennsylvania, all the while teaching high school science. He went on to become one of the founders of the ACS, and knew the men he profiles personally. In this book he writes about dozens of cultivars, their origins, and the people and stories behind them, in a chatty informal style, richly embellished with photos. Some of these people, such as Jean Iseli and Chub Harper, are well- known. Others are not, but should be. All are interesting, not only as coniferites, but as people.
For example, we all know of Jean Iseli, but who is aware that he had a PhD in mathematics and was a college teacher before becoming immortalized in his eponymous nursery? Or that he hated wearing shoes, preferring rubber flip-flops? Or that he wrote articles for the ACS Bulletin (now ConiferQuarterly) under two pseudonyms: Ed Remsrola and Revol Refinoc (“conifer lover” spelled backwards)?
I’ve often wondered what happens to conifers when a place is sold, or the gardener dies. Do they enhance, or detract from, the value of real estate? Do new owners cut them down to plant the quintessential American lawn? Now I have some answers, from Bob’s case histories. One of my fa- vorites concerns Kas Koemans, a nurseryman in Boskoop, Holland. After visiting the nursery, Bob was taken to the Koemans home, where he saw “one of the best small-scale landscaped gardens I have ever visited.”
After Kas died, Bob was back in Holland and happened to drive past the Koemans’ house. He stopped to meet the new owner, “who loved the garden but knew little about it. We spent several hours with her and gave her an even greater appreciation for what she had.’ In contrast, when Fred Bergman, of Raraflora Nursery in Pennsylvania, died, his property was sold to a group of investors. Fincham says, “The Bergman name was synonymous with conifer and maple collections in the 1960s. Today the name is associated with one of the most expensive conifer auctions in history.” The new owners auctioned off the conifer collection, and perhaps because of the Bergman name, the prices fetched were ridiculous. The mother plant of Pinus parvaflora ‘Bergmani’ made national news when it sold for “somewhere in the neighborhood of $13,000.” The property was developed a few years later, leaving no signs of the gardens.
Alfonso Ossorio, a successful artist, owned an estate on Long Island. “He loved colorful conifers and planted those that were already mature and usually quite large.” To show off these plants even better, his house was painted black. Now I have a story to tell those who wonder at my black house and gold conifers!
This book is historically important for its portrayal of 34 men (35, counting Bob Fincham himself), who were instrumental in the early development of dwarf and unusual conifers. We come to see them as humans, and as friends. The beauty of this book lies in the people, and their bonding over a mutual interest in conifers. Gone But Not Forgotten, by Robert L. Fincham; 362 pp, profusely illustrated; Coenosium Press, 4412 354th Street East, Eatonville WA 98328; $34.95

Excerpted from the December 2016 Southeastern Conifer Quarterly. Gain access to archives of past newsletters and the National Conifer Quarterly by becoming a member of the American Conifer Society