Al Collected Bromeliads
About Al’s Hobby
My pal Al had a great greenhouse and he specialized in bromeliads. His plant collection of bromeliads was world class. Al learned all that he knew about this family of plants from the man who discovered them in Costa Rica.
Al met Mulford Foster on one of his business trips to Florida. Mulford brought back live plants from Costa Rica and recorded them with the Smithsonian. The two men became good friends, Foster in his very late 80’s and Al in his mid 40’s.
Al’s territory was national but somehow he kept flying off to Ocala Florida where Foster “father of Bromeliads” recreated a rain forest on his property which was filled with the original plant species he discovered. Al would come home to Chicago, suitcase in hand filled with gift plants from Foster, which were wrapped in newspaper and slightly damp. The bromeliads got potted up, put out on our patio and neighbors and friends would buy every single one.
Word got out about Al’s collection when Better Homes and Gardens was starting a new magazine. They approached him for an article and an introduction to his mentor.
Well it wound up that they photographed and featured me in Al’s greenhouse with his incredible bromeliads. Those are the plants that were my models for my Northwestern University Library art show.
On a trip to Florida Al had a brainstorm. His brilliant idea was that in the center of Northbrook Illinois, the Chicago suburb where we lived, was a wonderful old historic house that was for rent. Al’s idea was to rent the house and open a plant shop on the first floor. And we could use the second floor for art studios, where my studio partners and I would all paint and sell our art and be a wonderful artistic attraction. We submitted our idea along with a rental application. Al flew off to Florida and ordered $3000 worth of bromeliads from several growers.
Yes you guessed right. The city would not approve our rental. But of course the plants were already shipped. And we actually had incorporated the new business which we called Botany House. Great name, no house.
So Al rented a warehouse in a small industrial park. Since he was the family bread-winner he wasn’t ready to quit his job, so I got elected to get his little business started and he would takeover when it was up and running.
I called on some of my art buddies, one who photographed the plants, and one who designed posters and handouts. They created a mailer to send to all florists in the city of Chicago and within a month I had a customer base and an active business. My staff consisted of a 17 year old, one of our sons friends. After school, he did all of the potting, plant care, and preparation for shipping the next days orders. My father now in his 70’s did all of the order deliveries by truck. I had an assistant who shared the office with me and my Dad.
Botany House was an immediate success.
No wholesaler in Chicago carried bromeliads. We were so busy that we had to start importing from Holland. Our first order arrived in time for Valentines Day. The airline unloaded our shipment at OHare airport and left the cases out on the runway in early February. Yes you’ve got it right…the entire shipment froze on that runway, and we lost 90% of our Valentines plant orders. Disaster!
Meanwhile I had not been in my studio for months. Galleries were calling wanting some of my artwork and there I was, running a plant business. My studio partners were asking when I was going to return and I began to wonder if success would end my art career.
In March I asked Al to quit his job and takeover Botany House. He said he would do that at the end of his season. I bought his story, mostly because Al was a very good salesman.
I ordered plants from Hawaii for Mothers Day and was hopeful that soon I would return to making art. The Mothers Day plants arrived in mid April. The plants looked beautiful until the next morning. They were shipped damp, and they all got fungus from the darkness and dampness.
The next morning I arrived at the warehouse and totally black dead plants.
After I finished screaming and crying, I phoned Al in Florida, and told him that by the time he returned home, the business would be dissolved. Yes dissolved, ended, completed…done. Next I phoned our lawyer to immediately start that process, and I phoned a friend who ran a large factory. Then I drove all of the remaining plants that were alive and healthy and sold them off at cost to his 100’s of factory employees. I really meant DONE!
I did a warehouse sale of the office furniture and equipment and Botany House was now history. What remains to this day are a few beautiful handouts and a great magazine article.
Another one year chapter in the adventures of my life has ended. And my goal was to get back to making art.
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