The Japanese Nursery Industry in the Bay Area

The Bay Area Japanese Nursery Industry

Beginning in 1885, the Japanese nursery industry was an important part of a thriving community in economic and political aspects as well as in cultural and familial ways. Japanese involvement in floriculture had influences far beyond the Japanese community and the Bay Area, affecting the flower industry across the nation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the flower industry began during the days of the Gold Rush in the 1850s when successful prospectors and merchants had an excess of wealth and an eagerness to spend. Flowers were no longer luxury items but instead expected adornments in hotels and restaurants. Flowers also played an important part in funerals, weddings, and births, rituals that spanned all classes of people. Ornamental plants also gained popularity over the years, increasing after the development of Golden Gate Park.

It was during the rise of flower popularity that the Domoto brothers first arrived in California from Japan. Takanoshin Domoto landed in San Francisco on November 18, 1884. Three of his brothers soon followed and by 1885 they were growing chrysanthemums and carnations at their small Oakland nursery. The Domotos are credited for being the first in Northern California to commercially produce a variety of different garden plants such as camellias, wisterias, azaleas, and lily bulbs imported from Japan. Their business continued to grow and in 1892 the Domoto brothers bought two acres of land in the Melrose district of Oakland on Central Avenue (now 55th) and East 14th Street, possibly being the first Japanese to own any land in the United States. In the next few years the Domotos kept expanding their business, adding several new flowers to their production line and buying additional land next door.

The success of the Domoto Nursery continued to expand with the growing popularity of ornamental plants and flowers in the Bay Area. In 1902 the Domoto Nursery expanded again, this time to a larger site at the Oakland foothills on Krause Street. The new nursery was big enough to expand production to 40 acres and become the first large scale Japanese nursery in the United States. The Domoto brothers’ success was encouraging to those they knew in Japan and many friends and relatives eventually came to the United States to learn and follow in their countrymen’s footsteps. The brothers actively recruited workers from their home prefecture of Wakayama and the large number of Japanese that the Domoto Nursery trained and employed eventually earned it the nickname, “Domoto College”. The Domoto Nursery encouraged their trainees to start their own businesses which many did in the local area, creating a concentration of Japanese nurseries in Oakland and the greater East Bay. Eventually most of the large Bay Area nurseries were owned and operated by nurserymen that had gotten their training at Domoto College.

Most of the nurseries were concentrated in two areas, one in the East Bay including Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and eventually San Leandro, San Lorenzo, and Hayward. The other area was the San Francisco peninsula including San Mateo, Belmont, Redwood City, and Mountain View. One significant reason for the concentration of nurseries in the East Bay was its ideal climate that provided cool breezes and fog in the mornings partnered with afternoon warmth and sunshine.

Property values were also lower in the East Bay than in San Francisco.Japanese immigrants were able to buy small plots of land on city outskirts for relatively low prices. The concentration of nurseries specifically in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond also had to do with access to transportation. Transportation was relatively well developed in the East Bay so the growers located their nurseries in the affordable suburbs along railroad lines and the Key System which provided streetcars, rail lines and buses for Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Richmond, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Albany, Piedmont, and San Leandro. Every morning the growers would transport their flowers from their nurseries in the East Bay along varying transit lines to ferries that would take them to San Francisco where they would sell to retailers. At first the growers would sell outdoors. A spot on the corner of Kearny and Market streets in San Francisco gradually became an unofficial gathering place for growers and retailers to do business.

In 1906 the Japanese flower growers organized the California Flower Growers Association with 42 charter members. Italian and Chinese growers were also large players in the cut flower industry in the Bay Area. Italian flower growers organized the San Francisco Fern Growers Association and at first were heavily involved in selling greenery used in bouquets.Eventually these growers expanded their businesses to include a variety of field flowers and the Fern Growers Association became the San Francisco Flower Growers Association. Chinese flower growers entered the floral industry in the 1890s. Unable to find work because of exclusionary laws, the Chinese started nurseries on the peninsula where they grew pompons, heather, hydrangeas and sweetpeas and established the Peninsula Flower Growers Association.

Initially the main objective of the California Flower Growers Association was to search for an indoor market site. After three years of searching a building was finally found at 31 Lick Place in an alley between Kearny and Montgomery and Sutter and Post streets. The market served as a central location that Japanese, Italian, and Chinese flower growers could come to sell their products.

In 1924 the flower market moved to a larger location at 5th and Howard streets. The flower market eventually expanded to a larger location on 6th and Brannan streets in downtown San Francisco where they still operate today as the San Francisco Flower Mart.

The 1906 earthquake was one of many events in history that the flower industry survived. Because of their role in rituals of celebration as well as tragedy, flowers are essential during all seasons of life. World War I and the influenza epidemic that immediately followed saw a spike in flower sales and prices. The Japanese flower growers enjoyed continued success in the years after the war, producing 70 percent of the major greenhouse flowers and chrysanthemums in Northern California in 1929. Japanese nurseries were at the height of their success when the stock market crashed on October 28, 1929.

The flower industry along with the nation’s economy struggled with recovery in the 1930s as business slowly got back to normal. The completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936 made it more efficient for the East Bay growers to transport and sell their flowers in San Francisco. The industry also experienced a small boom as a result of the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. Business was steadily improving when, a few years later, the Japanese flower growers along with all people of Japanese descent in the West Coast had their lives turned upside down by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. In the months that followed, the nation was taken over by panic and hysteria which resulted in President Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 that ultimately allowed for the forceful removal of over 110,000 people of Japanese descent, two thirds of whom were American citizens.

Evacuees were given between two weeks to only a few days to pack only what they could carry and leave their homes for an unknown destination for an unknown amount of time. Nursery owners frantically tried to find either buyers or caretakers for their businesses, losing substantial amounts of money as they sold greenhouses, equipment, and land at staggeringly low prices. Flower growers that wanted to keep their businesses ended up entering into bad contracts and leasing their nurseries to untrustworthy caretakers. Oftentimes these caretakers would end up neglecting their obligations, leaving the nurseries in disrepair, crops unsalvageable, and equipment and personal property missing. Overall the East Bay flower growers lost millions of dollars because of evacuation, the exact totals probably never known. However, many nurseries did survive internment because of the generous efforts of non-Japanese neighbors, friends, and fellow nursery owners that maintained the nurseries for the Japanese growers while they were interned.

After the closure of the internment camps at the end of the war the Japanese detainees began returning to the West Coast. Many people returned to find their property vandalized or missing. For the flower growers of the East Bay the future looked bleak but not impossible. The fact that 75 percent of the flower growers owned their own property was a huge advantage they had over many other business owners. Most of them also had houses on their nursery properties and therefore did not have to find new places to live once they returned. The growers were also returning to a market that had felt their absence and the demand for flowers was greatly exceeding the supply. But the flower growers faced plenty of obstacles in reestablishing their businesses such as damaged greenhouses and equipment that had to be rebuilt or replaced, nurseries that had not been restocked with plants and therefore not profitable until stocks were built back up, and the lack of reliable labor.

The nursery owners were all Issei, or first generation, immigrants who were mostly in their 50s by the time the war was over. The period of reestablishment was a time of rebuilding in a new market as well as a time during which the reigns of the industry were gradually being passed down to the American born Nisei generation.

Under Nisei management the flower industry successfully recovered after the war. Advances in shipping, greenhouse technology, and floriculture techniques contributed to the industry’s success and aided in continued expansion and growth. The Bay Area remained a major center of the industry with Alameda County reaching 10.11 million square feet of greenhouses in 1980.

It was not until the 1990s that the once booming Bay Area flower industry began to gradually wilt. As the Bay Area population grew and suburban housing began its sprawl the nurseries once on the outskirts of cities became unwanted neighbors in the middle of suburban communities. To escape the many problems of operating in highly populated areas flower growers began moving south, all the way into the Monterey Bay peninsula. The East Bay eventually lost its position as the focal point of Northern California floriculture.

The Bay Area and California flower industry faced an even more detrimental problem beginning in 1991 with the passage of the Andean Trade Preference Act. As part of the war on drugs the U.S. attempted to reduce the amount of cocaine produced in South America by encouraging Colombian, Peruvian, Bolivian and Ecuadorian farmers to replace cocaine with flowers and import them to the U.S. tariff free. The South American growers, already at an advantage with lower labor costs and operation costs, and the perfect climate for growing roses, could now export to America free of charge. American flower growers could not compete with the bigger, cheaper South American flowers.

Northern California nurseries began rapidly closing and by 1995 greenhouse footage in Alameda County had dropped to 1.95 million with only 30 or 35 nurseries still in operation. In 2009 only a little over a million square feet were under glass in Alameda County. Today the few remaining Japanese growers have relocated to Gilroy, Monterey and other coastal areas south of the Bay. Only two Japanese vendors remain at the San Francisco Flower Market.

Although the heyday of Bay Area flower production is over the contributions and influences of the Japanese flower growers have left a lasting legacy on the industry. Their innovations and x helped shape and establish an industry that continues to grow and evolve. And most importantly the immigrant flower growers planted roots from which a strong and vibrant Japanese American community continues to flourish today.