Remembering Ernest Wertheim
Ernest Wertheim
AmericanHort

Remembering Ernest Wertheim

Tributes pour in to honor the beloved industry pioneer, who died at the age of 100 on Aug. 4.

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On Aug. 4, the horticultural community grieved the loss of Ernest Wertheim, a beloved icon in the garden center and landscaping industry. Ernest was born on Dec. 30, 1919, and persevered through much hardship during his early life. As detailed in his memoir, "Chasing Spring," Ernest fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and arrived in America, where he later served in WWII. He settled in San Francisco in 1940 to practice landscape architecture, and became the renowned expert the garden center industry knows today. Jacquie Williams-Courtright, owner of Alden Lane Nursery in Livermore, California, announced the news in a tribute, below:

"The history of Alden Lane is not complete without recognizing a gentleman who shaped our new garden center. Dear friend and industry colleague, Ernest Wertheim passed away at the age of 100 years, 7 months and 4 days today. 

Ernest was a landscape architect who became a world renowned garden center designer.  We were fortunate to be personal friends and engaged the services of his San Francisco architectural firm, WVK.  Ernest and his partner Jack Klemeyer made history by designing state of the art garden centers all over the globe, we are grateful to both for their vision and great skill in their backyard. Coincidentally, the first garden center they designed was my husband’s, Orchard Nursery and Florist Lafayette in 1954 for the previous owner.

Ernest’s longevity stemmed from embracing youth and new technologies. He never stopped learning.  He had tremendous stamina and capacity always outpacing those he consulted for. He was a passionate planner who challenged his clients to think through their needs, asking the hard questions. He was a peace maker and always a broker of goodwill. 

My husband, I and Ernest spoke at a garden symposium and had flown out of San Francisco. Our return flight was delayed by 4 hours. We enticed Ernest to talk about his life and WWII experience. The result of that fleeting 4 hours was numerous speaking engagements and a book called Chasing Spring available at Alden Lane.   

The book recounts the life of a boy born in Berlin, becoming a landscape architect, fleeing to safety in the United States, being inducted into the US Army as an enemy alien, providing intelligence that saved countless lives, ultimately working directly with General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific. 

Ernest’s bright light will live on in his family, friends, colleagues, clients and countless projects along with the many lessons taught along the way. 

I’ll close with the last passage of his book: 

A Place to Rest”

On the upper part of the mountain in Alpine Meadows there is a steep slope that is covered with striking Sierra primroses (Primula suffrutescens).  The perennials, endemic to California, come out after the snow has melted.  For years our family would hike up the mountain to see them in bloom which, depending on the season, is in mid-July or early August.

It is on the mountain in Alpine among the primroses where both Margrit and I would like to be put to rest.  We hope our ashes will provide some nutrients for these beautiful plants, just as my relationship with plants has nourished me.  My love affair has been with me through the innocence of childhood, the nightmares of Nazi Germany, the separations and losses of loved ones, the horrors of the battlefield, the transcendent landscapes, the gift of good friends, the joy of family and many lessons I’ve learned that humbled me and hopefully made me a better person.  How lucky I have been.

How lucky for us to have known this amazing man."

Industry analyst Ian Baldwin also shared a tribute to Ernest. On Aug. 5, he shared the below announcement with members of the Facebook group, Garden Center - IGC's, Suppliers and Media. Many more tributes and memories were added to his post: 

"A sad day in The GC industry as we learn of the passing of Ernest Wertheim. His awe-inspiring early life in 1930s Germany created the resolve, passion, diligence and work ethic that we all knew in him. He was a visionary leader in an industry that needed his constant probing, challenging and downright "ornery" approach. I have always admired the way he asked questions to owners and managers that no one else would ask. R.I.P Ernest and thank you for your legacy and amazing changes you gave to this wonderful business!"

To contribute to the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI) endowment Wertheim established honoring his long-time business partner, Jack Klemeyer, please visit HRIResearch.org/Donate or contact Jennifer Gray at 614-884-1155 or JenniferG@AmericanHort.org.

To learn more about Ernest, check out his memoir, "Chasing Spring," which is available at Alden Lane Nursery and Amazon. In 2017, AmericanHort, celebrated his legacy with a video, which you can watch here.