November 17, 2018

From palm fronds to poppies: The Jews who brought them to L.A.

As we celebrate Sukkot with all its greenery and bounty, it’s also a good time to remember a couple of Jewish Johnny Appleseeds who added variety and color to the Los Angeles landscape. From the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, Eugene Germain, along with Manfred Meyberg, supplied the city with a wide range of plants that included poppies and roses, as well as the jacarandas and coral trees we still grow today.

In Southern California, palm fronds are commonly used as sukkah roofs. We buy them on street corners or at flower shops, get them from neighbors or even cut them from trees growing in our own yards.

In 1900, if you wanted to grow a palm tree, you could choose from 10 varieties of seed, including the still-popular Washingtonia — or California fan palm — ordered from the Germain Seed and Plant Co. store in downtown Los Angeles, or from their catalog.

Looking for something extra growing in your yard to beautify that sukkah? If you find a bird of paradise, then you have Manfred Meyberg (pronounced MY-berg) to thank. Meyberg started working at Germain’s as an office boy when he was 19 and eventually become the company’s president; he was such a promoter of the bird of paradise, he got it declared the City of Angels’ official flower in 1952.

Although the Germain company was bought out by an English company in 1990, it is still a significant name in agribusiness. Meyberg is commemorated by a waterfall at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. Yet the two names, important to the development of the city’s horticulture, largely have been grown over by the tangle of time.

Fortunately, Harriet Ashby, a great-niece of Eugene Germain, has helped cut through the brush by researching her family roots and writing about them. “The family name originally was Bloch,” she said in an interview, saying it was changed by Nathan Germain, Eugene’s father.

Eugene Germain was born on Nov. 30, 1849, in Moudon, Switzerland, where he was educated in public schools and attended college at Lausanne, Ashby wrote in 1970 for Western States Jewish History. He first went to New York in 1868, then came to Los Angeles in 1870. He married Caroline Sievers in 1872, and together they had five children.

His first L.A. business was a restaurant; then he opened a grocery and poultry store in 1874, at 128 N. Main St., from which he began to package and ship large quantities of fruit and other food items.

By 1884, his business had grown so large that he reorganized, and the Germain Fruit Co. was born. Key to the business was selling seeds, nursery stock and wines, and also running a fruit-packing plant in Santa Ana.

In 1889, the name was changed to the Germain Seed and Plant Co., with Eugene Germain remaining president until 1893.

Eugene Germain was also active in civic affairs. In 1883, he was elected president of the Los Angeles Board of Trade, a position he held for two years. He was appointed California’s representative to the Paris Centennial Exposition in 1889 by Gov. Robert Waterman. President Grover Cleveland appointed him United States Consul at Zurich, Switzerland, for a four-year term, from 1893 to 1897. Upon returning to L.A., he sold the wine portion of the business to his brother Edward and focused his own efforts on the seed and nursery areas.

A member of the Jonathan Club — originally a political club but later a social one — he was also a charter member of the California Club, both organizations that up until the late 1960s had very few Jewish members.

Beginning in 1885, the Germain Co. marketed its seeds through an annual catalog. By the 1900 edition, the company marked it progress by noting both that it had “recognized the possibilities of Southern California as a seed-growing section” and, as a result, was the “oldest and leading seed house south of San Francisco and west of the Missouri River,” operating the “most complete seed store in the west.” The store occupied 32,000 square feet on South Main Street in downtown L.A.

After Eugene Germain’s death in 1909, the company began to move in new directions. According to “The History of the Los Angeles Jews” by Max Vorspan and Lloyd P. Gartner, Germain’s widow, Caroline, along with son Marc, brought Manfred Meyberg, son of Jewish pioneer and businessman, Max Meyberg, into their business.

Meyberg quickly worked his way up the company trellis. By 1915, his photo, captioned as company “secretary,” appears on the staff page of the annual catalog — right next to that of M.L. (Marc) Germain, then the firm’s president.

Meyberg’s rise continued. Caroline Germain died in 1910, and an item in the Jan. 28, 1922, edition of the American Florist reported that “M. L. Germain has sold his interest in the Germain Seed Co. to Manfred Meyberg and Walter Schoenfeld.”

“The family story is that Marc had no business sense,” Ashby said.

Manfred Meyberg was born in 1886 in L.A. to Max and Emma Meyberg, the latter the daughter of pioneer banker Isaiah H. Hellman. As a boy he earned spending money by growing dahlias and other plants in his backyard and then selling bulbs to neighbors. He graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1904.

In 1915, he was one of the directors of the Concordia Club, a social club begun in 1891 in response to some Jews being excluded from downtown clubs.

As president of Germain, Meyberg expanded the company’s nurseries — one of which was located in Van Nuys on Victory Boulevard — developed All-America roses for California and became a master at promoting the business through floral displays.

Known as a booster of Los Angeles, he was one of the organizers of the Los Angeles Beautiful campaign in the 1950s, as well as chairman of the International Flower Show at Hollywood Park, which in 1952 had 125,000 spectators.

Sending All American roses named after Queen Elizabeth II, and created by Germain to Her Majesty, August 11, 1954 at Inglewood International Airport. From left to right: Manfred Meyberg, California Governor Goodwin Knight, Margaret Gillett and her husband Michael C. Gillett British Consul General. (Courtesy of Peggy Darling)

Flowers were serious business to Meyberg. “Show me a house without flowers and with a rundown lawn, and I’ll show you someone with no feeling for freedom and his country,” Meyberg told Monsanto Magazine in 1954.

According to Susan C. Eubank, librarian at the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, Meyberg also was a big supporter of the Arboretum, where he served as a trustee. She pointed out that the Meyberg waterfall — designed with a 20-foot drop and built with funds from the Meyberg family — was named after him. After his death in 1956, a eulogy was published in Lasca Leaves, the Arboretum’s magazine.

He also was active in the founding of the Southern California Horticultural Institute, which still exists.

As for the bird-of-paradise city-flower initiative, interviews with Meyberg’s nephew David H. Stern, 78, who lives in Jerusalem, and niece, Peggy Darling, 87, of Bakersfield both supported that, indeed, Meyberg was the political connection in the effort, but that his wife Elza (nee Stern, whose father was the Jewish pioneer and land developer Jacob Stern) really did the leg work.

Darling remembers Meyberg as a generous man who was always smoking a cigar. “He was very creative,” she said of his ability to dream up decorative tableaux to promote his business at flower shows, including a redwood forest for the International Flower Show in 1954.

“He had a great sense of humor,” Stern recalled.

Perhaps what captured the public’s eye most about the Meybergs was their home on Copa de Oro Road in Bel Air. “They planted the front yard with 5,000 tulips,” Stern said. The yard was even remarked upon by Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, who in a 1950 column described it as a “carpet of tulips and pansies.”

So many growing seasons later, Darling remains awed by her uncle’s knack for publicity. Referring to his front yard, she said it “was like an advertisement for his business.”