“That’s my favorite tree in the garden,” said Roger Gossler, as we gazed at a dazzling katsura tree in peak fall color at Gossler Farms Nursery in Springfield, Oregon. He said it was a Cercidiphyllum magnificum, not a Cercidiphyllum japonicum, as I had thought. I asked him what the difference was, and he said that C. magnificum stays smaller and has a more arching, oval shape.
I’d been vaguely aware that there were two species of katsuras, but had never had it spelled out to me. This is the kind of knowledge that Roger has in spades—knowledge that comes from a lifetime of working in the nursery business and being a passionate plantsman.
Despite his vast stores of knowledge, though, Roger is humble and unassuming. He is held in the highest regard by his fellow nurserypeople, and it was really a treat for me last month to visit him at Gossler Farms, the nursery that he runs with his mother, Marjory (“Marj”), and his brother, Eric.
Springfield, besides being home to the Simpsons, is a stone’s throw from Eugene and is two hours south of Portland. I got to Gossler Farms in late morning on a cool, cloudy, late October day and was greeted at the office by Marj. Marj, 88 years young and an avid golfer and bowler, runs the bustling mail order part of the business. Her son Eric takes care of physical operations (irrigation, etc.), while Roger is more involved with the growing. A neighbor helps out, but basically this tiny family unit is what keeps this renowned specialty nursery running. Amazing.
Roger soon pulled up on a zippy nursery cart to give me a tour, his attendants swarming around him: a Corgi named Benny, a golden retriever named Sophie, and two black cats named George and Fred. “This is my day,” said Roger, feigning exasperation as his “helpers” ran in circles around us. In truth, it was pretty obvious that he appreciated their company and that Roger is the kind of guy who has a fondness for all living creatures, whether they’re covered in fur or chlorophyll. (He probably wouldn’t admit to playing favorites, but he seemed to have a special place in his heart for the sweet polydactyl cat, George.)
As for plants, one of Roger’s favorite groups is magnolias, and indeed, Gossler Farms Nursery is synonymous with magnolias. If you’re hunting for a hard-to-find variety, this is the place to look. The Gossler Farms catalog lists 65 varieties!
Witch hazels (Hamamelis) are another specialty, with 43 varieties on offer. Many of these shrubs add not only interesting winter flowers to the landscape, but colorful fall foliage as well, which was on display during my visit.
Another uncommon but exquisite member of the witch hazel family that Gossler Farms sells is Disanthus cercidifolius, an arching shrub for shady borders with redbud-like (heart-shaped) leaves that turn red, pink, peach, yellow, and lavender tones in fall.
Also in the witch hazel family is fothergilla, and Fothergilla gardenii ‘Jane Platt’ is a signature plant of Gossler Farms Nursery. Jane Platt was an amateur gardener in Portland and a good friend of the Gosslers. They swapped plants, and this one, the Gosslers decided, needed to be made available to the public, so they propagated it and introduced it. ‘Jane Platt’ reaches only 2 ft. by 2 ft. and fits in any garden (I got one for mine).
I also got one of these fascinating Plump & Plentiful Purple Giant beautyberry plants. The only fall color I’ve ever seen on beautyberry (Callicarpa) has been yellow. I’ve never seen this intense hot pink! Plus it has the usual metallic purple berries to boot.
But I digress. Back on my personal tour of the three-plus-acre display garden at Gossler Farms Nursery, Roger and I paused to marvel at a ‘Grace’ smokebush, blazing like a bonfire. This hybrid of the American Cotinus obovatus and the European/Asian Cotinus coggygria ‘Velvet Cloak’ was developed in England, and Gossler Farms was the first to “discover” it for American gardeners and bring it to our shores.
The Gosslers cut theirs back hard every year, which eliminates the gauzy (smoky) flowers, but keeps the foliage fresh and healthy looking and the habit relatively dense and symmetrical. This is one of my favorite plants of all time.
Stewartias were in abundance, another of Gossler Farms’ specialties (they sell eight different selections). These first-class trees generally have lovely summer flowers, radiant fall color, and sculpted, multicolored trunks.
The Gosslers have had impeccable taste in plants since they first started growing nursery stock in the 1960s. Roger showed me their very first mail order listing (a single page), from 1968, and even then it had all of the connoisseurs’ favorites: Franklinia, Eucryphia, Davidia, Magnolia sieboldii, and four species of Stewartia, to name a few.
Fun fact: Roger’s grandparents bought Gossler Farms in 1948 as an actual farm. The family raised two crops until 1985: sweet corn, which was processed by Agri Pack into canned corn, and peppermint, which was used to flavor Wrigley’s gum.
Marj, Eric, and Roger have written a fantastic book based on their 40-plus years of experience in the nursery business. It’s called The Gossler Guide to the Best Hardy Shrubs and was published by Timber Press in 2009. I bought a signed copy on my visit, and I highly recommend it.
The Gosslers love to have visitors, but you’re wise to call ahead first at 541-746-3922 to make sure that someone will be around to help you. Roger is also for hire as a “garden coach” if you’re in the Springfield/Eugene area if you need some garden inspiration. You might also catch him giving talks, attending plant sales, or leading garden tours around the Pacific Northwest—if so, don’t pass up the opportunity to say hello and chat a while with one of the most knowledgeable and friendliest plantsmen you will ever have the pleasure to meet.