In retirement, some begin an “encore” career, others volunteer in a field of personal interest and others put time and effort into achieving a life-long dream. With his 54-acre botanical garden in St. Francisville, Louisiana, Walter Imahara is doing all three.
I first learned of Imahara from a family member who was his classmate in Baton Rouge at Istrouma High School in 1955.
“You’ve got to see what he’s doing,” our cousin insisted, when we told her we were coming to New Orleans. So, on Friday June 1, my husband Bill and I drove to Baton Rouge, picked her up and continued on to St. Francisville where we met a vibrant and fascinating family.
Imahara family history
Walter’s parents, James and Haruka Imahara were among several “Cajun Nikkei” – Japanese American settlers in the New Orleans area following release from a World War II internment camp in Arkansas. Born in 1903 in Watsonville, California, James was the son of immigrants from Hiroshima. In California the family owned farm land and raised strawberries, grapes, and fruit trees.
In 1941, James was in his Model T when he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor, an event that altered the lives of every American. “My family lost everything, including the family home and farm we worked so hard for 20 years to improve only to get locked into concentration camps for more than three years,” he said in his later years.
As son Walter remembers it, “From May 1942 to 1945, we were relocated to Fresno Assembly Center in California and then to camps in Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas. After the war, Pop moved his family of 10 to Louisiana to start a new life.”
James worked for a nursery business in New Orleans propagating houseplants and raising vegetables on the side that were sold Villa in St. at the French Market. Within a few years, he was hired by the owners of Afton Villa to restore gardens in St. Francisville and then moved to Baton Rouge to begin his own business.
In a book about their family, Family Dreams, Journey of the Sansei, author Diane Koos Gentry recounts the Imahara story, gathered in interviews over 20 years. Many of the quotes that follow are from this book. Copies are available from Imahara’s Botanical Garden.
When working at Afton Villa, “James drove all the way to Mobile to buy Japanese cherry trees for the grounds. ‘When they were in bloom, there is nothing more beautiful,’ James said. ‘But when their time comes, all the blooms drop. It’s symbolic. The Japanese way is to forgive without a grudge. Afton Villa made me start forgetting the days of internment and our losses. It’s all over with now. I don’t feel any bitterness at all.’
“Restoring the gardens of a well-known and much loved historic home in a place like St. Francisville, which is known for its lovely homes and plantations, is a great accomplishment in the South. The name Imahara became associated with horticulture and landscape design.”
Baton Rouge and the beginning of Imahara’s Landscape
When restoration at Ashton Villa was complete, the family moved back to Baton Rouge where James took a job at a nursery then started James’ Gardening Service.
“For the most part, it was just me and Mama,” said the elder Imahara in the Family Dreams book. “Mama was the backbone of all our business. The kids were in school. We started with a wheelbarrow, a broken-down pickup, a hoe and a shovel and, of course, my pruning shears.”
Walter chose a major in horticulture at the University of Southwest Louisiana at Lafayette where he discovered another passion in his life: weightlifting where he is described as being a fierce competitor and national champion.
As the 1950s drew to a close, James Imahara received a small percentage of his requested claim for compensation on the loss of California property and farm land during World War II. That settlement was enough to purchase several acres and a home in Baton Rouge.
James and Haruka began planting grass to sell sod. “Baton Rouge was growing and prospering as the Imaharas were starting their mom and pop business. Growth meant new subdivisions to landscape,” Gentry writes.
James was able to purchase a greenhouse from his former employer at Afton Villa. The couple propagated their own stock. The business grew as they waited for Walter with his degree in horticulture to come home. The year he graduated, 1960, the Army sent him to Germany for three years.
“My father always told us, ‘Get an education, serve your country and buy land.’ Service in the military was expected of his sons,” Walter said. The year he graduated, 1960, the Army sent him to Germany for three years. Walter enlisted as a private, went to officer candidate school and came out a first lieutenant.
In Germany, Walter met Sumi Matsumoto, an elementary school teacher from Berkeley, California. Sumi and her parents had been interned in Arizona. In 1963 they were married in Munich. When it was time to leave Germany, they moved home to Louisiana. The day we visited, Walter and Sumi celebrated 49 years of marriage.
Pelican State Nursery
Walter joined his parents’ enterprise on the eight and one-half acres they owned, which was renamed Pelican State Nursery. Walter added three more greenhouses and assembled them on the property making 10,000 square feet of greenhouses and worked to grow small plants and vegetables, wholesale and retail.
“James also grew specimen plants one couldn’t find anywhere else like large junipers and topiary trees.” By 1968, Imahara’s included a retail garden center and landscape business.
“This garden center was distinctly Japanese, both in design and operation. James carved the name Imahara’s in Japanese characters on a huge cypress board. Walter and [his brother-in-law] Sam hung the sign on a tall wooden archway that marked the front entrance. Behind the entrance, decorative vertical wooden boards lined the front of the building, adding to the simple but beautiful Japanese design.”
Walter sold the landscaping location in 1984 and built a second more modern garden center on Perkins Road in Baton Rouge. The old location was 5,000 square feet. The garden center on Perkins Road totaled 17,500 square feet. In addition, there was enough land to build 35,000 square feet of retail space in the future.
The new garden center was designed to Walter’s specifications with concrete walkways and an automated sprinkler system. Such innovations reduced labor costs and maximized profit. His leadership extended to nursery and landscape associations such as the Baton Rouge Nursery and Landscape Association, the Louisiana Association of Nurserymen, the State Horticultural Commission, the Southern Nurserymen Association and the National Landscape Association and in 2002 Walter was named to the National Landscape Association Hall of Fame in Louisville, Kentucky.
All was not peaches and cream. Shortly after the new center opened, Walter’s sister May was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within three months, the financial stalwart of the company was dead. For the next few years, Walter tried to coax family members into joining the firm. Niece Wanda, is sister Lilly’s daughter, had completed the five-year landscape architecture program at LSU and was working at a high paying job in Washington DC.
Three Generations of Landscaping
“Though it may not have been evident to either of them at first, Walter and Wanda, who had very different personalities in 1987 and clashed frequently, proved to be ideal partners in the landscape company. Each had individual strengths and talents and complemented the other, forging a stronger business,” Gentry writes.
“The first big commercial landscaping project Wanda tackled was the new Blue Cross/Blue Shield headquarters in Baton Rouge. ‘I saw the building nearing completion and talked to Uncle Walt,’ Wanda remembered. ‘Imahara’s had not put in a bid. I called and asked for the opportunity to bid on landscaping the building inside and out.
‘Uncle Walt and I stayed in the office until 7 or 8 p.m. working together until I could draw the plan and put prices to it. The secret to securing the job you design is using plant material that is readily available to you, the best looking plants that will continue to look good as they grow and mature. Uncle Walt and Grandpa both told me to work hard and be honest, and that would make me successful. Part of being honest is not to put in plant material that will cost a client an arm and a leg or material that will freeze and die in the winter. We believe in spending [a client’s] money wisely by using plants that are native to this area’.”
Wanda’s enthusiasm, drive and creativity added maintenance contracts on the larger commercial projects they installed to provide a more steady income stream and to provide service to those customers.
Imahara’s Botanical Garden
“An active man like Walter Imahara never retires; he just stops coming in to work every day.”
Walt handed over the reins of the landscape enterprises to Wanda and kept busy with real estate ventures. A long-time dream to own property in St. Francisville came true with the purchase of their second home on 15 acres in 2001, which he landscaped with camellias, azaleas, cherry trees, crepe myrtle, many varieties of magnolia and holly, weeping yupon and yew, palms, crab apples and weeping mulberries, among others. The entire residential property is served by irrigation and every plant is labeled.
Another dream is three years along the path to realization. Walter bought 54 acres on Mahoney Road in St. Francisville and spent a great deal of time clearing wilderness, rutted by Mississippi River floods and erosion.
Three days a week, Walter and two workers planted a hundred or more plants a day. To minimize erosion, centipede grass sod was installed plus tree logs and treated poles are used to edge beds and create a terraced effect. Three year old camellias are starting to fill in along the edges of the forest. Two and a half year old ginkgo trees, three-gallon pots when planted, are now taller than I am. The years of landscape experience are bearing fruit in this infant garden – all the beds are prepared to receive and nourish plants. Garden materials were planted in groups of threes and fives. “The landscape was designed by sight so that a great view can be seen from anywhere in the garden. A 225-foor deep well, with a four-inch pipe installed, provides substantial volume and pressure to allow as many as 10 sprinklers to run at once,” according to a garden flyer.
In the camellia garden, varieties include Funny Face Betty, Gunsmoke, Purple Dawn, Royal Velvet, and more than 90 other cultivars. More than 3,000 azaleas are planted, some to eventually develop into a huge karikomi on one hillside. Varieties include Judge Solomon, G.G. Gerbing, George Tabor and the Encore series.
Collections of magnolias, weeping trees, hollies, maples, purple leaf plums, crape myrtle and a stand of Cryptomeria japonica (Sugi pine) are among other major plantings. Nine connecting ponds have been installed, one for each child born to James and Haruka Imahara.
The Japanese garden “is still in the thought stage,” Walter said. He’s collecting stone and is pulling together ideas from his and his wife Sumi’s travels. “You have to come back in two or three years and see what it looks like then!”
Already the area includes a conference center, snack shop and gift store along with equipment storage buildings. The conference center holds a collection of James Masaru Imahara’s poetry carved on cypress boards. “For a long time, we were curious about dad’s hobby,” said Lily. “Now we realize this is his legacy. We know who we are and where we came from.”
For more information on Imahara’s Botanical Garden, visit their blog site imaharasbotanicalgarden.blogspot.com or to schedule a tour or special event, contact them at email@example.com or (225) 635-6001. The mailing address is P. O. Box 605 St. Francisville, LA 70775.
Thank you Wanda and Walter for your hospitality and thank you cousin Ruby for bringing us together.