Remembering horticulture icon Dr. Creech

Published 4:19 pm Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Following in the tradition of the early great plant explorers – Fairchild, Wilson, and Meyer – he participated in 10 plant explorations, including trips to Japan, Russia, Nepal, Taiwan, and Yugoslavia, where he searched for diverse types of ornamental species to enhance U.S. horticulture.

His knowledge of plants, ease with people, high energy, wit, and lack of pretentiousness helped gain colleagues and cooperation both nationally and internationally.

As director of the National Arboretum from 1973 to 1980, Dr. Creech oversaw the development and building of gardens and collections in collaboration with arboretum support organizations.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

During his tenure, the National Herb Garden was designed and installed and he negotiated the gift of 53 bonsai and six viewing stones from the people of Japan for America&39;s Bicentennial celebration. He traveled from Japan to Washington, D.C., with the bonsai and stones to insure their safe arrival. The gift expanded to become the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.

Dr. Creech received his undergraduate degree in horticulture from the University of Rhode Island. His schooling was interrupted by military service and time spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Poland. There he ran a greenhouse and developed and maintained a two-acre garden plot. The plants he grew constituted the prisoners&39; meager supply of food.

The U.S. Army awarded Captain John L. Creech the Bronze and Silver Stars for his efforts in keeping his fellow prisoners alive and for gallantry in battle.

Following the war, he resumed his education, earning his master&39;s degree, also in horticulture, from the University of Massachusetts, and a doctorate in botany from the University of Maryland. His honors include the prestigious American Horticultural Society Professional Award (1972) and the AHS Liberty Hyde Bailey Award (1989).

He was a member of several international scientific organizations and he authored or co-authored numerous papers on crop husbandry and forestry production, plant taxonomy, and plant genetics.

Dr. Creech retired to North Carolina where he continued his horticultural contributions by serving at the North Carolina Arboretum as a volunteer and as interim director. His love of and commitment to horticulture lives on through those he inspired and taught and through the collections and landscapes he influenced and created.

Below is a feature on Dr. Creech by Judy Heinrich run in the Bulletin in 2006 when the new $1.8 million Bonsai Exhibition Garden opened at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville. John Creech: An icon&squo;s adventures in gardeningIf it weren&squo;t for Tryon Estates resident John Creech, the Bank of America in Columbus wouldn&squo;t be surrounded by the white crape myrtles that make such a beautiful display every summer. No, he didn&squo;t design the site, plant the trees or even pay for them. He went to Japan decades ago, drove thousands of miles throughout the country, and on the highest peak of the remote island of Yakushima found a specimen of the rare Lagerstroemia fauriei. He collected its seeds, wrapped them carefully and sent them via an Air Force plane to the United States, where they ultimately became the basis for the mildew-resistant white cultivar &dquo;Natchez,&dquo; which, along with its kin of many colors is now a beloved symbol of the South. And that&squo;s just one of the innumerable ways Dr. Creech became a genuine legend in the field of horticulture and has left his mark on flower gardens, vegetable plots and landscapes throughout America and the world.

You won&squo;t have to travel far to see his latest contribution to natural beauty: the new $1.8 million Bonsai Exhibition Garden at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville. Dr. Creech claims he was &dquo;just a catalyst for the project, not really responsible for it.&dquo; The Arboretum&squo;s Bonsai Curator Arthur Joura elaborates on that modest assessment: &dquo;Dr. Creech more than anything lent his good name and stature to the whole enterprise. With the reputation he enjoys in horticulture circles and especially in bonsai circles, for him to say, &squo;This is a worthwhile project,&squo; you can&squo;t measure how important that is.&dquo;

In addition to his insight and experience, Creech contributed his time as funding co-chair, along with then-UNC President Molly Corbett Broad, raising the entire cost of the project through private donations. The result is a permanent space worthy of a bonsai collection that is rivaled in this country only by the Bicentennial Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. (Which was another personal project of Dr. Creech&squo;s ‐ but more on that later.)

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is the ancient art of miniaturizing trees that has been revered in Japan and China (where it is called Penjing) for more than a thousand years. One of Curator Joura&squo;s personal passions has been creating bonsai forms of native North Carolina trees and shrubs, with one-of-a-kind results that have captured the admiration of enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

&dquo;People tend to have a cliched notion of bonsai as an expression only of Asian culture,&dquo; Joura explains. &dquo;We want our visitors to connect bonsai with something they are familiar with ‐ like a red maple, an American hornbeam, a Carolina rhododendron ‐ plants from their own experience that speak of Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians.&dquo;

Until the opening of the new exhibition garden, this nationally recognized bonsai collection had been relegated to an out-of-the way space surrounded by chain-link fence. But no longer: The new bonsai garden has pride of place as one of the first areas visitors see as they enter the Arboretum.

Dr. Creech sees the new exhibit as an important part of the Arboretum&squo;s mission of education. &dquo;These tiny trees delight visitors, especially children,&dquo; he says. &dquo;Arthur&squo;s miniature settings are so perfect you literally expect to see tiny people appear ‐ and children are especially able to experience that magic. The collection is a great way to reach out to new young gardeners and introduce them to the wonders of plants.&dquo;

Gardening for His Life

Born in 1920, Creech has appreciated plants since his childhood in the small town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. During the depression, most families had a vegetable plot out of necessity but Creech also got exposed to the ornamental side of the business through his older brother&squo;s greenhouse. &dquo;Memorial Day was very important then,&dquo; he recalls, &dquo;and I helped make and sell lots of flower baskets, which got me quite interested.&dquo;

In 1941 Creech got a degree in horticulture from the University of Rhode Island and joined the US Army. As part of the First Infantry Division, he was captured during the invasion of North Africa and sent to a prison camp for American officers. The camp was in Poland on the site of an old reform school that had, of all things, its own greenhouse. Creech took charge of the greenhouse and, with seeds and plants from the Red Cross, raised tomatoes and other vegetables. &dquo;We got almost no food from the Germans,&dquo; he says. &dquo;It was pitiful. So we used what we were able to raise in the greenhouse to supplement rations for 1,500 POWs.&dquo; Creech was awarded a Silver Star for his valor in combat but is prouder of the Bronze Star he was given for his unique contribution to his fellow officers at the POW camp.

When he got out of the service in 1945, Creech earned his masters in Horticulture at the University of Massachusetts and joined the Department of Agriculture at its division of Plant Exploration & Introduction in 1947. &dquo;Our purpose was to send plant explorers all over the world to collect plants because America only has four native crops: the sunflower, blueberry, cranberry and pecan,&dquo; Creech explains. &dquo;Foreign governments were very generous and we were indebted to them for letting us go through and collect plants.&dquo;

Creech traveled all over Asia collecting plants of economic, medicinal and ornamental value, on numerous trips to Japan, China, Nepal and the USSR. He traveled for months at a time, usually with one peer from the host country and a driver, gathering materials from each country&squo;s most remote locations. His discoveries were shipped back to US experts who would test, evaluate and eventually release the resulting plants to commercial growers and the public. Creech ultimately became head of the Plant Exploration office and developed lifelong friendships with gardeners and government officials throughout Asia.

In 1972, as plant exploration was winding down, Creech was named director of the U.S. National Arboretum, also part of the USDA. In 1973 he was asked to devise a suitable way for the Arboretum to commemorate the country&squo;s upcoming bicentennial. For this momentous occasion, foreign governments everywhere were arranging to give gifts to the American people. Combining his wealth of Asian contacts with the appreciation he&squo;d developed for the ancient and revered art of bonsai, Creech negotiated the gift of a national collection of bonsai from the people of Japan. The process was a three-year roller-coaster ride of political and botanical arrangements, transportation miscues and diplomatic close calls, captured in Creech&squo;s 2001 book, The Bonsai Saga (How the Bicentennial Collection Came to America). But it resulted in a collection of 53 extremely valuable bonsai, some centuries old, from all over Japan: one for each state and one each from the Imperial Household and the emperor&squo;s brother and sister. More than 2,000 dignitaries attended the collection&squo;s dedication, with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger formally accepting the gift on behalf of our country. The collection has since expanded to become the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, the only one like it in the world and the most visited collection at the Arboretum.

&dquo;Retiring&dquo; to North Carolina

By the time Creech retired from the USDA in 1980, he had earned a PhD in Botany from the University of Maryland and every major American horticultural award plus the British Gold Veitch Memorial medal. He and his wife chose Western North Carolina as their new home because they fondly remembered their post-war rest-and-recuperation trip to the Grove Park Inn, and because the WNC terrain reminded Creech of the hills and wilderness areas of Japan. In fact, he says, more than 1,000 counterpart plant species are common only to Japan and the Southern Appalachians.

Creech&squo;s full-time retirement never took root: After moving to NC, he published, a new edition of the 17th Century Japanese classic, A Brocade Pillow: Azaleas of Old Japan, with Japanese colleague Kanane Kata; contributed notes to Garden Shrubs and Their History by Alice Coats, and taught biology at UNC Asheville for several years. He also continued writing articles, speaking to gardening groups and amassing honors and awards from national and international organizations and governments.

Aware of his reputation, a state group soon asked Creech to help find a site for a new North Carolina Arboretum. He served on the steering committee that procured the Arboretum site (donated by the US Forest Service), served as its interim director and was influential in the hiring of George Briggs as full-time director, as well as in the selection of Arthur Joura to curate a donated bonsai collection. Which led, in turn, to the Arboretum&squo;s beautiful new Bonsai Exhibit Garden.

Polk County Extension Director John Vining met Creech in the early days of Arboretum planning, when the site consisted of &dquo;three dozen plants and a trailer,&dquo; Vining recalls. &dquo;John has always been a visionary and could see 15-20 years ‐ maybe 50 years ‐ down the road; more than most people ever envision.&dquo; Vining calls Creech a walking encyclopedia of horticulture whose contributions are unmatched. &dquo;In his travels throughout the world, he personally brought the US nursery industry a group of plants, 20 or more, that have had tremendous economic impact and are still widely used in landscapes throughout North America today.&dquo;

&bsp;&bsp;&bsp; If Creech&squo;s life sounds like the basis for a book, it may soon be one. He has been sharing his experiences with NC gardener and writer Leah Chester-Davis, who is now finalizing the manuscript and talking with publishers.

&dquo;Everything in my life has tended to be fortunate,&dquo; Creech remarks. &dquo;I have dear friends all over the United States, Japan and Russia. So many wonderful things have happened to me because of connections with plants and people. I&squo;ve fallen in with a lot of people who have turned out to be pretty nice.&dquo;

&bsp;&bsp;&bsp; And that has turned out to be very nice for people in WNC ‐ those lucky enough to know him, those who will be touched by his legacy at the Arboretum, or those who simply appreciate the wonderful plants ‐ like the crape myrtles at the bank or in our own yards ‐ that might not be here at all if not for John Creech.

#&bsp;&bsp; #&bsp;&bsp; #