In all my dealings with plant breeders and nursery people, I never met anyone who believed in their new plant as much as John Houser. Certainly every plant breeder feels his or her new invention is the best, but how many would postpone their retirement at age 85 to start up a nursery based on it. Houser did and said, “I’m too old to work hard, too mule-headed to retire.”
You see, John knew in his heart that he had found his “one in a million shot,” when he discovered an unusual branch mutation on an arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) on his property. That mutation was an ultra-fast growing branch sport with a dense, narrow growth habit.
“This particular arborvitae [‘American Pillar’] will withstand extremes of heat, cold, and moisture, making it a candidate for home landscapes, and screening situations in most of the lower forty-eight states. Other plants commonly used for screening purposes, such as hemlock and pine, have diseases that are depleting their usefulness. Leland cypress is being attacked by the lethal Cercospora needle blight which is now widespread across the South and East. The American Pillar Nursery is positioned to fill the demand for a better, disease-resistant replacement plant.” John Houser
In August of 2009, just days after Thuja ‘American Pillar’ was granted U.S. Plant Patent number 20,209, Houser called to sell me on ‘American Pillar’. At the time, I eschewed arborvitae because one variety, Emerald arborvitae, dominated the market. It was the only cultivar our customers wanted to buy, grow, or sell. Selling a new cultivar would be difficult if not impossible. But John was, well, mule headed. He was not about to take no for an answer. He wore me down; I acquiesced and sent him a trialing license and he sent me 100 trial plants. I soon discovered that John was right. His plant was special. With a growth rate of a meter (nearly 40”) a year, ‘American Pillar’ was the fastest arborvitae I had ever seen; much faster than ‘Green Giant’ and tighter, too. And when it comes to screen and hedging plants, fast and narrow is what every one wants: growers, landscapers and homeowners. And because of its ‘Hetz Wintergreen’ bloodline, John’s plant was both hardy and heat-tolerant. Most definitely, there was a market for this plant.
In the meantime, John was ramping up his business, planting, hiring and selling to everyone in the greater Atlanta area. McMansions were being built at a crazy pace and these people wanted fast privacy. Of course, John was more than happy to help. He developed a software program (AsICit) that showed people how an ‘American Pillar’ hedge would look in their yard.
He took before and after pictures to show everyone how fast his plant grew. And his dogged persistence and old-fashioned work ethic was paying off. Growers and landscapers began to discover they could make money with such a fast growing plant.
John made money too, but like most people that develop new plants, he never got rich. But for these people it’s not about the money. It’s about that special feeling you get when you invent something useful, something beautiful; something that your fellow man appreciates. It’s about that one-in-a-million moment when you drive through a neighborhood and see your plant in someone’s yard. John got to experience that before he died last August. Some 70 years since he pulled his first paycheck from the landscape trade in 1938, John Houser has retired and is at rest.