The End Of A Journey Well Made: Peter E. Girard Sr.
David G. Leach
North Madison, OH
One of America's last old-school plantsmen died on February 23, 1985, when Peter Girard lost his final battle with cancer in his 76th year. He was born in Whitney, Pennsylvania, on May 16, 1908.
Peter's introduction to horticulture began 49 years ago, when he grew dahlias, geraniums and gladiolus on land and in a greenhouse owned by his father in Ashtabula, Ohio. In 1940 he began to produce gladiolus and dahlias commercially at Willoughby, Ohio, simultaneously with the operation of a florist's shop in Cleveland.
Peter and his brother bought the Ransome Nursery, seed specialists at Geneva, Ohio, and moved there in the early 1940's. Within a few months he met Julian Pot, then a well known breeder and nurseryman at Chesterland, Ohio, who aroused his interest in rhododendrons and he began hybridizing, primarily "evergreen" azaleas. He soon produced a rhododendron too, 'Beulah', which was briefly popular but disappeared because of difficult rooting after the propagation of rhododendrons by cuttings became widespread. After several years the seed business was phased out, and Peter bought his brother's interest in the nursery, which soon became known as a source for rare and unusual plants, and new hybrids. Later, it became a national leader in the supply of finished bonsai to hobbyists.
Peter was one of the founders and charter members of the Great Lakes Chapter when it was organized in 1959, and he was, at various times, an officer or director, or both. He played a major part in the establishment of its rhododendron display and test garden at Wooster, Ohio. A talented designer, Peter planned and executed the garden sections of the chapter's annual Spring shows and later, because of his faithful contributions of truss exhibits and other services, he was named permanent chief judge of all Chapter shows. He was awarded both the silver and bronze medals of the American Rhododendron Society, and had been nominated several times for its Gold Medal. His wife, Mary, has been the chapter's secretary and loyal supporter at her late husband's side.
Peter was a master plantsman, with an encyclopedic knowledge of many genera. For plants not responsive to rooting of cuttings, he was a skilled practitioner of grafting, with the expertise to suit each kind of graft to the sort of plant being propagated. By constantly searching out novel or improved cultivars of shrubs and trees, his nursery became a leading source for landscape architects and hobbyists seeking the uncommon and superior.
Children instinctively liked and trusted Peter Girard, and he returned their affection. He was a familiar figure in many public schools in northeastern Ohio, talking to classes about plants and their pleasures, and encouraging an interest in the world of nature. Contests in growing plants were organized through Kiwanis Clubs, and he supplied the seeds and plants to fourth grade children for their participation. He was also a speaker at meetings of numerous horticultural organizations.
Peter's passing was marked by an extraordinary number of friends and acquaintances who called to pay their respects, many from distant homes. It was a moving tribute to a kind, generous man who lived a life of sharing, and of contributions of his time and energies for the welfare of others.
Peter Girard hybridized for nearly 40 years. His persistent leaved azalea hybrids have attained national distribution; the best known are the electric red 'Hot Shot', white 'Kathy', 'Girard's Scarlet', 'Girard's Rose', 'Girard's Crimson' and 'Girard's Fuchsia', and they are among the most popular "evergreen" azaleas in the eastern United States. It would be easy to project that he will be at least as well remembered for his remarkable double flowered deciduous azaleas, with full, globular trusses, derived from the old Ghent hybrids, 'Norma', 'Raphael de Smet' and 'Narcissiflora' and the newer 'Homebush', crossed with large flowered British and New Zealand cultivars. 'Yellow Pompon', and tricolor pink, salmon and white 'Wedding Bouquet', 'Red Pompon', 'Orange Jolly' and 'Crimson Tide' are just coming on the market, startling improvements in their oversize globes of vivid double flowers. 'Mount Saint Helens', single, in pink and salmon with a bold orange-yellow blotch, is already well known for its distinctive color and large size.
Peter Girard is survived by his wife and companion, Mary; by three daughters and by Peter, Junior, who plans to continue the nursery with his daughter, Roberta, as hybridizer taught by her late grandfather.