Edward was eldest son, hence perhaps expectations and responsibilities exceeded those of his siblings. Like his father, Edward was destined to be a plantsman. But he took it further in an experimental direction, to become a world-renowned expert on propagation, hybridization, and successful cultivation of plants from all over the world, from trees to the smallest succulents. Above all, orchids occupied a special place in his heart, but he also had a love of all rare plants including ferns and cacti, and was devoted to his persimmon orchard.
Edward's birth is of public record. Edward was living in his family unit in Cirencester in 1871. He began work at age 12, just after his mother died. He was hired out as a servant (light manual labor) at the Royal Agricultural College where his father had worked.
At age 14, Edward was apprenticed to work at Lockerley Hall in East Tytherley, Hampshire; Owen paid five pounds to obtain this position for his eldest son. East Tytherley is ~100km SSE of Cirencester, and just north of his father's familial home town. It appears that Edward was to be Owen's protegé, and his father concentrated his efforts to cultivate Edward's interest.
Life at Lockerley was harsh, as measured by always hungry, never enough sleep. Work was 6AM-6PM for a wage of "12 shillings/wk and find himself" - rent, food, laundry, haircuts. Edward was housed in a "bothy" with the plant foreman and fruit foreman; being youngest, he was given cooking duty over an open fire, entirely vegetarian fare from the gardens, embellished with a bit of bacon occasionally. The grocery cart came but once a week. By week's end, fare was sometimes reduced to fried flour/water paste, but Edward liked the flavor.
The work day was a routine: check greenhouse temperatures at 6AM, breakfast at 8AM, then work until 6PM. Beer was the preferred analgesic, making any injuries on the job endurable. For the brief leisure time granted, there was Sunday church-going, followed by 20 mile walks to visit other gardens in the area, and also sometimes dancing. Owen sent his son the Gardener's Chronicle weekly, which subscription he continued and read faithfully for much of his life.
With a sense of his purpose in life, Edward also studied and memorized two books he acquired: The Gardener's Assistant, and Nicholson's Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening. Further learning on the job, Edward discovered how to grow a great variety of plants, from orchids to onions to pineapples. Hot-house pineapples were a revenue source for the property, rented as center pieces for formal dinners, then sold for consumption.
Edward worked at Lockerley until age 18, where we still find public record of him in 1881. He was living as a boarder in East Tytherley, Hampshire, listing his occupation as gardener.
His apprenticeship having ended, Edward next accepted a position as gardener at the Duke of Sutherland's large Staffordshire estate, Trentham Hall. He joined a staff of 40 gardeners tending 40 greenhouses. They were growing fruits and vegetables for the London markets. Here he had to learn industrial-strength pest control, tedious duties such as tobacco smoke (nicotine) fumigation, and sitting on high ladders sponging off foliage.
By now, E.O. was ready to assume greater responsibilities. He left Trentham to take charge of the greenhouses at a nursery in Chester, then was invited to Ireland to become foreman of the gardens of the Marquis of Headfort, before returning to England for his final position there with the well-known Backhouse Nursery in York.
It was through the Backhouse connection that E.O. became placed as manager of the Woolson & Co. Nursery in Passaic, NJ, involved in the propagation and export to England of American plants, especially California lillies. The move came suddenly; the firm approached him and asked if he wanted to go to America and if he had money for passage (yes, yes). He ordered his ticket from White Star Lines, went home to Cirencester to say goodbye to family and get more clothes, then on to Liverpool and away to New Jersey, all within the week. Such things are much more possible when only age 24.
E.O. emigrated in 1887 to New York on the S.S. Adriatic. For the next three years, he lived in the house of Dr. George Thurber, who tried unsuccessfully to turn him into a botanist. There, he received invaluable instruction in American horticulture, wrote Woolson's catalog of hardy herbaceous plants and lillies, wrote his first article for publication, on Narcissus cyclamineus, and made significant contribution to the clematis culture, by making clematis paniculata available here via graft onto native clematis. Here were likely planted the seeds of E.O.'s future passion for propagation, hybridization, and writing down his knowledge for others to use. He became a regular contributor to the newly-founded horticultural magazine, Garden and Forest; his articles demonstrate his curiosity, experimental nature, and depth of experience, and seem as fresh now as they must have done then. Perhaps thoughts of California further excited his imagination, a distant place he would finally make his home at age 57.
What exactly drew E.O. to Massachusetts is lost to us, but Dr. Thurber, E.O.'s host in New Jersey, died early in 1890. Since it was time to start a family, finding compatible employment in an enjoyable setting would make a good start. In 1890, E.O. obtained a position on the E. V. R. Thayer estate gardens in Lancaster, MA, ~40 miles west of Boston. The Thayers were a Boston banking family, one of whom would later head Chase Manhattan Bank. E.O. soon became in charge of all 300 acres, supervising a crew of Irish laborers. E.O. married 12 July 1890, Farmingham, MA to Beatrice Alice McInnis (6 Jan 1866, Ireland - 3 Aug 1931, Santa Barbara). Her given name was thought to be Bridget, but she preferred to be known as Beatrice.
E.O. recalled his first contact with orchids occurred at Thayer, when a plant peddler sold him a half dozen plants. He showed them to the Thayers, who took an interest also. Soon after, Mr. Thayer helped a friend in financial distress and bought $1000 worth of orchids from fine stock. E.O.'s curiosity and imagination thus stimulated, he worked alone for the next ten years experimenting with orchid hybridization. When his results were later announced at shows, the horticulture societies were surprised that such work had been going on right here in America. In essence, he used the Thayer resources as his own horticultural laboratory for 20 years. When he started, there was a single greenhouse with no orchids. When he left, there were six greenhouses where orchids were well-represented among a variety of tropical plants from around the world.
E.O. became a naturalized US citizen on 8 October 1892. There is an additional Ellis Island immigration record for E. O. Orpet in 1895, age 33. He may have visited abroad and returned. We also know that his father Owen visited him in Massachusetts, around the first birthday of his first son E.O. II.
There is public record of E.O. and family, living in Lancaster, Worcester, MA in 1900. E.O.'s occupation is gardener. He and Beatrice have two sons, Edward Owen II, 9, and William, 5.
E.O. and family were also residing on Bolton Road in Lancaster in the 1910 census. E.O. still listed his occupation as gardener, but he was aspiring to more. He was a member of the Worcester County Horticultural Society, where he shared interests with several head gardeners on large estates in the area.
1910 marked the end of E.O.'s residence on the east coast. He had worked for over 20 years on the Thayer estate, until the owner died and the estate was broken up. His own children nearly grown, E.O. accepted an invitation and moved to Chicago to manage development of Walden, industrialist Cyrus McCormick's Lake Forest estate (Cyrus would soon after found International Harvester Co.). E.O. remained at Walden for 8 years. It was a different type of work for him, all outdoor plantings. He built a reputation for perennial borders that attracted wide interest from other plantsmen and visitors. He must have worked closely with the landscape architect Warren Manning, formerly of the Frederick Law Olmsted firm, and with Harriet McCormick, who studied botany at Lake Forest College. Manning is said to have returned once a year to supervise execution of the designs. There was sentiment that Walden had the most beautiful grounds of all the great Chicago estates.
During this period, younger son William, a college student at U. of Wisconsin, was accused and acquitted in the death of a neighbor girl, obtaining legal assistance from the McCormicks to extract William from what seems a very sad situation. It was an embarrassment for the family, and E.O. is said to have been unforgiving toward Will afterward.
Eventually finding Chicago's climate too restrictive, still suffering from what he perhaps perceived as a sullied reputation resulting from son William's national notoriety during his highly sensationalized murder trial, and perhaps motivated to return to the experimental horticulture that fascinated him, in 1917 E.O. and Beatrice moved on to Chico CA, where E.O. accepted a position as a propagator for the U.S. Government agriculture station. Botanical explorers from around the world, especially China, would send him seeds and his job was to grow them and learn about cultivation and care of the new plants as required in our environment. Persimmon culture attracted his attention during this work.
In this position, E.O. traveled around the west. It was Thanksgiving Day when he arrived in Santa Barbara, and a large display of flowering lantana and other flowering plants was said to greet him at the train station. Recognizing its agreeable climate and beauty, he relocated in 1920. His initial position was planning landscaping for a new subdivision, but in six months he became appointed Superintendent of Parks, succeeding the noted Italian horticulturalist Dr. Francheschi, a like-minded soul who moved on to work in Libya in 1913.
Those fortunate to visit in the mid-1900s would be greeted by the beauty of the public plantings E.O. inspired, including many exotics from far away lands (his time preceded the modern tendency to use only native plants). He turned Hillside Park into a public but personally experimental botanical garden of exotics. His thoroughfare plantings include the plantings along Cabrillo Blvd and on the islands in the bird refuge (where the soil was too salty to grow most plants), the rows of olive trees on Olive Street, the cork oaks (grown from seed) on Samarkind Heights, the magnolias on San Andreas Street, the bay trees on De La Vina, the gray palms on upper State Street. His hand is also evident in the plantings of many private gardens and estates.
E.O. purchased a six acre parcel, and in his spare time, he opened a nursery: E.O. Orpet, Rare Plants, Bulbs, and Cacti. He resigned the Parks position at about age 67, partly due to the illness of Beatrice, who died in 1931, partly to devote more time to his growing business.
E.O. married again in 1932 to Mildred Selfridge. Those who knew Mildred have heard family anecdotes about E.O., likely involving his somewhat crusty exterior, usually reason enough for trepidation in those who dealt with him, including family. One such: "Mildred once told me about when E.O. was brewing up some spirits in the backyard during the Depression and his homemade still blew up. He came into kitchen with singed eyebrows, hair on end, and cursing up a storm. Everyone froze, hoping to let the moment pass. My father, who was nine, started laughing. Another silence as E.O. glared. Then he started laughing too.
E.O. spent his final 25+ years involved with his nursery business in the Santa Barbara paradise he had helped create. Mildred provided active support in running the business and conducting all correspondence. As his reputation spread, so did his horticultural contacts, and his nursery shipped seeds and specimens worldwide by mail order.
E.O. initially devoted over half his nursery to developing a persimmon orchard. He overestimated the local appetite for these fruit, and ended up with large surpluses. But this was a problem that a mail order business could fix, and he eventually would find buyers far and wide, becoming a persimmon missionary.
Orchids were still his favorites. E.O. researched them throughout his life, wrote many journal articles about them, and in 1910 wrote 15 articles on orchid culture for Bailey's Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture. E.O. won many awards for his orchid and other bulb hybridizing work, culminating with the Herbert Award in 1956, given annually to honor a single person in the world for best advancing the field of bulb plant horticulture. (William Herbert, for whom this award is named, was a botanist from the Herbert family, Earls of Carnarvon, heritable owners of the 5,000 acre Hampshire Highclere Estate of Downton Abbey fame).
E.O. has the additional distinction of being the first person from the Americas to register a new hybrid, SL Orpetii, in 1901 (Sanders List and the Orchid Stud Book). His orchids have won several gold medals, he maintained a continual correspondence with other horticulturalists world-wide, and he published in many magazines and journals, including in the first issue of Horticulture magazine in 1904. Among his correspondents was Dr. David Griffith, with whom he traveled the Pacific NW one year, and from whom he learned of hundreds of types of cactus. He also had a long collaboration with Hugh Evans of West Los Angeles; the two introduced many plants to Southern California from Australia and South Africa..
E.O. was honored posthumously by Santa Barbara with a public park bearing his name, joining Dr. Francheschi in that regard. The city arborist recommended that Hillside Park, which E.O. began planting in 1921, be renamed Orpet Park, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of E.O.'s birth. E.O. is also credited with helping establish the botanical garden in Santa Barbara.
Remarkable as was his talent, equal was his capacity for work. He began as a servant at age 12, with scarcely a primary school education (learning more arithmetic playing cribbage than in school), worked continuously for 55 years in jobs of increasing responsibility and creative content, and ended up operating a successful business for another quarter century, until age 93, an 81 year career. Most people will only account for half that much.
Hybridization is experimental and success not guaranteed. E. O. noted one particular failure that stood out in his memory. He waited for sixteen years for one of his orchid hybrids to flower. When it finally did flower, it wasn't even worth cussing out. That sixteen year relationship was unceremoniously dumped.
E.O.'s society memberships included:
To cap his career, in addition to the Herbert Award, his last year saw the 1956 award of the Southern California Horticultural Institute, the highest annual honor of the Amaryllis Society of America, and the De Bevoise medal for achievement in hybridizing plant materials suitable for rock gardens.
Those who knew him describe "a man's man, a kindly, genial, fun-loving human with a rich sense of humor". An editorial in the newspaper on the event of his death was titled "He who plants trees loves others."
Edward and his two wives are buried in the Ridge Section of Santa Barbara Cemetery.
Paternal and maternal relationship is confirmed with a 23andMe test match between Patricia (Foster) Morrison and Weldon Smith, second cousins. Predicted relationship from 23andMe: "2nd cousins, based on 2.09% DNA shared across 9 segments."
All the male Orpets in the DNA-verified segment of our shared tree have Y-chromosome DNA signature R-L48, the Frisian sub-variant of the Atlantic Modal Haplotype. This is documented by the Y-DNA signature of Robbie Orpet, a direct male descendant of Owen Orpet.
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