Human Flower Project
Bob Stewart’s Never-Ending Nursery
With scientific curiosity and the playfulness of youth, Bob and Brigitta Stewart have made their Michigan nursery an exploratorium.
Adjacent to the greenhouses of Arrowhead Alpines, Fowlerville, MI, a long border of herbaceous perennials
Photo: Arrowhead Alpines
By Allen Bush
I’ve been to Hell and back. The visit didn’t fit my notion of what small town Hell, Michigan, might look like. The biker bar was uncommonly tame and the Pleistocene prairie was heavenly.
Nurseryman Bob Stewart of Arrowhead Alpines lives nearby in a different hell. He has cancer and is fighting back with a chemo pump, a pile of meds and the support of Brigitta, his wife and fun-loving sidekick-in-plants. The cancer is a particularly nasty Stage 4 colon cancer, “…pretty much 100% death rate,” Stewart admitted. “Having cancer is strange. I’ll never recommend it as lifestyle,” he told me. “I try to deal with things as they come. And I have mostly had great support from friends and customers, although some treat you like a leper or expect me to suddenly get religion – born again pagan with a dash of Buddhism…Chemo kicks the crap out of you, but you can’t let it run your life…Attitude matters but needs to be tempered with realism. “
Bob Stewart has an attitude. “Don’t believe what people tell you,” he says, which means—Look and listen. This is not a tall order for Stewart. Profoundly shaped by a lifetime outdoors, he looks, listens and questions common assumptions. It understates Bob’s genius to call him simply “a nurseryman.” He’s a thinker who can see Mother Earth beyond greenhouse and garden.
Bob and Brigitta Stewart opened Arrowhead Alpines in 1991.
Photo: Courtesy of Georg Uebelhart
Stewart holds a zoology degree from Michigan State University with a minor in chemistry. When he and Brigitta opened Arrowhead in 1991 (named for an abundance of arrowheads on the 80-acre property), Brigitta was running a small nursery nearby and Bob was working in a tissue culture lab. “I love physics and electronics, especially analog design,” he says. Don’t try to pigeonhole him. He doesn’t run with the crowd. His views on global warming piss-off those of us who can’t get past the scorching summer heat. “It is garbage science,” Stewart insists. “Bode models are great for audio amplifiers; they suck for climate models,” he contends. “For most of geological history the earth has been eight degrees warmer than it is now. It is the albedo equilibrium. Cooked data, crap science, the Gore-ites are beyond contemptible,” Bob rails. “Anthropomorphic carbon does not drive climate. If you can’t predict weather next Tuesday, it is unlikely you can predict climate 1000 years from now.”
Bob Stewart is passionate about a lot of subjects. But things simmer down after awhile. It won’t be long before he’s moved on: from bashing Al Gore to praising the glory of glowworms.
Bob Stewart spies a Michigan cherry burl, July 2010
Photo: Allen Bush
It’s is rare to find a nursery where I can spend eight hours poking around and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m an unapologetic Plant Geek but could only beg to carry Stewart’s pail. The guy’s off-the-charts talented. Greenhouse benches and outdoor beds at Arrowhead need to be looked over many times before you can grasp the full complexity of the extraordinary nursery variety. Bob’s world extends beyond nursery rows. You want to listen carefully when he talks about red admiral viceroy butterflies or Sarsaparillas. Bob can point-out the rarest tree in Michigan, a hackberry, Celtis tenuifolia, and before you have time to absorb this, he’s lost from view, looking for new plants way down the trail, with the unshakable curiosity of a little boy. Good luck trying to keep-up with him.
My Jelitto colleague Georg Uebelhart and I spent two days with Bob and Brigitta in early August at their Arrowhead Alpines nursery near Fowlerville, Michigan – a short distance from Hell. Our first day was all ambling: from greenhouse to garden, into the meadow, past a compost pile (we had to stop there and admire a renegade variegated hops vine), and into woodland of paws paws and hickories. And back to the greenhouse to be introduced to ancient club mosses. And back to the garden to admire a never-before-seen native Alaskan cultivar of the Alaskan Nootka Cypress, Chamaecyparis nootkatenis ‘Stricta’. And back to the greenhouse for Drabas and Disporums. No repetitions. It was all so new: Bob’s world. We took our time everywhere, not wanting to miss anything. We hung on every word. Georg and I were poseurs - the one-trick pony kind. We could talk plants until the cows came home (we were in Michigan dairy country), but we couldn’t keep up with Bob when it came to birds of prey, poisonous snakes and butterflies. Uebelhart and I kicked around outdoors - he in Switzerland and I in Kentucky—during our childhoods but neither of us had been blessed, like Stewart, with the extraordinary early training from gifted mentors.
Hyalophora columbia (Columbia silk moth): “It haunts people”
Photo: Courtesy of Bob Stewart
The young boy, age 5, became fascinated with Chinese praying mantids and was introduced to Clarence Owens who knew them well. Stewart advanced to falconry, snakes, butterflies and as he admits, “a ton of field botany.” Owens was a high school biology teacher who spread the net wider with Stewart’s introduction to Fred Case. (Owens and Case have each been recognized as Michigan’s High School Biology Teachers of the Year). Case raised giant silk moths and was an authority on Hyalophora columbia, a particular fancy of Stewart’s at the time; “It haunts people,“ he said of this particular childhood obsession. Case’s wife Boots chipped-in training, too. She was a respected herpetologist and, according to Stewart, “a hell of a botanist.” And then there were orchids, carnivorous plants and God knows what else. “I was fortunate to have great mentors. I learned most of my botany from Herb Wagner, who was also a Columbia (Hyalophora columbia) freak. “
Of all the prose in nursery catalogs, Bob’s writing is my favorite. His digressions, wandering from combative to charming, might annoy fans of White Flower Farm’s mythic and popular Amos Pettingill. The first two words in Arrowhead’s 2009 catalog are incontestable: “Winter sucks.” Pettingill, whose courtly language has wooed gardeners for over 60 years, wouldn’t go there. Stewart extends a short invitation to a “Winter Sucks party,” and then there’s a cancer update. An interesting report follows, on son Ender’s discovery of dad’s old Gibson SG guitar. This path leads to some technical stuff on “Fernandez sustainers.” And then finally, almost as an afterthought, realizing the point is to peddle plants, he writes, “We have a great selection of allionii and auricula Primula that look fantastic.”
Evergreen mutants and oddities among the Stewarts’ collection of conifers
Photo: Arrowhead Alpines
Thus begins an extraordinary list of conifers, broadleaf evergreens and deciduous shrubs, vines, plus perennials, little bulbs, rock garden plants and ferns. There are alpine buns of Dianthus freynii and Dionysia aretoides that I know would melt in Louisville’s first few hot summer days. And I’ve killed the silver-gray New Zealand Raoulia australis three or four times, but Bob pointed out that this little low-growing spreader would be happier – maybe even possible —in moist conditions in troughs or pots. I foolishly picked-up another one. (What’s come over me?)
We spent the day saying “Isn’t that cool!” My first sight of the red blooms on hardy South African Gladiolus flanagannii did it. And the beautiful red-purple flowers on Hosta clausa var. clausa had the cool thing going, too. (The simple, pleated, dark green foliage on the ground-covering rare Korean endemic didn’t seem to be the favored snack of slugs, either.)
Exploring a Michigan bog for wild orchids, carnivorous plants and snakes—welcome to Bob Stewart’s world.
Photo: Allen Bush
Next morning we drove toward Hell. The first stop was a bog. We pulled-on boots and were told to be on the lookout for albino skunk cabbages and rattlesnakes resting on dry hummocks. (We saw neither.) We mucked around in gooey slop up to our shins surrounded by crystalline clear water. Terrestrial orchids, carnivorous plants—“Isn’t that cool!” became a chant. We followed-up, in the afternoon, with a visit to an ancient prairie near Half Moon Lake where we saw bird’s tooth violets, sundial lupines and pipsissewas.
But what better way to end a warm, sunny day than with a cold beer in Hell. A small posse of middle-aged motorcyclists moved around slowly, admiring a 1915 Brass Era Ford Model T at the Dam Site Inn. We Plant Geeks sat quietly apart, and Bob started talking, “Oh, by the way,” about a few motorcycle spills that he’d walked away from in earlier days. Then he mentioned that his son-in-law had built custom motorcycles that won first place at the annual Sturgis Biker Rally in South Dakota.
“Come on over here, “ we should have yelled to the bikers from Hell, and then steered the conversation from motorcycles to Monardas. With Bob Stewart, anything’s possible.