Plant hunter has an eye for the unusual
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Warren Carnefix passed away on Aug. 29, 2006 at the age of 94. His obituary published in the Idaho Statesman.

Adapted from an article written by Nancy Buley for NMPro Magazine, January 2006

Warren Carnefix brought his car to a halt in a hurry when a flash of red by the roadside caught his eye. The Mother’s Day outing could wait.

On that sunny day more than 25 years ago, figuring out what kind of tree would be flaunting coppery-red leaves right in the middle of spring was more important to the Idaho plantsman and owner of Fruitland Nursery than continuing on a Sunday drive.

Warren and Kathy Carnefix 
The striking tree growing beside an abandoned Idaho homestead was a North American native maple, commonly known as Box Elder. However, it was different from any Carnefix had ever seen. He made a mental note of its location and returned in the fall for cuttings that carried the promise of an exceptional shade tree for Idaho and beyond.

Sensation Box Elder (Acer negundo ‘Sensation’) is the best-known plant discovery of Warren Carnefix, patriarch of Fruitland Nursery, Fruitland, Idaho. The landmark nursery turns 100 years old in 2006, and Carnefix has been a driving force in its century of success. Born in 1912, he is just six years younger than the nursery founded in 1906 by his father, J. F. Carnefix.

Although the nursery began as a wholesale propagator of fruit trees, the family operation has changed with the times and is now a retail and landscape operation that serves a far-flung clientele residing on both sides of the Idaho-Oregon border. Fruitland Nursery customers depend on the local expertise gained by the Carnefix family over the past century, and trust their ability to grow plants that thrive in the area’s semi-desert climate.

Generations of Idaho nurserymen and women have benefited from Warren Carnefix’s wisdom and experience. In June of 2004, the University of Idaho and the Idaho Horticultural Society honored him with a lifetime achievement award for his “outstanding contribution and continuous service to the Idaho fruit industry.”

The handsome wall plaque is proudly displayed in the nursery office, where Carnefix can be found most days for several hours at a stretch. There he answers customer questions, reads nursery trade literature, studies his beloved books, and advises his daughter Kathy Carnefix and her husband, Larry Parkes, in the operation of the lively retail nursery.

Self-educated since high school, Carnefix gained most of his horticultural knowledge from his father and from his own experience. Nicknamed Scoop (after a cartoon-character newspaper reporter), he learned much by reading extensively and attending seminars and short courses.

Always alert to his surroundings, Carnefix has been on the lookout for unusual plants for most of his life. He has several discoveries and plant patents to his credit. In addition to the popular Sensation Maple, Carnefix is credited with the discovery of Super Jon Apple, Golden Supreme Apple and Idaho Spur Montmorency Cherry, a heavy bearer that flourishes in the family’s orchards growing adjacent to the nursery.

A longtime friend of the late Jean Iseli, Carnefix and the Oregon conifer expert shared discoveries and traded budwood over the years. Iseli Nursery credits Carnefix with the discovery of two unusual Douglas Fir cultivars, Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Carnefix Weeping’ and Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Idaho Gem’, a choice miniature grown from a witch’s broom that Carnefix found in the mountains of Idaho.

The venerable plant hunter continues to seek out the unusual, his sharp blue eyes always on the lookout for differences in plants growing in the nursery. Currently he’s evaluating a fruiting plum selection he made, and a columnar form of the native high desert juniper, Juniperus occidentalis.

“I have always been able to look at a tree and see if there is something different in it,” he explained. A love of hunting took him to the woods, where he watched for witches’ brooms and other plant oddities while stalking bear, cougar, elk and other game.

“I haven’t been hunting for 30 years,” he said wistfully, remembering an Airedale that was a particularly good bear dog, a favorite Llewellyn setter that retrieved many pheasants, and the fact that,” My last cougar hunt was over in the mountains out of Riggins.”

Carnefix remembers the hunt for Sensation Maple just as clearly.

“I was taking my wife, Margaret, for a drive on Mother’s Day, about 25 years ago. We were taking a drive down to see Hells Canyon Dam, and here looms this gorgeous tree, 10-12 feet tall, growing right by the road. We stopped to look and saw that it was a box elder.

“The time wasn’t right to propagate it, but I went home and ordered understock for grafting and went back in the fall to get wood,” he explained. “And it’s a good thing I did, because I returned the next year and damned if the highway department hadn’t gone by and sprayed brush killer all along the road! I took a 150-mile trip in hopes of getting some good wood and went home skunked. If I hadn’t seen it when I did, this tree wouldn’t exist today,”

A skilled propagator, Carnefix coaxed 14 trees to grow from those grafts. Six of the original trees grow strong and beautiful and 40 feet tall at the nursery today, serving as the best advertisement for Fruitland Nursery’s top-selling tree. A seedless male clone, it is not attractive to the box elder bugs harbored by seed-bearing female trees.

“I grew those trees here in the nursery for five years before I released any for sale, to be sure they would not seed, and they never have,” he declared.

Copper-tinted, light green leaves appear in the spring and mature to green. As summer progresses, coppery-red new growth appears to float above the more mature green canopy.  Drought tolerant, hardy and adaptable, its leaves turn red, gold and orange in the fall. While showing the row of trees to a visitor, Carnefix stood beside the massive trunk of one of the majestic shade trees and patted it gently, noting that its open, symmetrical branch structure is another attribute that makes it superior to the species.

 ‘This is a good tree for climbing,” he says in his whisper-soft voice. “Look at the way the branches come out of the trunk all evenly spaced and at good angles. If I were younger, I could go to the top.”

Pointing across the sales yard to an arching tree that shades his century-old farmhouse, he declares, “I climbed that elm over there 82 years ago.”

Hoping to make more money than could be gained by milking cows and harvesting tree fruits, J. F. Carnefix started the nursery by grafting fruit trees, and taught his son Warren to graft well before his tenth birthday. His hands gnarled from years of hard physical work, Carnefix likes to reminisce about the good old days that weren’t nearly as good as some would like to remember.

“I was born east of town, on a farm where we mostly grew apples. My family moved to this farm in 1922, when I was 10 years old. One of the first things we did was dig a well, because the existing well was contaminated. Both my dad and I got typhoid fever from the water. It’s a terrible intestinal disease, and they didn’t have the medicine for it in those days. I couldn’t eat, and I got so skinny I looked like a kid from Africa.”

 “Life was rough. For a while we milked cows,” he recalled. “I milked 10 cows a day, two times a day, for 10 years, all by hand. My dad was a strict disciplinarian. He demanded that we have good manners and that we work hard.

” Nobody made much money. Hogs went for three cents a pound, and $25 would buy you a cow - if you had $25. Wheat and barley sold for 50 cents a hundredweight, and you could buy six one-pound loaves of bread for 25 cents.”

 “The nursery business wasn’t like it is today. In those days and in the Depression, the ornamental tree business wasn’t too good. Apple trees sold for 22-1/2 cents apiece for each budded whip. Prune trees went for 20 cents each. That was in 1931. We grew mostly fruit trees – grafted thousands of apples. People had their own orchards in those days, or tended a few trees in their yard. We grew a lot of Rome Beauty, Jonathan, Ben Davis. Yellow Delicious didn’t come into production until 1945 or so.

“We bench grafted them in the winter time. We used raffia for budding – tied the buds with raffia, It didn’t stretch, and would choke off the seedlings. We didn’t use sawdust like we do now; we just heeled the trees in the dirt and didn’t have any cold storage either. The end of the year was May 1. After that, you couldn’t sell trees.”

Carnefix explained that there were no containers in those days, so there weren’t any containerized plants. The shift to containers began with metal egg cans salvaged from government surplus.

“We crimped the bottoms and punched holes in them for drainage,” he explained. “Larger containers didn’t come in until they figured out how to make them from plastic. It was only fruit trees in those days, ornamental trees, perennials and annuals came on much later, after people moved to the cities. In those early days, two-thirds of the population lived on farms, but that all changed after the war. They all wanted to move to the cities and get good paying jobs. With the population shift and people working 40 hours a week, they had plenty of time on their hands to make their yards beautiful.”

Carnefix reflected that the nursery business was really good in the early 40’s.

 “We were grafting 100,000 trees a year at that time. That was about the time I discovered the Idaho Spur Montmorency Cherry. We patented it, and we were producing 50,000 of those a year. It was a compact tree. When they were ripe the cherries were just thick on the tree.”

As the years went by, the fruit business fell off and Carnefix adapted to the changing market by moving into landscape and retail. His father passed away in 1953, and the nursery continued its shift to serving new markets. His brother Wendell, known to his friends as “Dutch,” managed the family orchards and the landscape construction portion of the business, while Warren led the nursery in a new direction.

“From about 1950 on up, we’ve been growing mostly ornamentals,” he explained. “We started out with junipers. They were hardy and easy care. You just stuck in the cuttings and they grew.” 

The product line is much broader now, with Fruitland Nursery raising about 75 percent of what is sold.  Because a broad assortment of trees, shrubs, perennials, ground covers and annuals are grown, propagation goes on throughout the year. Production numbers are based on estimates of what can be sold to their loyal clientele that depends on Fruitland Nursery to recommend and supply plants that will thrive in the harsh and changeable climate of western Idaho and Eastern Oregon.            

“There are lots of newcomers who need plants that grow well in our area. We give good advice, and we take good care of our stock,” Carnefix observed.

 “Business is pretty good these days. My daughter and son-in-law are doing a nice job running the place. We have a landscaping service, and our bedding plants are top of the line.”

Carnefix can be found most days in the nursery office, where he likes to keep up on his reading of nursery news and current events.  A car accident and a recent surgery have slowed him down some, but he still enjoys driving his four-wheeler around the nursery and showing visitors the fruits of his life’s work.

As he moves slowly through the nursery, he punches a finger into a container to check soil moisture, tugs on a cutting to check the rooting progress of a flat of junipers, or stops to straighten the stake on a field-planted tree.

During cherry season, visitors are treated to a stop in the orchard. Still an orchardist at heart, it pleases him to gather juicy red cherry clusters from the bountiful trees he discovered and brought to market.  He stuffs them into a brown paper bags and sends them home with customers along with their carefully grown Fruitland Nursery plants.

Fresh fruit, well-tended plants, sound cultural advice, personalized service and intriguing stories are all reasons why Fruitland Nursery and the Carnefix family are growing into a second century of service to the horticultural community.

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