Herman Bruschke’s Beech

Bruschke Beech trunkIn the Jewish section of the City Cemetery at Fourth Avenue and R Street stands the largest European beech tree in Utah. From the street it may not appear extraordinary, yet it is at least 60 feet tall and is so wide that two adults cannot wrap their arms around its massive trunk. The leaves, chocolate-colored from a distance, look green and slightly toothed up close. The tree’s silver-gray bark gathers in rough crinkles like elephant skin where the limbs branch from the trunk; its knotholes look like elbows. Beech trees were seldom planted in Utah until about 30 years ago, so to view a mature specimen of this size is a luxury.

This tree was most likely planted in the 1920s by Herman Bruschke, long-time gardener of the Jewish Cemetery, and an accidental immigrant to Utah. Bruschke was born in Breslau, Germany in 1877. He learned about landscaping from his forester grandfather. As a young adult, Bruschke worked in the international trade of roses and orchids between South America and Poland. He honed his skills working on large estates in St. Petersburg for several years, but left around the turn of the Twentieth Century, leaving behind all his possessions when political discontent mounted.

Bruschke portraitBruschke ended up in Salt Lake City by mistake. After he left Russia he worked in Mexico, near Vera Cruz, on a coffee plantation where he nearly died of malaria. In 1906 he headed to San Francisco to witness the devastation of the earthquake. Satisfied with that, he wanted to see Pike’s Peak in Colorado, so he bought a train ticket from a stranger he met. However, the ticket he purchased went only as far as Salt Lake City. The conductor felt guilty about putting him off the train, so he directed him to a German family living in town. Bruschke stayed, married their daughter, and spent his life there.

Surrounding this beech tree are headstones of many illustrious Salt Lakers — Bambergers, Auerbachs, Shapiros, Duplers, and Makoffs.   People called this corner of the cemetery a paradise when it was in Bruschke’s hands. Exotic species of tulips and geraniums filled three greenhouses, as well as a rare cacti collection. A stairway curved down from the greenhouses lined with formal plantings and giant baskets of flowers. People used to walk to the cemetery to enjoy their lunch hour on the grounds.

Bruschke beech landscape

Bruschke grew night blooming cereus (Peniocereus greggii) in the greenhouse, which burst its gigantic fragrant bloom one night a year. He kept a vigil when he expected it and wasn’t above calling his friends in the middle of the night when it bloomed. He grew thousands of geraniums every year, sold them by Memorial Day, then closed the greenhouse and went fishing.

Bruschke peniocereus greggiiHe loved to explore the deserts of southern Utah. He collected cacti and liked to say that their blooms were daintier, better constructed, and more beautiful than those of orchids. He discovered Native American ruins and in one site, among a few arrow points and a tiny moccasin, he found a leather bag containing cacti seeds. He brought the seeds home and was able to germinate some of them in his greenhouse.

He created a soil recipe, the essential ingredient of which was leaf mold from Emigration Canyon. He hired teenage boys in the summer (my father being one of them) to help him haul dirt, or trim around the graves, or to throw ochre onto the greenhouse glass to cool it off in the hot months. He had a rather gruff exterior — he would slice, yank, and poke his plants into submission. Nearly everything he planted grew.

If a rainstorm came up, he’d stop for a chat with his young workers. He’d break out a jug of wine and talk about some of the rituals from the old country that he missed — how the old men in Germany used to wedge their cigars between the bricks near the doorway on their way into church then retrieve them on their way out of the service. This was frowned upon in Salt Lake City.

My father remembered that on the last day of the season Bruschke would call him over to share some wine and smoke a cigar – a singular opportunity for a 14-year-old boy. Then he’d give him an extra $5 (a lot of money in the 1930s) and tell him the season was finished. His method of rehiring the following spring was simple: on some indeterminate dawn the following May, he’d simply pull up outside my father’s house and start honking his horn and yelling up at the house, “Come on! Let’s get going!”

In addition to his work in the cemetery, Bruschke also landscaped portions of Liberty Park, the State Capitol grounds, and Federal Heights. His sons recall lugging buckets of soil up the back elevators of The Hotel Utah when their father was planting the well-known Roof Gardens.  (Image from Viewliner Ltd. Blogspot)

What happens to the garden after the gardener is gone? What of his work is left? Images, mostly; photos of the Roof Gardens, a 1938 Deseret News article in which he talked about growing peyote as part of his cacti collection, and a newspaper clipping about a dig in Wayne County which they unearthed a 23-foot long fossilized “serpent.” Time, tornadoes, and new masters have long since reshaped the gardens he created. The physical remains of his work seem to persist only in the cemetery – a vestige of a curved stairway which was once surrounded by elaborate plantings is now embedded in sod. Then there is his gift of the enormous beech tree.

Bruschke reachingStill working into his 70s, Bruschke fell through the roof of a greenhouse and sustained a neck injury. He died a few years later in 1955. His grandson has a photo of him taken at the Provo Sanitarium where he was recuperating. He is sitting in a wheelchair wrapped in a blanket, wearing a suit and his ever-present Homburg. He is leaning precariously out of his wheelchair, his bony arm stretching out to pluck something out of the grass. Whether it was a seed for his collection or simply a weed, to the end he remained a faithful curator of the landscape.

This article originally appeared in Catalyst Magazine.


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9 Responses to “Herman Bruschke’s Beech”

  1. Kelly Taylor May 27, 2010 4:29 pm

    Hey Kim – I was so excited to see this article and remember the day you took me to meet Bruschke’s so so beautiful tree! Thank you so much for the gift of that experience! Congratulations on this website and hope is grows like a beech tree!

    Kelly T.

  2. Randy P May 28, 2010 1:08 pm

    Hey Kim,

    It looks like you’ve found your tree and your calling. This is a wonderful story and I’m looking forward to reading more – as well as visiting this beech.


  3. Pam S. May 29, 2010 5:41 pm

    Kim…What a lovely story. More….please. So enjoyed our conversation the other night. Here’s to you and your latest endeavor! Pam

  4. Nevon Bruschke June 1, 2010 7:43 pm

    This is a great website. Thanks for putting Herman’s story for all to read. We went to the cemetery again last night and marveled at the Beech tree. My husband remembers climbing that tree, the best climbing tree around, as a young boy when he worked in the cemetery alongside his dad, Herman Bruschke, Jr., and at a very young age, grandpa Herman.

  5. Ryan Bruschke June 2, 2010 5:28 am

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve only managed to hear portions of your story about my great grandfather. I would love to hear more. Was this taken from a diary?

  6. admin June 3, 2010 2:23 am

    Ryan, This history was pieced together from stories from my father who worked for Herman Bruschke in the 1930s, along with interviews of his daughter Martha and one of Herman Bruschke’s sons probably 25 years ago. I also have a taped interview with Peter Nackowski who was the subsequent caretaker of the Jewish Cemetery in the 1970s. The interview takes place as Peter was hand-digging a grave. I also searched the newspaper archives. Dick Hildreth, who started the Red Butte Arboretum at least three decades ago, helped me identify and date the tree which pointed to your great grandfather. If you want to view what I have on file let me know; I’d be happy to share it.

  7. Dick Hildreth July 12, 2010 11:41 pm

    Kim: what a great story. Dr. Walter Cottam took me to see the European Beech near the greenhouse in 1977, when I first came to Utah as director of the State Arboretum of Utah on the U of U campus. Dreams and planning for Red Butte Garden followed. Somewhere I have a slide of Doc hugging the trunk of the beech. On the basis of Bruschke’s success with this species, I became an advocate for wider use of the species and it’s many cultivars for landscaping in Utah. Now it is regularly stocked in all local nurseries. We had a nice collection in the State Arboretum until the Olympic Village went through it.

    Almost equally amazing to me was another unusual specimen just downhill from the beech – a weeping Siberian Peashrub (Caragana arborescens ‘Pendula’). As a pre- and early teenager my first job was collecting seed of Siberian Peashrub from specimens at the USDA Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station that my father started.

    Queen of the Night (Penniocereus greggii), an Arizona native cactus that looks for all the world like a clump of dead sticks most of the year, suddenly flowers, at night, in a magnificent show. Most have pure white fragrant flowers, but some individual specimens are suffused with a soft pink. Tohono Chul Park, one of three botanic gardens in Tucson (about two miles from my house) has planted over 300 specimens on its grounds at the base of Palo Verde, Mesquite and other Sonoran desert trees lining the paths. Farolitos (lighted candles in paper sacks) line the paths and over 2000 people enjoy the flowers strolling until about 2am. This cactus survives the desert be producing a water storage organ underground that may weigh up to 75 pounds or more. You need to come visit.

    Thanks for the memories. Keep up the great writing and story telling. Dick

  8. admin August 2, 2010 11:36 pm

    Dick, It sounds like I need to come down to Tucson and go to some of these gardens. Thanks for your comments — Kim

  9. Almut Bruschke-Reimer June 13, 2014 7:06 am

    Hi, thanks for this wonderful story. It is amazing and I enjoyed reading it very much.
    The Grandfather of Herman (Johann Karl Ferdinand Bruschke) and my great-great-grandfather (Johann Karl Wilhelm Bruschke) were brothers. We still live in Germany.
    Thank you very much.

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