Kurt Bluemel, a nursery owner and plants man who was called the "Johnny Appleseed of ornamental grasses," died of cancer Wednesday at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The Baldwin resident was 81.
Mr. Bluemel, who propagated and popularized willowy, straight and flowing grasses, was also known as the Grass King. His grasses filled Oprah Winfrey's garden and he created gardens for industrialist Howard Head and other Maryland figures.
He was a wholesale grower with nurseries in Baldwin, another on the Eastern Shore near Crisfield and a third in Florida near Orlando. He once supplied more than 4 million grasses for Disney's Animal Kingdom on the grounds of Disney World.
"He gave me a master class in grasses," said Paul Comstock, a Malibu, Calif., landscape architect who worked closely with Walt Disney's companies. "I went to see Kurt and said that we needed to design an East African savanna in Florida. ... When I said we would need 4 million grasses, he said, 'We can do that.'"
A native of Maffersdorf in what is now the Czech Republic, he worked as a plants apprentice in Switzerland as a young man. There he became an expert propagator and gained a knowledge of Alpine perennials and ornamental grasses.
He came to Baltimore County and Bluemount Nursery in Monkton to work for a commercial perennial grower, Richard Simon, whom he had met in Switzerland. Family members said he carried his first grasses from Europe in a suitcase.
More than 50 years ago, Mr. Bluemel supplemented his wages by digging graves at St. James Episcopal Church in Monkton.
Mr. Bluemel, who was recalled as a hard worker with an artist's vision, flowing hair and a resonant voice, started his own business in 1965.
"Over the years he sought new species and cultivated them in Maryland," according to a 2002 article in The Baltimore Sun. "His infectious salesmanship [has] spread all variety of the plumes across North America."
He said his vision was "to make America a country of gardeners, a nation of gardens."
His current wholesale plants catalog contains 1,300 varieties of grass and 730 peonies.
"Walking through one of his greenhouses, Bluemel bounces as he points out black grasses, striped grasses, a meat-eating grass. Some stand straight up, others dangle lazily," The Sun article said. "He has brought their seeds from Chile, Germany, Korea, Tajikistan."
He also became a mentor and teacher to horticulture students who would live for a year at his nursery.
"He was a visionary," said his wife, the former Hannah Petersen, a retired organist and choir director. "His garden was not a Versailles. It was a collector's garden. He designed for form and function. He had a natural artistry. He introduced the in-ground dark pool, a swimming pool in a charcoal color. His point was that, for nine months, who wants to look at a white hole in the lawn with an ugly cover? He accompanied it with natural plants and stones so you wouldn't know it was a pool. He was also a great painter."
Mr. Bluemel often spent part of the year traveling with fellow horticulturalists. They called themselves the Ratzeputz Gang — the name was derived from the name of a German alcoholic beverage.
"Beyond his heroic personal saga, beyond his amazing capacity for hard work, beyond the international reputation for his business and his horticulture, Kurt Bluemel must be remembered as an instinctive genius," said Stan Heuisler, a Roland Park resident and friend for 40 years. "He woke up every day knowing which plant goes where. He lived with the natural world in a manner few on this planet ever experience."
After moving to Baltimore County, Mr. Bluemel met Wolfgang Oehme, a German-born landscape architect based in Towson. The two helped create an appreciation for grass beyond the Kentucky blue variety.
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"At first, we had only 15 kinds of grasses. Then when I started growing them in masses, people would come to visit in masses. One visiting farmer said: 'This is nothing that a mountain of Roundup wouldn't cure,'" Mr. Bluemel said in the 2002 Sun article.
"He was remarkably charismatic and a life force," said Allen Bush, a director of special projects for Jelitto Perennial Seeds in Louisville, Ky. "He was tireless. He had been a war-torn refugee who became an American success story."
Mr. Bluemel was a past chairman of the American Horticultural Society, which gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award.
In addition to his wife of 38 years, survivors include a daughter, Catherine Bluemel Betz of Salisbury; a stepson, Erik Weinstock of Atlanta; a stepdaughter, Kirsten Forte of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A son, Andre Bluemel, died in 1976.