Alex J. Summers
1914-2009

On April 12th, 2009, the American Hosta Society lost its preeminent member. Founder Alex J. Summers  passed away quietly at his home at the age of 95.

In the mid 1960's, while living on Long Island, NY, where he had a small nursery, Alex was approached by a friend who suggested they start a national penstemon society. At the time he was collecting many kinds of plants from friends around the world and was beginning to be intrigued by some of the hostas he was receiving. He was the first in the United States to have many of the species and cultivars in his garden, and was beginning to appreciate the promise that the genus Hosta held. Not long after, he had a different idea - a national hosta society.

He reached out to some other prominent plant people, including Frances Williams and Eunice Fisher, both of whom were already hybridizing hostas and arranged a meeting in Swarthmore, PA. In that meeting, held at the home of John and Gertrude Wister, the American Hosta Society was formed and Alex was named its first president. He also became the editor of the first Hosta Bulletin, now called The Hosta Journal and held both positions until 1978. He remained the driving force behind the society and guided it through its infancy, gradually turning over jobs to others until it was a thriving and healthy society.


In the late 1980's, Alex sold his Long Island property and purchased a large tract of land in southern Delaware near a town called Bridgeville on the Maryland border. He lived in an old ramshackle house for a brief time as he had a new home built alongside a large retention pond. He named the place Honeysong and proceeded to build one of the great gardens of his time. The garden covered approximately two acres and featured a number of collections that were nearly exhaustive at the time. There were hundreds of daylilies, daffodils, rhododendrons, and much more, but above all there were the hostas. He didn't just collect hostas but also experimented with landscaping concepts, and studied their culture. Some of what he learned over those early years can be found in his "Notes from Honeysong" articles in The Hosta Journal and earlier Hosta Bulletins.

 


Alex was never bitten by the hybridizing bug, but knew a good plant when he saw it and made a number of selections from self-sown seedlings he found there at Honeysong. The irony of this was that he always preferred sterile hostas because they did not make pests of themselves in the garden. Some of his hostas remain popular today while others are desirable collector rarities. He also introduced to the world many other plants that he discovered there, and until his passing was continuing to evaluate others.

The first thing any visitors to Honeysong would see was his happy group of mismatched dogs, led for a long time by Rascal and Foxy. They would charge out to greet visitors at the end of his long driveway with wagging tails and happy barks to announce their presence. All were strays that had the good fortune to find their way to Honeysong and none ever left that magical place. Alex loved the wild birds even more than the dogs, and spent much time watching them, feeding them, and keeping track of them. A large martin house was mounted at the top of a telephone pole near the house, and feeders were mounted where he could watch them from the kitchen table.



Alex enjoying a snack at the garden of Olive Bailey Langdon in 1984.

Alex Summers was a man of quiet wisdom, who spent much of the time he was not planting or weeding studying the plants in the garden and learning from them. While he did not have formal training in the sciences, his grasp of the science of plants was always a surprise to those who didn't know him. His observations and theories were often remarkably accurate, and he was seldom if ever proved wrong when he ventured a theory.

As a person he was a sensitive, kind, and gentle man who always had time for others and had a deep understanding of human nature. His door was always open to visitors who came to see and talk plants, and he always had the time to go out in the garden with them. Visitors rarely left empty-handed as he would always ask if there was anything they wanted from the garden. The end of the visit would be a trip around the garden with a bag and a shovel and he would dig a piece of a plant that had struck a visitor's fancy. There are probably hundreds of people who to this day have plants in their gardens that came directly from Honeysong and were dug by Alex's hand.

Alex working in a bed of
H.'Frances Williams'

Those who had the pleasure of knowing him remember an honest and open man with a terrific memory, great insight, and a remarkable deadpan sense of humor. They also remember what some called his "Delaware Mumble", in which he would often lower his voice into near inaudibility to see who was paying attention. He loved to eat onions and strawberries, but not together. He didn't like cats or snakes because they killed birds. He was ever informal, and ever humble. At meetings he would interrupt speakers often mischievously, and his wife Gene would then call out "Alex....", and he always brought hostas to the auctions in plastic bags. 

Alex is remembered also for saying the AHS is meant to be a society for people rather than for plants. The society's highest award for a person is named for him, and he was a standing member on the committee to choose its recipients. The American Hosta Society has counted many great and talented people among its ranks, but none stood taller than Alex Summers. As long as there is an AHS, he will never be forgotten.

Alex & friends, kneeling Russ Parsons, Kevin Walek, standing Dan Nelson, Alex, Bob Solberg, Ralph Keene

Alex lived alone after he was preceded in 2001 by his third wife Gene, with whom he shared the beauty of Honeysong for many wonderful years before losing her to Parkinson's disease. They met at an organic gardening meeting on Long Island in 1972. She shared his love of plants and birds, and especially loved Japanese iris. He is survived by his two sons from an earlier marriage, Alan and Brian, and their families. Alan is also well known in the horticulture community as the proprietor or Carroll Gardens in Maryland.

Rest in Peace, Alex, and thank you for all you have done.
Alex and Gene  

The Summers family has asked that memorial donations be made to the American Hosta Society.

 

(left) Friends at Honeysong, Emilie and Walter Cullerton, Carol Brashear, Dave & Roberta Chopko, Alex leaning on his trusty tractor.


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