Reminders of Grandpa (this week's newspaper column)

I admit bias, but for me the scenery of this often dreary time of year is brightened considerably by the bright red berries which hang on the flowering crab trees planted liberally around the region. My enjoyment is enhanced because each of the trees loaded with the colorful fruit is a reminder of my late grandfather, Melvin Bergeson.

Grandpa introduced the Red Splendor Flowering Crab in 1948. Despite its name, the Red Splendor blooms pink in the spring. It is because of the color of the fruit in the fall, color which extends deep into winter because of the tree’s unusual habit of hanging onto its fruit, that Grandpa named the tree Red Splendor.

Grandpa didn’t breed the Red Splendor, nor did he even discover it. It was an employee of his named Norris Oftedahl who noticed a little tree in the field which was blooming its heart out one Depression-era May, even as the other trees in the row had died of winter kill. Norris suggested to Grandpa that the little sprig might be a genetic mutation worth preserving.

Grandpa watched the tree for many years. When he saw its unique fall and winter fruit display, he knew it was a winner, and gave it its name.

Grandpa raised several of the trees for customers and sent a good number to other nurseries for trial before he applied for a patent. As a result, the patent was denied on grounds that the tree was already in the public domain.

The Red Splendor took off in popularity, in large part because it didn’t drop its fruit on the sidewalk like the other flowering crabs. It was once considered by the University of Minnesota to be the best new plant ever introduced in the state.

Grandpa promoted the tree relentlessly. If while on the road he saw a spot in somebody’s yard which he thought needed a Red Splendor, he would knock on the door and overwhelm the unsuspecting home owner with a sales pitch which might include poetry, Bible verses, snippets of hymns, or a combination of all three. Few had the courage to resist.

It helped that Grandpa was deaf to the word no. He couldn’t imagine anybody not wanting a beautiful yard. More than once he planted trees for people who were pretty sure they had told him they weren’t interested.

It was Grandpa’s goal to see at least one street in every town in northwestern Minnesota lined with the Red Splendor. Judging from all the trees I see with glistening red berries in towns around here this time of year, he succeeded.

Grandpa continued to experiment with new varieties of trees during his retirement. In fact, he had so many on trial that the rest of us sort of rolled our eyes when he’d run in gushing about some poplar tree up by Grygla that was, to use his favorite word, “distinctive.”

But in the years since he died, several of those trees have taken off in popularity. Turns out, some of those trees he had us wading through swamps to swipe cuttings from were worthwhile.

None of Grandpa’s descendants inherited his sharp eye for good new trees, or his patience for the decades of waiting necessary before a new tree can be considered proven. Nor did we inherit his zeal for promoting tree planting with no regard for profit.

But Grandpa often said: “Beauty is wealth, plant lots of it and be rich.” If that’s true, he left behind an estate which pays annual dividends to anybody whose day is brightened by the glow of the bright Red Splendor berries in the late afternoon sun during this otherwise dismal time of year.