‘King of grasses’ Kurt Bluemel, 81, who re-created a savannah for Disney, dies

Kurt Bluemel, a Maryland nursery owner who became nationally known as the king of grasses for the hundreds of ornamental varieties he cultivated and who re-created an entire African savannah for the Walt Disney Co.’s Animal Kingdom resort near Orlando, died June 4 at a hospice in Towson, Md. He was 81.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Hannah Petersen Bluemel.

From his wholesale nursery near Baltimore, Mr. Bluemel was at the vanguard of a gardening movement in the 1980s that championed the use of ornamental grasses and perennials as a way to bring nature, life and movement to residential landscapes he found achingly dull.

Steeped in German gardening traditions that replaced one form of grass — the lawn — with tall, attractive and dynamic grasses from meadow and prairie, he set out to grow, plant and change a suburban garden style that puzzled and bored him when he emigrated to Maryland in 1960.

It was a time when most suburban gardens featured turf, annuals and a ring of foundation shrubbery that Mr. Bluemel derisively called “prayer beads around the house.”


Kurt Bluemel, the “King of Grasses,” with one of the ornamental grasses he championed, called Red Baron. (Courtesy of Kurt Bluemel Inc.)

In 1964, he opened a nursery with another German planter who had washed up in Maryland, Wolfgang Oehme. Together they saw tall grasses and wildflowers as a way to breathe new life into dull, passive gardens — even if America wasn’t quite ready for their revolution.

“Perennials at that time was a slumbering giant,” Mr. Bluemel told the New York Times in 2002.

Mr. Bluemel also was an artist. World War II had cut short his formal education and his dreams of becoming a painter, but horticulture and design gave him a chance to use gardens as a canvas.

“He had a natural sense of artistry,” said his wife. “Form and function just came naturally to him.”

Where traditional planting norms called for planting perennials in threes or fives, Mr. Bluemel — and Oehme — planted by the hundreds to create colors and textures that transformed nature into fine art.

The vision led him to not only raise herbaceous plants by the tens of thousands, but to seek out varieties that would grab the plant lover’s soul. His successes included an array of ornamental grasses that became widespread and popular — an imperata grass he named Red Baron, an ethereal blue-green switch grass he called Heavy Metal, and the miscanthus Morning Light.

As Mr. Bluemel’s nursery in Baldwin became established, he created a European-style apprenticeship program that trained young workers in horticulture and plant production. It drew apprentices from across the United States, Europe and Asia. Many went on to become leaders in their industry.

Kurt Erwin Bluemel was born April 6, 1933, in Maffersdorf in the former Czechoslovakia. The German-speaking area known as the Sudetenland was annexed by the Nazis before World War II. At the end of the war, 3 million ethnic Germans were dispossessed and expelled, including the Bluemel family.

They left as refugees in early 1946, ending up in southern West Germany. Other family members were forced to settle in East Germany.

The turmoil ended his education, and he began to work on a farm in Bavaria. Later he found a job growing vegetables in a market garden near Zurich. “In Switzerland he was having three square meals a day,” said his friend Allen Bush, a seed company executive in Louisville. “He could hardly believe it.”

In 1953 Mr. Bluemel moved to the Swiss nursery of Arnold Vogt that specialized in perennials and alpine plants. The next six years proved pivotal in his life’s work. It gained him a deep knowledge of ornamental grasses and rock garden perennials. It also brought him into contact with a young American horticulturist, Richard Simon, who persuaded him to come to the United States to work at his father’s perennial nursery in Monkton, Md.

Oehme left the Baldwin nursery to design gardens, and later co-founded a high-profile landscape architecture firm in Washington. But he continued a working relationship with Mr. Bluemel that proved essential: Oehme devised grand decorative meadows, and Mr. Bluemel supplied the grasses and perennials by the truckload.

“Wolfgang could have had all the ideas he wanted, but he needed a supplier, Kurt,” said Ed Snodgrass, a nurseryman in Street, Md. who trained under Mr. Bluemel.

Perfecting production and propagation techniques, Mr. Bluemel was able to supply the demand for plants generated by the broad shift in the 1980s and 1990s to herbaceous gardens and landscapes.

In 1995, the Walt Disney Co. asked if he could re-create an African savannah at its Animal Kingdom resort. He propagated 4 million grasses for the project. He later opened a production nursery in Holopaw, Fla., in part to keep the safari park replenished with plants eaten by the animals. He also founded a wholesale nursery in Manokin, Md.

Mr. Bluemel was a landscape designer and contractor as well as a widely-traveled planter who discovered and introduced popular new varieties of grasses and perennials into the landscape trade.

Mr. Bluemel’s first marriage to Jacqueline Meystre ended in divorce. A son from that marriage, Andre Bluemel, died in 1976.

In addition to his second wife, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Catherine Bluemel Betz of Salisbury, Md.; two stepchildren, Erik Weinstock of Atlanta and Nan-Kirsten Forte of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.; a brother, Franz Bluemel of Wuppertal, Germany; a sister, Monika Lammel Burwell of Baltimore; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Bluemel held leadership roles in the American Horticultural Society, the Perennial Plant Association and the Maryland Nursery and Landscape Association. His early days in America, when he moonlighted as a grave- digger, hardly foreshadowed such professional fulfillment.

But in maturity and with success, he formed a group of friends, plant geeks who would travel around the world in search of new and interesting plants. They found themselves in California’s Death Valley in early spring, before Mr. Bluemel’s cancer was diagnosed. The group called itself the Ratzeputz Gang, after a high-octane liqueur they once sampled in a bar in northern Germany.

As much as he loved the company of fellow planters, Mr. Bluemel’s greatest fondness was his plant compositions.

In his 2002 interview with the Times, Mr. Bluemel offered advice on how to read his drifts of grasses and their odd arrays of hues. “Squint,” Mr. Bluemel commanded. “The textures and colors blend into each other. It’s like Monet painting a meadow.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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