These are some of my memories of Hudson Nursery, an iconic 10 acre plant nursery that existed in the heart of north Tampa for many decades. It was recently sold, torn down, and replaced with a Wal-Mart.
In 1981 when I was 18, I saw a sign out in front of Hudson Nursery on Dale Mabry Highway that said they were looking for someone to work in the retail section of the place. I asked my stepmother Liz to take me there and wait while I applied for a job. Hudson Nursery was a ten acre plot of beauty set right in the middle of concrete suburbia, on the main north to south route through Tampa, Dale Mabry Highway.
When you drove by the place, you could see the tops of exotic looking trees and the promise of some kind of adventure, almost like the nursery wasn’t just a nursery but also some kind of themed attraction right there on the main strip through Tampa. When it was first established in 1955, Tampa was a much smaller city and to get to Hudson Nursery you had to drive beyond the paved segment of Dale Mabry. Ken Hudson, the patriarch of the Hudson family and owner and founder of Hudson Nursery, would pile his nine kids and his wife on a tractor, drive it a mile to the edge of the pavement, and transfer everyone over to the station wagon they kept parked on the side of the road so they could drive into town and go shopping or visit friends or sometimes, attend mass.
Mr. Hudson turned those ten acres of wilderness into more than just a plant nursery; it became a minor destination for tourists who had come to Tampa to explore Busch Gardens and the famous beaches of the West coast of Florida. With neatly ordered walkways and artfully placed palm trees, fruit trees, and bromeliads of all kinds, plus a large greenhouse full of exotic orchids that Mrs. Ruth Hudson claimed as her own, it was also a hot weekend destination for baby-boomer residents who needed to landscape their new homes being built in the big communities springing up in Carrollwood and other parts of North Tampa.
Mr. Hudson hired me that day in the Spring of 1981. I was well suited for working outdoors surrounded by plants and trees and birds. The smell and feel of the soil, working with the plants, simple activities with my hands set my mind free to dream and plan and do work of its own. Getting to the nursery early, before it opened, I could walk to the back of the ten acres and see wild rabbits and pileated woodpeckers and sometimes an otter playing along the bank of a small creek that bordered the northwest side of the property.
Just after sunrise I would open the door of the orchid greenhouse and slip inside, the dense humid air feeling heavy and somehow nourishing to my body. I would inspect each orchid plant, checking them to see if there were any new blooms, even though I knew Mrs. Hudson would be coming out later to keep track of that. After I watered the hanging plants and the stands of potted ginger and exotic philodendrons, I would leave the greenhouse to water the half-barrel trees that lined the small dirt roads criss-crossing the property. Mr. Hudson and his sons would purchase used fifty-five gallon stainless steel barrels that had once held cooking oil and other food products, clean them out, cut them in half, punch holes in the bottoms, fill them with soil, and plant trees or large shrubs in them.
The retail portion of the nursery opened at 8:30 am, so I had to be finished with my watering by then. After that, I stayed close to the front of the property to assist the customers, pull weeds out of potted plants and from along the walkways, sweep the patio area in front of the office, and feed the birds. There were two cages full of ring-necked doves on either side of the walk which was the main entrance. The doves cooed and looked peaceful to the casual observer, but I knew that they were really just mean and messy. The doves pecked at each other, plucking feathers and fighting for first access to the food dispensers. They defecated on each other, all over the artfully placed branches decorating the cages, and right in their food and water. Cleaning out those cages was a nasty chore; we had to do it once a week to keep them looking nice.
Mr. Hudson had traveled many times to South America and captured macaws with his own two hands, then flown them back to the United States and kept them in a small complex of habitats in the backyard. Visitors to the nursery could get within touching distance of these big, gorgeous, loud, aggressive parrots in rainbow colors, including a pair of large deep blue hyacinth macaws that he could have easily sold for many thousands of dollars each. Customers would walk through the unfenced yard behind the house where the Hudsons lived on the nursery property, prompting the macaws to begin their deafening screeches all at once, forcing observers to cover their ears or run away. Sometimes the macaws were placed in breeding pairs and after the female laid an egg she would become aggressive, charging anyone who dared to walk too close to the habitat. Most of the time, though, the birds were docile but unpredictable. Their huge hooked beaks were strong enough to crack hard nuts, and the big Hyacinths could even break open coconuts to consume the water and meat inside. To demonstrate that, Mr. Hudson would place nuts and coconuts inside the habitats for the birds to snack on. There were no signs warning customers not to touch the macaws, but as far as I knew, no one ever tried. It was easy to surmise that a beak which could crack hard shells would have no problem removing a finger made of flesh.
The habitats were raised up off the ground about six inches, with a wire floor to allow waste to drop through to the ground. Most of the waste would compost under there, but rats loved to make nests in the waste, feasting on the parrot’s leftover food that dropped through the wire. I didn’t know why, but Ken Hudson’s preferred method of getting rid of the rats involved hoses and baseball bats. When I was recruited to help with this task, I always wanted to man the hoses but once or twice I was placed on the baseball bat team. After closing time, when all the customers had gone home and only the employees were still around, the people with hoses would stand behind the habitats, turn the water on and flood the area underneath, which would force the rats out. They’d come running across the backyard to get away from the water, and those of us with baseball bats would be waiting there to smash the rats and kill them. As gruesome as it was, there was a sporting element to it. Half-drowned rats can still run pretty fast, and the big ones took more than one whack to kill. Shouts and whoops would mix with the loud screams of the parrots reacting to the commotion.
Past the house and just behind the retail area, the rest of the property was reserved for wholesale plants and stock for the landscaping crew. There was a pond right there where the main road split off into the circle that surrounded the “back nine” acres. It was about the size of two backyard swimming pools placed side by side and housed large ornamental carp fish in white, orange, red, and black and all combinations thereof, and living there on the side of the pond was a small flock of Bremen geese, the tallest and largest domestic goose breed. The geese were protective of the area leading up to the pond and didn’t like it when customers would get too close, and they often did, even though we always warned them when they came into the nursery that there were geese back by the wholesale area. The level of aggressiveness depended on the mood of the flock, but if you got too close they’d attack you. Most people, seeing a large goose coming after them, turned around and ran, but that only encouraged the geese and resulted in a comedic chase, complete with honking, hissing, and screaming, back up the dirt road to the retail area. Once I saw a woman undressed by the alpha goose. She was looking at the macaws and for some reason the goose had wandered up further than usual, caught sight of her, and decided she needed to be evicted from the premises. The customer was wearing a wrap skirt that tied at the waist; the ties dangled down and were a convenient way for the goose to get hold of her as she tried to run away. The goose pulled the ties and the skirt unwrapped and fell to the ground, leaving a very embarrassed customer standing in the backyard, gathering up her skirt and holding it against her body in a frantic attempt to cover herself, with all the macaws loudly proclaiming her presence.
Image courtesy of Andrew Pons