Jim Gerdemann, a retired University of Illinois plant pathology professor, and Janice Gerdemann, a retired teacher, moved to the central Oregon coast in the 1980's. For almost thirty years they collected unusual plants, adapting them to the microclimate of a 3.5 acre woodland property just north of Yachats. A unique botanical garden emerged with years of experimentation, and careful plant tending. Nested within Oregon natives, rare and unusual plants thrive with many varieties of magnolia, camellia, rhododendron species and hybrids including Jim's hand-crossed tropical vireya rhododendrons.
James Wessel Gerdemann was born on November 13, 1921 in Pendleton, Missouri to his father, Carl Gerdemann, and mother, Cora Wessel. Jim’s father and uncle owned and managed the family store, “The Gerdemann Store” which was in the family for about ninety years.
From an early age Jim had a passion for growing plants. He’d tuck his cactus collection in the cellar during cold winters. Jim attended the local schools, graduating at sixteen. He then went to work at the family store. When he accompanied his father to St. Louis on buying trips for the store, his father would drop Jim off at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Jim was not destined to be a storekeeper.
Jim earned his undergraduate degree in Botany at the University of Missouri. He paid his way through college by working as a waiter at the girls’ college, living cheaply at the coop, and working for 35 cents an hour at the university herbarium. At the herbarium, as a freshman, his botanical knowledge was recognized and he was given the responsibility for counting seeds and correcting mistakes in the inventory records.
During summers, Jim worked in the forests of Oregon for BLM and the Forest Service controlling White Pine Blister Rust, a fungal disease. This was the beginning of Jim’s appreciation of the climate and native flora of Oregon. He accepted an assistantship at the University of California at Berkeley. During his graduate studies, he was advised to pursue his doctorate in Plant Pathology rather than Botany. He completed his Masters and Doctorate in three years and was offered a position at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Jim met Janice Olbrich and they were married six months later on July 2, 1949. This coming July they would have been married sixty years. Three sons: Steve, Dale, and Glenn, fulfilled Jim and Janice’s desire to have a family. The whole family traveled often to Oregon, camping and hiking.
Jim’s career blossomed at Urbana. He is credited with research in mycorrhiza fungi and is much respected for his work in the genus Rhododendron and for developing several tropical vireya species for hardiness. While at U of I, he went on two sabbaticals, one to Scotland and one to Corvallis, Oregon. Jim and Janice also traveled to New Zealand, France, England and the Shetland Islands with their Mycorrhiza friends.
In 1981, Jim retired from the University of Illinois. The Gerdemanns packed up and moved to Yachats, Oregon where they purchased an acre of spruce and hemlock bordering the Siuslaw National Forest, built their home, and began developing a botanical garden. Almost thirty years later, their project grew into a 3.5 acre botanical garden.
October 2008, Jerry and Kathleen Sand finalized purchase of the Gerdemann property. An irrevocable conservation easement has been established to ensure the entire Gerdemann Botanical Garden will remain intact, preserved as a living legacy.
James Wessel Gerdemann died December 19, 2008. Janice Gerdemann continues to reside in Yachats, Oregon and often walks in the garden.