She thought of roses, her father’s roses.
“Why don’t you grow them?” her friend asked. “You seem to have this fascination.”
She explained that she couldn’t possibly grow roses. Roses require patience, which she has never had.
That’s how it started.
Marsha Buford had no idea she was about to experience the most amazing coincidence in the middle of a pandemic.
It was April 10, about a month into the coronavirus lockdown. Marsha and her friend Darnell Elzy walked past Orange Lutheran High School through an old Orange neighborhood. Darnell caught Marsha admiring roses again.
Despite her flowery family tree, Marsha was the one, the only one, born without a green thumb. Her sister became a florist. Her two brothers became landscapers.
Her father, well, he could make anything that originated in the dirt into art.
Passers-by her home on North Sacramento Street couldn’t have known of Marsha’s lineage, which stretched to post-revolution Russian farms of blue cotton and honey bees, into hothouses at the ministries of agriculture in Moscow, through the horrific prison camps of World War II and past Ellis Island, before landing in the middle of a citrus grove in Orange County.
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Darnell wouldn’t take no for an answer. She would grow roses, too, and it would be a project they could do together while the world was shut down.
Even better, Darnell knew a woman who could help them. Her name is Lisa Gilmore, and her husband, Rex, owns the Monroe Pacific Nursery in Huntington Beach.
Rex Gilmore grew up in his father Paul’s nursery, Plant Boys on Tustin Avenue in Orange. Rex has a degree in horticulture from Cal Poly Pomona, and he has owned Monroe Pacific since 1990. He was the perfect ringer to give them tips on tending to their new rose gardens, Darnell said.
On April 25, Darnell and Marsha traveled the 17.5 miles from Orange to Huntington Beach and parked in front of the nursery. Rex met them with a big smile.
He’s a gregarious guy who loves to talk. As they walked toward the roses, Rex could see Marsha’s eyes being attracted to lots of colorful flowers.
He had a story for all of them. There were plants called “Yesterday Today and Tomorrow” (Brunfelsia, native to Brazil) which change colors depending on the time of day.
“He was describing different types of flowers like they were his children,” Marsha remembers.
She hadn’t heard anyone talk about flowers like that since her dad died in 1975 when she was 22 years old.
Marsha remembers saying, “My father was a botanist in Russia.”
Rex Gilmore stopped.
“He looks at me,” Marsha said.
Rex told her, “I knew a Russian botanist … His name was Wassiliew.”
“My mouth dropped open,” Marsha said.
Rex could see the tears rolling down her face.
It wasn’t long before Rex was crying, too.
“I didn’t get emotional until she got emotional,” Rex said. “It was quite a coincidence.”
Rex not only knew Fedor Wassiliew, he had been to Marsha’s childhood home on Cleveland Street and he had been inspired by the old Russian plant man. He called Wassiliew “a mad scientist” in the most endearing way possible.
Fedor was born on Christmas Day in 1901 in a Russian city named Tambov, which means abyss.
Wavy-haired Fedor Vasilev was one of six brothers who learned to work the farm. They had lemon and orange groves and bees. His parents ran a general store.
As a young man, Fedor was sent to the Institute of Horticulture and then to the Russian state farm at Vashsk (a name that no longer exists on Russian maps), where he served as the scientific supervisor on a property with 2,000 hens and 700 beehives. In 1934, he was sent to Soviet Georgia where he learned to grow tea and blue cotton. He also figured out a way to make lemon and orange trees bloom quicker than their natural time.
Fedor Vasilev was a botany star.
He wrote five books that were published in the Soviet Union and later Germany – topics: horticulture (1934), bee rearing (1937), cultivation of vegetables (1938), bee rearing again (1949) and fruit growing (1950). Fedor was a prolific writer with dirt under his fingernails.
In 1938, he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture at the All Soviet Exhibition in Moscow. That would have been a permanent position had it not been for World War II.
The botanist’s life changed in 1941. First, he was drafted into the Russian Red Army on July 1. In October, he was captured by the Germans.
Fedor wasn’t Jewish. He was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. But that didn’t improve his plight during the war.
Fedor was sent to a German prisoner of war camp near what is now Swinemunde, Poland. According to letters discovered by Marsha, Fedor wrote that he escaped the camp in 1944 and fled to Berlin. He was recaptured and forced into slave labor as an “ostarbeiter,” where he was nearly worked to death in a factory he called the “Hell Plant” making automobile motors.
“They were hung if they tried to escape,” Marsha said.
His letters do not explain how he met Valentina, who became his wife. Valentina had been captured at 15 by Germans who stormed her apartment building in Smolensk, Russia. She was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, where her hands and chest were tattooed with identification numbers and the tips of two of her fingers cut off.
Marsha doesn’t know much about the horrors inflicted on her parents or how their relationship developed.
One letter says “February 1945 meried and in March with my Russian wife fled from Berlin to Munich.”
“Fled” seems like such an understated explanation.
“They didn’t talk much about it,” Marsha said.
New U.S. home
Fedor and Valentina had two boys, Nickalous and Alexsander, in Munich.
In 1951, the couple signed up for a program in which churches around the globe were helping citizens displaced by the war. The First Presbyterian Church of Orange became their sponsor.
The Vasilevs landed at Ellis Island on June 28, 1951.
Apparently, their family name was too difficult to communicate to or be understood by U.S. immigration officials. When they left New York bound for Orange County, they had become the Wassiliew family.
They lived in an apartment above the garage of Vern Valentine, a church member in Orange. In exchange for room and board, Fedor worked in Valentine’s vast garden tending strawberries, avocados, potatoes and melons. He was particularly proud, he wrote in a letter, when he crossed a German strawberry with a California Shasta strawberry, making a more aromatic fruit with a higher sugar content.
Fedor eventually left the farm to work for Sunkist. Then he ventured out on his own and became a landscaper. In the last years of his life, the brilliant Russian botanist made his living by mowing lawns. Valentina was a maid.
Marsha was born in 1953 and her sister Valentina (named after her mother) was born in 1955. Even though they had given Marsha an American sounding name, Fedor always called his daughter “Masha.”
‘It was magical’
It was 2020 when Marsha Buford decided to make a change.
She had never liked the front of her house.
Dominated by a long hedge, an “ugly,” “smelly” lantana rectangle, creeping up toward the windows like a burglar, the front of the house was “icky,” she said.
Marsha felt helpless against the hedge. Rip it out and plant flowers? No way. She considered herself incapable. Cursed almost.
Marsha had never been able to grow anything, unless you count that ugly lantana hedge.
To make matters worse, she would walk through her Orange neighborhood – 4 miles a day, like clockwork – and notice the beauty in front of the other homes. Especially the roses. Those roses she saw, bursting fuchsia, dark reds and snowy whites, so enchanted her she found herself carrying clippers and snipping daily blooms for bouquets. Most of the time, she would ask permission.
She liked to put the roses on her desk. Or, every so often, she would take them to Fairhaven Memorial Park where she would place them on her parents’ graves.
Until May of 2020, few people who ventured down Marsha Buford’s cul de sac would have even noticed the Buford house. Like the straight rows of brickwork, the beige RV in the driveway and the bland hedge, nothing suggested that Marsha, a petite and energetic blonde, had all that beautiful botany in her blood.
There was nothing in front of the Buford house to signal she had been raised by a father who painted ceilings gold and light blue and crafted intricate moldings, sheared topiary bears, engineered dwarf fruit trees and grew roses that dangled like constellations in front of Marsha’s childhood home on North Cleveland Street near old town Orange with a sign that said his name – “Fedor Wassiliew’s Planetarium” – hanging next to the front door.
Recently, something came over Marsha Buford. Something stirred in her blood. Her inspiration? Maybe a bit of self-reflection, or mortality, that seemingly everyone has felt during the global pandemic. Maybe it was the extra time created by the lockdown. Maybe it was those daily walks through so much color, or a little nudge from a friend.
Whatever it was, she became convinced that her house needed a facelift.
“I’ll take the front,” she told her husband, Jon. She gave him the back.
Suddenly, there was the promise of new colors at the curved end of North Sacramento Street. Marsha Buford tore away the hedge and planted roses – lavender, pink, yellow, red, white and coral roses.
Along the way, Marsha tapped into something she was sure had died 45 years ago.
“It was magical,” she said through her tears.
She found a connection to her father.
“I felt his incredible spirit guiding me,” she said. “I could hear his voice … ‘Malenkiy Masha,’ he calls me in Russian.”
An American girl
The Wassiliews moved into the house on North Cleveland Street in 1957.
It was so Russian.
Marsha remembers the care her father put into the ceilings, which he painted light blue and gold and hung chandeliers “like the czars,” he told her. Fedor raised chickens, rabbits, pheasants and bees. Fedor had two hothouses full of orchids in the backyard. He grew apple, orange, peach, grapefruit and apricot trees. He made topiary bears, horses, roosters and pheasants.
Fedor was convinced he could create a dwarf peach tree that bore fruit with red and white pulp. He tinkered for years on the “Eldorado,” as he called it, named after the mythical city of gold.
Fedor kept a jug of Chianti underneath the stairs and a jug of honey by the bathtub. He took honey baths almost every night. Honey baths, he said, are good for the skin.
At the Wassiliew house, the best day of the year was the Fourth of July.
“They were so happy to be in the USA,” Marsha said.
They would host a big Independence Day party with cognac, piroshki (deep-fried dough pockets of beef and onions) and red potato salad with beets.
Despite her Russian roots, Marsha was an American girl. She like the band “Buffalo Springfield.” She and her friends would go “grovin’” among the rows of orange trees. Grovin’, she said, involved beer, cars and driving fast among the trees. Or she would go “castle hunting” in which she and her friends would run through rich neighborhoods trying to set off motion detector lights.
Like most kids, Marsha rolled her eyes at her parents.
“I was somewhat embarrassed by their accents,” she said. “I kick myself in the ass for that now.”
She remembers when she was 16 her father had started a landscaping business. He had trouble with his driver’s license, so he made Marsha drive him to lawn mowing jobs.
“I was mortified,” she said.
There was another teenager. He was not mortified.
He was more like a sponge, soaking up knowledge from the brilliant botanist.
Between the time he was 14 and 17, Rex Gilmore met Fedor Wassiliew several times inside the Plant Boys nursery. Fedor shopped there often.
“I got to talking to him,” Rex said. “He was like a mad scientist, but later on, I learned it all made sense.”
Around Christmas, Fedor would bring cognac into Plant Boys to spread good cheer.
“I would have a swig …” Rex said, “when my dad wasn’t in the office.”
In 1964, Fedor invited the Gilmore family over for dinner. Before the food was served, he took Rex for a tour of the backyard. Fedor showed Rex how to use a syringe to penetrate fruit embryos. He called the process “sunshine radiation,” Rex remembers.
“It was full of plants all over the place,” Rex said. “He had engineered the lemon trees to smell like Bacardi rum.”
What Rex didn’t remember from all those years ago was that Fedor had two daughters. Marsha said she must have been hiding under the stairs when the Gilmores came to dinner.
Rex remembers the topiary animals, including the peacock, which had a green head and a yellow tail.
That peacock changed Rex’s life.
Knowing Rex liked it so much, Fedor brought the peacock as a gift to Plant Boys, where it was put on display. That’s where it was seen by Al Stovall, the famous Anaheim hotelier. Stovall owned several properties around Disneyland (“Inn of Tomorrow,” “Galaxy,” “Space Age,” “Apollo” and “Cosmic Age”).
“He saw the peacock,” Rex Gilmore remembers. “And he asked me, can you make anything else?”
Young Rex launched a career making topiary giraffes, gorillas, horses and poodles. When the Democrats came to Anaheim, he made donkeys. When the Republicans came, he made elephants. In all, he estimates he made more than 700 bushy animals in his career.
All because of Fedor’s peacock.
Timing is everything
Fedor Wassiliew’s dream came true in 1975. He had patented his dwarf peach trees, which bore fruit that he called “red meat” or “white meat.”
On Feb. 21, he sold that patent for Eldorado peach trees to Jackson & Perkins, an influential nursery founded in 1872. The agreement would guarantee income for 18 years.
Marsha’s father was on top of the world. She remembers him from that day, majestic.
“I thought he was very handsome and brilliant,” Marsha said. “I was very proud of him.”
On Feb. 22, Marsha got a call. Her father was in the hospital. He had suffered a heart attack.
He died the day after his Eldorado deal.
“It was horrific,” Marsha said. “Every time I think about the Eldorado, it’s sad.”
The royalties from his Eldorado trees brought in about $4,000 per year for 18 years, Marsha said. Fedor’s children divided the money evenly among themselves.
Marsha will never forget her father’s Russian Orthodox funeral, in which the Wassiliews followed the tradition of each family member throwing dirt on the casket until it is covered.
“That was surreal,” she said. “It was so strange to throw dirt on him.”
But then it hit her.
“I realized that dirt was the love of his life,” Marsha said. “Everything he did came from the dirt.”
Marsha Buford had a decision to make.
She walked with Rex Gilmore looking at all the different types. She found herself talking to her father.
“Daddy,” she said, “help me find the right roses. I felt his incredible spirit guiding me.”
Marsha bought four types of roses from Rex – Melody Perfume, Love, Tiffany and Touch of Class. She tore out the hedge and planted the roses along the front of her house.
“I get up in the morning and say hello to my roses,” she said.
But roses, as she knew, can be so tough. For weeks, she couldn’t get many blooms.
Then, just before Father’s Day …
“I’ve got buds,” she said excitedly.
You can almost feel her father’s smile.
“Malenkiy Masha,” he would say.
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