Herald JournalHerald Journal, Oct. 25, 2004

97-year-old Winsted man cares for a blooming shrub more than 125 years old

By Jane Otto

In a somewhat darkened corner of the old Ochu Implement store, nature blooms.

Just two weeks ago, pink flowers sprouted across an oleander’s great girth, a shrub that has stood in the Winsted store for more than 40 years.

It has bloomed for the Ochu family for close to, if not more than, 125 years.

As tall as it is wide, the 8-foot-high shrub was in years past easily seen from the road, particularly when in bloom.

“At that time, I used to wash the windows every week,” Gene Ochu recalled. At 97, that task might be somewhat daunting.

“It used to bloom just beautifully,” he said. “It was a plant people would have to stop to see it. It was a great big ball of flowers.”

A shrub’s story

The flowering shrub first belonged to his grandparents, whom Ochu simply called Grandma and Grandad Ochu.

Though he has no idea exactly when or where his grandparents came to own the oleander, he was adamant the shrub was nearing 150 years.

His immigrant grandparents came to the United States through Canada from France. They once lived not far from Paris, Ochu said. A logging man, his grandfather worked for a company on Hennepin Island before moving to Winsted Township.

“They walked the Indian trail from there to here,” Ochu said.

That was sometime in the 1850s.

The Ochus settled on 160 acres about a half mile north of Highway 7. The first home, a log cabin, met a fiery end. In 1878, the Ochus built a new place, which included a large bay window for plants and flowers.

Grandma Ochu loved flowers, he said. “I’m sure she was the one who wanted that window.”

Grandma and Grandad Ochu didn’t take to the farming life. The couple moved to Lester Prairie for a time, but eventually returned to Minneapolis, where Grandad Ochu worked for a lumber company.

“He wasn’t really a farmer,” Ochu said of his grandfather. “He was a horseman.”

Ochu couldn’t recall the year, but said his grandparents had a house on Knox Avenue. “That’s where they had this plant.”

His grandparents moved again. This time, the oleander outgrew its living quarters, so it returned to the farm.

Though just a small child, even then Ochu remembered the shrub being “too big and too tall.”

His father ran the farm and his family lived in the 1878 farm house with the large bay window.

His mother, too, filled the roomy window sill with flowers and plants. Among them stood the oleander.

She was a good gardener, Ochu said. “We had every kind of apple you needed.”

Ochu, himself, has grown a garden every year since 1949, when he and his wife, Marie, moved to their new Winsted home on Sixth Avenue.

Too big again

About 40 years ago, Ochu’s parents left the farm for town, much like many aging couples.

His father had developed asthma, so most plants had to go. The oleander came to the implement store, which, Ochu added, happened to be the first building Lester’s founder Al Schwichtenberg, built.

“My dad said, ‘Well, you’ve got a big window in the shop,’” Ochu recalled.

Oleanders thrive in sunlight.

Holding out his arms, Ochu said it was in a pot “so big around.”

Actually, the shrub first stood outside until a frost came, he said. “We made none too big a hurry to get it inside.”

It didn’t look well, Ochu recalled. Oleanders, however, are known to survive temperatures as cold as 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

He repotted the large shrub using dirt from a 6-acre woods on the family farm.

A local lumber company made a 3-foot-square cedar box, which still holds the oversized plant.

“When we put it in here, the height was there, but it has filled out,” Ochu said.

Laughing, he recalled, “I put rollers under it thinking I could move it around, but it was way too heavy.”

The cumbersome shrub didn’t deter Ochu. He used a long, metal bar to turn it so all the oleander’s sides were exposed to sunlight at one time or another.

Despite his age, Ochu said he should give the shrub a needed turn.

Nodding his head, he said, “I think I can do it.”

A need for virgin soil

Though Ochu has religiously planted a meticulous vegetable garden for 55 years, he admitted the oleander needs a little loving care.

“I’m not really a flower man,” he said.

Ochu attributed the shrub’s long life to being potted in “virgin” soil.

“It must be 30 years ago I put it in there,” he said. “It’s been fed naturally and now it needs replenishing.”

Ochu added he has a little compost left from this year’s garden and will it put in the oleander’s pot, but still stressed the need for virgin dirt.

He considered giving the oleander to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, he said.

Looking around the crowded implement shop, he raised his eyebrows and said, “But how would they get it out of here? It would be a job.”

Needing some pruning and repotting, the enduring oleander’s future looks a little grim to Ochu, but he said, “I think it can go on forever, if somebody takes care of it.”

Ironically, Ochu was aware that the plant was highly toxic — so toxic that even small amounts, if swallowed, can kill.

Contemplating that thought, he then flashed a wide smile, laughed and said, “Well, I’m still here.”

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