Mike Luther was an active member of the Santa Cruz County Chapter Board for many years before he began taking on more responsibilities for the propagation group in the early nineteen-nineties.
Our propagation group began around 1980, at Nevin Smith’s nursery Wintergreen, and moved in the early 1990s to Suncrest Nurseries, which has given the group amazing support ever since. From that time, Mike became right hand man to the group’s prior leader, Denise Polk. When Denise retired in 2013 for health reasons, Mike naturally emerged as the leader, in large part because of his deliberate and steady way of working, his focus, and the strong sense of direction that he brought to the group: in other words because he cared.
Mike was often at the nursery between monthly group sessions to check on the plants, gather data, confer with Nevin Smith or Leonel Morales (chief propagator there), and plan for the upcoming months. He called out the volunteers each month and led sessions, and the quality of the plants we were able to offer–and the funds generated by of sales–steadily increased, even though under Denise they were already high.
Mike had both a plantsman’s and an engineer’s eye. His careful data collection was key to the success, as was his attention to detail and willingness to innovate. He even came up with simple and effective teaching aids. For example when volunteers were routinely potting up Iris so their leaves were upright but their roots were buried, Mike did a demo using a simple slotted piece of cardboard to show how the roots should lie just along the surface, even though it meant the leaves would be slanted.
Volunteers enjoyed working with Mike—his love of plants was infectious. Mike was generous, thoughtful, and had a good sense of humor. He was also respected and liked by the staff at Suncrest. Former VP of operations Jim Marshall said, “Mike looks the part, and he is so bright and perceptive. He reminds me of the wonderful mentors who inspired me when I was getting started in the business.” He also called Mike “my missing manager.”
Even after Mike entered hospice, he still talked with many people by phone to check on the plants and discuss future ideas for improvements. He was indefatigable and cheerful throughout. The propagation group and chapter board decided to award him a volunteer recognition award as we feared he would not live to enjoy a state-level volunteer recognition award. Mike died in late July. But he thoroughly enjoyed our socially-distanced celebration, appreciating the warmth of the group discussing new projects and also how to transition the group to new leadership.
In addition to involvement with the CNPS, Mike was also a long-term volunteer with State Parks Archeology beginning around 1984, becoming an accomplished excavator, specializing in adobe buildings.
Mike had a wide range of other interests—including conversation, hiking, attending classical music concerts with friends, and working on his own native plant garden.
Written by Jackie Pascoe
CNPS Member, propagator, volunteer