Violets Blackened : Flames Consume Well-Known Malibu Nursery That Served the World

Times Staff Writer

One of the most famous and highly specialized private flower nurseries in the world fell victim to the flames that swept across the mountains above Malibu.

Ken Bowman had only two greenhouses containing African violets on his property along Pacific Coast Highway, a mile north of Pepperdine University, but in the past 25 years he had sold well more than a million of the delicate, mauve-flowering plants in their little clay pots.

"Those plants went all over the world," the scholarly, bespectacled Bowman said.

"Everyone who had ever driven up the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu knew us," he said. "But we probably sold more African violets to people from West Germany than from Malibu. . . ."

But that reality came to an end Monday.

"The fire came down from Pepperdine about 6 o'clock and by 7:30 this was all ablaze," he said. "It was wooden frame with plastic covers and it burned fiercely. We lost 50,000 plants in a few minutes. . . . This fire's cost me about $75,000."

The blaze left the greenhouses a tangled mess of twisted metal irrigation pipes and plant stands, broken and empty flowerpots and seared sacks of fertilizer

The house next door to the nursery was burned to the ground, but Bowman's home was not damaged.

"That's partly because my daughter and son-in-law and I stayed here and moved all the flammable things from around the house," he said. "But it's also because there's almost no wood in my house. It has stucco walls, stucco eaves and the roof is fireproof composition shingles."

Bowman's nursery, with its famous sign depicting a bowman of the Middle Ages, had been on the north side of the heavily traveled coastal highway for a quarter of a century. And all through the 1950s, Bowman had done research in floriculture at UCLA.

Bowman said he probably will not rebuild.

"I don't really have to do anything," he said. "I teach French at Pepperdine. The property is worth about $750,000 today. I bought it a long time ago when land here was cheap. Obviously, a small nursery is not a very efficient use of land that valuable."

Bowman picked up a garden hose and jetted some water onto a finger of fire that had erupted again in the rubble. "What will I do?," he sighed, pondering the question. "Well, I had intended, anyway, to go to live in France for a while, probably within the next two years. I think I'll just go."

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