She grew up on a potato farm outside Tokyo, but Hideko Tajima Gowen knew very little about horticulture when she arrived in Minnesota in the early 1970s.
She learned quickly. Gowen, who died Feb. 28 at age 80 after battling cancer, became an accomplished grower with a specialty — hosta plants — and introduced local gardeners to new varieties, including cultivars that she hybridized herself.
“She had a gift — a green thumb and the eye of an artist,” said Bob Olson, a member of the Minnesota Hosta Society, of which Gowen was a charter member.
Gowen, who studied dressmaking, met her husband, Ben, a flight engineer, in Japan. After he retired from the airline industry, they moved to Excelsior to run Gowen’s Gardens, his family’s nursery business.
Soon after, Mervin Eisel, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota, gave Hideko her first hosta plants. “Every time I’d go over there, she’d ask, ‘What is this one? What is that one?’ … It wasn’t long before she knew a lot,” said Eisel, who is now retired. “I got her inspired, and she went beyond. She ended up one of my best students of all time.”
Soon Gowen was hybridizing hosta. The Hosta Registry includes more than a dozen cultivars that she originated or registered, including Silk Kimono, Cutting Edge and Madame Butterfly. She also had several hosta varieties named after her.
She was choosy about what plants she’d release, recalled friend and fellow hosta fan Ross Johnson. “One of the big lessons she taught me was, don’t rush headlong to release a plant just to put your name on it. Make sure it’s good,” he said. “She was a great mentor.”
Gowen also was a mentor to other local gardeners, including Kathy Pedersen of Shakopee, who formed a close friendship when she worked in the Gowens’ greenhouse years ago. “She influenced me in every single way — how she labeled her plants, how she designed,” said Pedersen. “She had one of the premier collections.”
Gowen went back to Japan multiple times, including a trip that she organized in 1995 for Hosta Society members to hunt for wild hosta on remote islands and mountaintops. “She was very shy but she could rise to the occasion when needed. She had to be the interpreter,” recalled Olson.
Gowen was happy to share plants, he said. “If you gave her a plant, she’d come back with two for you.”
She also sold hosta and cut-flower bouquets at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.
“People would come from all over to buy her bouquets,” said Olson, noting that she won blue ribbons for her flower arranging.
Eisel credits her with introducing many local gardeners to the latest cultivars. “She brought a lot of new hostas into the area and helped get them distributed,” he said.
Even as age and illness diminished her strength and mobility, Gowen continued to enjoy digging in the dirt and tending her hostas.
“She was dividing plants up until last fall, and she was still planning on selling this spring,” Pedersen said. (Ben Gowen died in September, and Gowen’s Gardens is now closed.)
The trained seamstress also continued to sew, making silk tissue holders to carry in purses. “All of the nurses at the hospital got them. They were her little gift, and each one was just meticulous,” Pedersen said.
Survivors include stepson Terry Palmer of St. Peter, Minn.; stepdaughter Shari Kay Lakin of Texas, and siblings, nieces and nephews in Japan. A memorial gathering will be held March 31, from 4 to 9 p.m., at the Cremation Society of Minneapolis, 7110 France Av. S., Edina.