Ellen and Jim Ellison of Ellison’s Greenhouses in Brenham, Texas, are the 2019 inductees into SAF’s Floriculture Hall of Fame. The recognition, the floral industry’s highest honor, pays tribute to the pair’s lifetime of innovation and generosity — and their commitment to creating new opportunities in research and education.
In accepting the award alongside his two daughters, Jim Ellison first thanked Ellen, “who is a stalwart and backed me in every way,” before addressing the audience members, many of whom have been on the receiving end of the Ellisons’ thoughtful and generous counsel through the years. “When I walked into the room tonight, I saw the beauty,” he said. “Thank you all who made it so wonderfully beautiful. It was awesome — it is awesome. I can’t thank you enough for this honor and all of you who made it special.”
Ellen and Jim met in high school and were married when both were in college, 68 years ago.
By the time they launched Ellison’s Greenhouses in 1969, they were already raising three children and working other jobs to support the venture — Jim at the Texas Department of Agriculture, Ellen as a schoolteacher. It took the family a year to build 10 small wood-frame, plastic greenhouses, after work and on weekends.
The plan was to grow tomatoes. But the Ellisons quickly discovered that better money could be made with poinsettias and other potted plants.
Today the field of floriculture is the beneficiary of that discovery.
From the start, Jim and Ellen took an innovative approach to business that favored transparency and collaboration with others: They enlisted a board of directors to get outside perspective and expertise — a move that was unusual at the time for a family business — and, in the 90s, Ellison’s became famous for its annual Poinsettia Celebration, visited by breeders, growers and wholesalers from around the country, who could see new varieties and get immediate feedback from consumers.
That spirit of openness is something that many in the industry have admired.
“Jim and Ellen are quiet and humble individuals: Their hearts are warm and sincere, their laughter contagious, their work ethic exemplary, and the quality of the floricultural products breathtaking,” said Kevin Heinz, a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University and the winner of SAF’s 2005 Alex Laurie Award, which recognizes excellence in research. Heinz credits the Ellisons with critical mentoring and advice early in career.
With success came the spirit of giving back. Both Jim and Ellen are noted for their activities on behalf of many different trade groups: for example, raising funds for projects of the Texas State Florists’ Association, or donating time and product for Texas’ Legislative Action Day to help raise awareness of important industry issues among legislators.
In particular, they have been long-time supporters of the Department of Horticultural Science at Texas A&M University, serving on committees and as mentors to young people, offering internships and work-study projects.
“Ideas are great, but it takes leaders to get ideas implemented, and Jim and Ellen have repeatedly demonstrated their leadership to produce results,” said Stan Pohmer of Pohmer Consulting Group in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “Their tenacity and ability to motivate people towards a common goal have provided our industry with tremendous benefits.”
The Ellisons’ deep devotion to education — and the future of the floral industry — is also evidenced by their establishment in 2004 of the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M. This fully endowed position aims to advance the health and vitality of the floral industry on a national and international scope through exemplary academic leadership, cutting-edge applied research, innovative extension outreach programs, and by mentoring well-educated, impassioned leaders to support the future of floriculture.
The chair required that the couple, with Ellen leading the charge, raise half a million dollars in order to match a gift from the university. Such an endowed chair typically results from the gift of a single major donor, but the Ellisons’ admirable goal faced real challenges, including reduced funding levels at land grant universities and diminishing resources for floriculture research in general. The pair didn’t let those challenges deter them. Instead, they worked hard to pull the industry together. Today, the Ellison chair is funded by a total of 64 donors — a testament to the spirit of collaboration that the Ellisons have created among colleagues and associates over the years, and to the deep respect industry members have for the couple.
Charlie Hall, Ph.D., the winner of SAF’s 2018 Paul Ecke, Jr. Award, has held the Ellison Chair since 2007. He said the experience has helped him “come to know and appreciate Jim and Ellen on a greater level”— including the scope of their accomplishments.
“I have known and seen many industry leaders in action, but I have not known any of them with any bigger hearts than the Jim and Ellen,” he said.
“They haven’ t just operated a greenhouse business since 1969. They haven’ t just served countless capacities in state and national associations. They haven’t just walked the halls in Austin and Washington educating legislators. They haven’t just mentored countless young people through internships and scholarships. They haven’ t just been the inspiration and driving force towards the development on an endowed chair. They haven’t just lived out their faith and let the integrity of their actions speak louder than their words. They have done all of this and more. In short, they have made a lasting difference.”
Bruce Wright is a contributing writer for the Society of American Florists. Mary Westbrook is the editor in chief of Floral Management.