Hendersonville, home of the North Carolina Apple Festival, is widely known for its vast orchards and thriving apple industry. However, two local brothers have introduced Japanese maples to the area’s economic landscape, and, with them, they’ve brought international recognition to themselves and their hometown.
With business booming, they’re proving that if you’ve got two Nichols, money grows on trees.
Mr. Maple, known locally as Nichols Nursery, is a Japanese maple nursery tucked away in East Flat Rock. Located on two acres with roughly 15 greenhouses, it’s run solely by brothers Matt and Tim Nichols. And at first glance, it simply looks like a small, local business.
However, it is anything but. Mr. Maple is home to more than 1,000 cultivars of Japanese maples, making it the largest collection in the nation, and one of the largest in the world. Their trees and services are sought out everywhere from Arkansas to Ireland, and the owners’ expertise is called on for conferences around the globe.
The brothers are professed “tree nerds,” and this passion is in their genes. Their family’s interest in Japanese maples dates back to the 1950s, when Dolly Hill, their maternal grandmother, began planting the trees at her Hendersonville home.
Smaller than native maples, with sharp attenuated leaves, Japanese maples are natural ornamentals. Their vibe is unmistakable: majestic but reserved. Western North Carolina’s temperate climate (zones 6 and 7 on the plant-hardiness scale) is ideal for their propagation, and late summer to early fall is the best time to optimize their characteristic shape through pruning.
Hill’s maples grew into an impressive garden that caught the attention of landscapers in the area. Separately, and about 20 years later, Norman Nichols, Matt and Tim’s father, began growing maple trees as a hobby. Soon after, he met and married Evelyn Hill, merging two families with a deep appreciation for Japanese maples — and a livelihood looming in the roots of their offspring.
Growing up, Matt and Tim quickly learned gardening basics as they helped in the upkeep of their grandmother’s and parent’s gardens. By the time they graduated high school, they were already attempting to form a business plan for Nichols Nursery.
“You think you’re the only one crazy about this stuff,” remarks Matt, who’s currently the president of the North American Branch of the Maple Society, “and then people respond to what you’re doing, and it’s so fun to see their reactions.” Since 2008, the pair has grown what was once a basic family hobby into an internationally recognized business, and themselves into experts of the field.
Their display gardens, housed on various family properties throughout Hendersonville, form a startling panoply of bold oranges, deep maroons, and bright, rich greens, giving visitors a peek at their immense collection. Notable finds include Germaine’s Gyration, a favorite for its rapid growth, twisting habit, and cascading lace leaves, and Shishigashira, also known as Lion’s Head, for the beautiful orange fall coloring that resembles its namesake.
“Once we grew big enough, other nurseries wanted to trade with us,” says Tim. He mentions their whopping number of cultivars, but insists, “it’s never been about the numbers.” On buying trips, the pair looks for trees that are truly distinctive. “If a tree is too similar to something we already have, we usually don’t keep it,” says Matt.
As their inventory grew, the Nicholses expanded their market through Mrmaple.com. “Online was the big frontier,” says Matt. Shipping worldwide, the business quickly gained recognition. Over the next few years, Mr. Maple was recommended in Southern Living and Fine Gardening magazines, and featured on an episode of In the Garden with Bryce Lane on PBS. The brothers are executive members of various maple organizations, have published multiple academic articles, and have delivered lectures at Clemson University, Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, and at the JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State. This month, they’re among the presenters at the “Speaking of Gardening” symposium at the North Carolina Arboretum in South Asheville.
“Dad feared we were going to take all the fun out of it when we grew it into a business,” admits Matt. But he and his brother have tried to prove otherwise. They say they still enjoy the day-to-day of working in their gardens and greenhouses, and their knowledge has allowed them to travel frequently — to other nurseries, to speaking engagements, to client meetings.
And that can mean major clients. The brothers have been called on to visit celebrity homes.
“You’d be surprised how many big names have bought our trees,” says Tim. They won’t name names, but they allude to a list that includes famous athletes and musicians. “We find that a lot of our customers have stressful jobs and turn to gardening for relaxation,” adds Tim.
It’s said that if you do what you love, you don’t work a day in your life. Matt Nichols says that’s not true. “If you love something,” he says, “you work even harder for it.” But his father’s warning is still in his head.
“We don’t want to get too big to where we don’t enjoy it.”
Nichols Nursery, 107 Maplewood Knoll Drive, East Flat Rock. Mrmaple.com. 828-226-5684. The “Speaking of Gardening” Symposium happens August 21 and 22 at the NC Arboretum. Ncarboretum.org.