Heart of Louisiana: Stokes Nursery

FOREST HILL, LA (WVUE) - If you put a dot in the center of a map of Louisiana, there's a good chance it would be close to the small town of Forest Hill. It's a place that's familiar to many landscapers and garden centers throughout the South.  That's because the Rapides Parish community has almost as many plant nurseries as houses. FOX 8's Dave McNamara takes us this garden hot spot in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.

Little Samantha isn't quite 2 years old, but already she seems to like her grandfather's nursery in Forest Hill.  The Stokes' family nursery has been around for more than a century.

"I am the fourth generation," said nursery owner Sam Stokes. "I have a son-in-law that works with me here, and we're still going. We're kind of a mom-and-pop-size operation, but we're still here."

Stokes Nursery is one of many plant-growing businesses in the village of Forest Hill, population 500. As you drive through the area, it seems nearly every home has a nursery, some modest in size. But others grow plants on a massive scale. It's estimated that the number of nurseries tops 200. But the Stokes Nursery, started by Samuel Stokes in 1901, was the first.

"Mostly started as a retail thing, selling to the public, you know," he said.

The Stokes Nursery is one of the few businesses here that sells retail.  Most of the plants that are grown in Forest Hill are sold wholesale and shipped all over the country. Many of the Louisiana-grown shrubs and trees end up at big retailers from Texas to Maryland.  Forest Hill claims the title of Louisiana's nursery capital.

The Stokes Nursery began at a time when lumber was big business in Central Louisiana. But when the timber was gone, the mills shut down.

"When they cut the virgin pine timber out, they left," Stokes said. "And a lot of jobs, I guess,  with them. That's one of the reasons, I guess, like I say, my great-grandfather was doing something he liked and was also trying to make groceries."

There are a few photographs from the early days of the nursery and a plant catalogue from 1932. The price for a peach tree: 75 cents.

"They didn't need a lot of money, they could get by with a little bit," Stokes said. "But we get for a five-gallon container, a little container-grown peach tree, $16 now."

Stokes grows nearly all of his plants from seeds and cuttings. He likes the colorful flowering plants like the hibiscus, and he sells hanging baskets of bougainvillea. He says the key to keeping them full of flowers is regular trimming.

"Just some little shape up cuts through the summer, they rebound from it very fast and that's where they make color - on the new growth," he said.

Sam Stokes has been part of the nursery business since he was in diapers.  It's in his blood. And he wouldn't mind if little Samantha wants to follow in his footsteps - but only if she really likes the business.

"That's what it takes, somebody that wants to do it," he said. "Because it consumes a whole lot of your life."

When you see all of the Forest Hill nurseries, it makes you wonder if there is something special in the soil.

"They talk about the rich soil, and it's definitely not rich soil," Stokes said.

It's just one of those businesses that started with a lot of hard work and then caught on with everybody else in the neighborhood.

Forest Hill is about a three-hour drive from New Orleans. For more information, click here.

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