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The nursery that time forgot

Once upon a time, there were seven Dees. Then the name became the title of a nursery, reflecting a father's pride in his family.

Bob and Meryl Snodgrass settled on the unusual business name some 45 years ago, inspired by their seven children. Let's see, there are Drake, Daryl, Dennis, Dan, David, Drew. Oh, and I almost forgot Dean.

When the Southeast Stark Street store opened in 1957, it was considered out in the boondocks. What's now Drake's 7 Dees was the last Portland landmark you'd see as you crossed into Gresham.

About the time Richard Nixon resigned and many of us were wearing platform shoes and bell-bottoms, Jane Van Lom of Blue Lake started making frequent pilgrimages to the nursery. It was a good escape then, and it is now.

On this trip, she's contemplating a sea of roses. There are hundreds of roses, each one requiring some imagination to visualize the barren canes stuck in pots growing into trees of roses.

Van Lom hoists two matching 'Double Delight' rose trees onto her cart Ñ one for her best friend, who recently lost her sister to cancer, the other rose tree for the woman's family.

'I was going to send several dozen roses, but why not give them roses that remind them of the beauty of life,' Van Lom says.

The healing power of flowers is the part of the business that nursery manager Lynn Snodgrass enjoys the most.

'I love what I do,' she says. 'People come here because they want to. It's not as if they're going to the dentist or something. They look forward to coming here and so they linger.'

For almost half a century, Drake's 7 Dees was the comfy old place where the parents of baby boomers went for flats of geraniums in the spring and Christmas wreaths in winter. The trowel was passed on and now the baby boomers bring their children and grandchildren.

Time caught up with Drake's 7 Dees last year when the garden store made a leap into the future with a remodeling job topping $750,000. At 7,000 square feet, the garden store alone is bigger than a football field, and the grounds encompass 4 acres.

Lynn, who married one of the 'Dees' Ñ Drake Snodgrass, who runs a landscaping business on-site Ñ says she has noticed that people today place a higher value on gardening.

'People understand now the investment comes back as an asset,' she says. Whether the payoff is emotional or financial, she sees more people reaping the benefits of gardening. 'Our job is to care for the plants until they find a home.'

The nursery is part of Cathy Kelsay's Southeast Portland life.

'Drake's 7 Dees has been around so long with the same people there, and it's not changing hands again and again,' Kelsay says. 'I know I'll be able to find what I'm looking for.'

Kelsay notices that the staff doesn't seem to mind playing Twenty Questions trying to diagnose plant problems. 'I've even taken a half-eaten leaf in a Ziploc bag and they've told me what's wrong,' she says.

Grandpa Snodgrass got started in the nursery business growing rhododendrons from seed he found in England. Today, rhodies remain one of Lynn Snodgrass' favorite plants. 'Mrs. G.W. Leak' has pink flowers with a cranberry throat. 'Aloha' flowers in brighter tones but has ruffled edges that make the blooms look like the flowers on a Hawaiian lei.

As the years went by, 7 Dees grew to four garden centers, but only the Stark Street store is still open. There also are two family landscaping businesses.

You can go into Drake's 7 Dees Garden Center not knowing a bulb from a begonia and walk out itching to plant. There's something to be said about the fact that the place has 'always been there.'

'Anne Jaeger's Gardening Tips' airs at 9:56 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays on KGW (8). Jaeger's Web site is www.gardengal.tv.