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Hans Britsch

February 5, 1933 – February 25, 2022

Like the Alps surrounding the small village in Termin, Switzerland, where he was born, Hans Britsch lived an impressive life. Hans was the last of five children born to Magdelena and Josef Britsch. From an early age, Hans loved plants; he was always the first to find spring wildflowers on the slopes and in the meadows of the Alps. His father having died from a timber-cutting accident when he was only nine months old, Hans developed a strong work ethic at a very young age, tending to his family’s cows and selling edelweiss to tourists and soldiers during WWII on the Simplon pass (one of the historic routes of the Orient Express).

Hans was intellectually curious and valued education. He attended an agricultural school in Visp, Valais, followed by an apprenticeship where he learned to graft plants. He then earned a prestigious Swiss Meisterprufung Diploma in horticulture after attending the University at Oschberg. 

Hans met the love of his life, Margarethe “Gretl” Maria Berner, in Zurich, Switzerland,  on a blind date. Hans was asked to chauffer another couple, and Gretl was invited to join the group so Hans wouldn’t feel like a taxi driver. After visiting greenhouses all day, Hans and Gretl fell in love. On September 29, 1962, they were married at Saint Andrew’s Catholic Church in Zams, Austria (Gretl’s hometown). Their first child, Susanne Magdelena, was born two years later. 

In 1964, Hans and Gretl immigrated to California in search of a place with year-round spring weather. Hans arrived first, crossing the Atlantic Ocean by ship with his blue VW Bug in tow. He then drove across the country and settled in Buena Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. Three months later, Gretl and Susie joined him (by airplane). Initially, Hans worked for a landscape company (Valley Crest) during the day, and Gretl worked as a night-shift nurse to provide round-the-clock care for Susie. 

In 1966, they happened to meet a Swiss couple who owned the Morgan Wholesale Nursery in Vista, California. Hans and Gretl bought the nursery and renamed it Western Cactus Growers. Hans initially made deliveries along Highway 101 in his VW Bus/Truck. They got their first big break that same year, supplying a well-established supermarket chain, Alpha Beta, with their plants. They also started importing seeds from Europe, mainly from Werner Ubelmann (who offered all of the discoveries from Brazil) and from other places where Hans traveled to collect seeds. Hans took great pride in propagating plants from seed, which reduced wild plant pillaging by plant enthusiasts and protected endangered species and the environment. By 1967, their second child, Hans Thomas, was born.

Hans and Gretl visited many countries to see cactus and succulents in their natural habitats. In 1976, they traveled to South Africa with Dieter Supthut, Director of the Sukkulenten-Sammlung in Zurich. They also traveled to Brazil with Professor Werner Rauh and Leopoldo Horst to see places where Albert Buining and Horst made important plant discoveries. And they participated in trips organized by the International Organization for Succulent Plant Study (IOS Congresses). They particularly enjoyed IOS trips to the Barranca de Metztitlan in Mexico, to the provinces of Salta and Jujuy in the Andes Mountains of Argentina (where they saw giant Helianthocereus and the woolly Oreocereus), and to the cereus forests and Andes of Venezuela (where they saw snow-white cephalium of Melocactus schatzlii and the M. mazelianus along the Orinoco River). They also took trips to explore plants native to the desert regions of the United States, as well as to Africa, Cuba, Guatemala, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands, China, Russia, Hungary, and Madagascar.

Hans and Gretl particularly cherished operating Western Cactus with their son, Hans Thomas, for the last 33 of their 56 years in agribusiness. Working side-by-side with their valued employees, they expanded Western Cactus by establishing multiple other companies on more than 100 acres of land across San Diego County. 

Pictured with Trichocereus cv. ‘Flying Saucer’ – Hans Britsch Hybrid

Hans and Gretl shared their last day of work together on Valentine’s Day 2022, in their 60th year of marriage. As with every other day, Hans was first to arrive at 6:30 A.M. to work; that night, he was taken to the hospital by ambulance. In his absence, Hans Thomas and his son, Nico (a UC Berkeley graduate), are committed to growing the business for generations to come—a fulfillment of Hans and Gretl’s American dream.

As much as Hans loved his work, he loved his family even more. He immensely enjoyed spending time at family events and holiday gatherings. He faithfully and unconditionally supported his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He also enjoyed being an active member of his community (Road 3A), his civic duties, opportunities to make charitable contributions, and donating endangered plants to organizations such as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the San Diego Botanic Gardens, and the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

As a lifelong devout Catholic, Hans was surrounded by his family when he returned to Our Lord on February 25, 2022, after receiving the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick from Father Gerardo Fernandez. Switzerland had come to California on that day—all of the local mountains were covered with snow. Outside his hospital window, workers were planting a drought-tolerant rooftop, and an American flag could be seen flying from a crane. He would have liked that. 

The family is enormously grateful for the tender care given to Hans by all of the doctors (Rai, Kosmo, Tolentino, Greenstein, Bertrand de Silva, Aldiwani, Mulvihill, Chelimilla, and Macleay), nurses (Taylor, Toby, Ali, Britney, Geanie, Patty, Rosie, Emma, Jordan, and Irene), and many others at Palomar Medical Center. Though pandemic weary, each provided first-rate, dignified care into his last hours. 

Hans is survived by his much-loved wife Gretl; children Susie (husband David) and Hans Thomas (wife Rachel); grandchildren Stephanie (husband Greg), Peter, Hans Joseph, Nicolas (Nico), and Marcos; great-grandchildren Savannah and Cayden & Hudson (identical twins, born on March 10, 2022); and family in Switzerland (including sister Paula). 

Hans led an extraordinary life dedicated to his family and his plants. He led with humility and by example, gaining the respect of others through his work ethic, respect and kindness for others, and ability to live each day to its fullest as a loving husband, father, and farmer. 

A funeral mass and burial will be held for Hans Britsch at Mission San Luis Rey. March 29, 2022 at 1:30 p.m. Reception to follow.

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