The Yabusaki family wants to reopen its beloved West Berkeley nursery — with a twist. From left: Tomoko Yabusaki, Kenneth Yabusaki, Masai Yabusaki and Kayla Sherpa. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For decades, if you wanted a Bonsai tree in Berkeley, you probably went to Yabusaki’s Dwight Way Nursery. The multi-generational family business took up an entire block in West Berkeley, and sold a variety of American and Japanese plants for the garden and home.

In 2014, after Emi Yabusaki, who ran the nursery with her brother and mother, died, the family closed the shop. The other Yabusakis still live on the property and keep the nursery lot tidy, but the only vegetation it’s seen in years are weeds.

Now, son, father and grandmother want to see it repopulated with a different sort of weed.

“We want to be America’s first retail cannabis nursery hybrid,” said Masao Yabusaki, 27, walking around the bare property last Thursday.

The family wants to reopen the traditional nursery on the western portion of the lot, on Dwight Way bordering 10th Street. The eastern portion would be split up, with one side becoming a 21+ cannabis plant shop and the other an employees-only cultivation site.

“We’re just sitting on [the land], and it’s costing us a fortune,” said Masao, who works as a cannabis cultivation consultant. “I’ve always been interested in cannabis. It’s our edge now, in the nursery business.”

Masao Yabusaki gestures around the now-empty, block-long lot where he hopes to open a nursery-cannabis hybrid shop. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

His father, Kenneth Yabusaki, whose own parents bought the nursery in 1984, is excited about the idea. Kenneth is skilled in the art of Bonsai, manipulating plants with wires to make miniature, living trees, and has worked as a landscaper since the nursery closed. He is intrigued by the potential of cannabis — and even of making and selling cannabis Bonsai.

“There’s more to this plant than we really know,” he said. “It piqued my interest because of this history of cancer in my family. I would like to see the property come back to life. Being in this business is in my blood.”

The family wants to cultivate pesticide-free cannabis, continuing its practice of using “companion plants” — in this case, clover, fava beans or marigold, Kenneth said — to stave off deer and pests.

But under current city rules, the family can’t just up and plant a bunch of marijuana, let alone sell it to customers.

Vestiges of the old nursery remain on the property. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

California’s 2016 legalization of marijuana allowed any individual to grow up to six plants. But the Yabusakis need a cultivation permit to grow on a larger scale. Berkeley voters approved the concept of allowing cannabis cultivation in 2010, but only in the manufacturing district in West Berkeley. However, the city has not yet issued any permits.

They also need permission to open up a cannabis retail site. Berkeley has decided to allow six dispensaries or other retail sites in the city, and the Yabusakis’ would count as the seventh, even though they would not be selling the “end products,” just the plants.

Masao has attended multiple recent City Council meetings, getting up during the public comment period to ask the council to allow businesses like his family’s to grow and sell marijuana plants.

The council has already shown support for the idea.

In July, Councilman Kriss Worthington and Councilwomen Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison introduced an item that would allow traditional nurseries to cultivate cannabis, in the area bounded by University Avenue, San Pablo Avenue, Dwight Way and Sixth Street. There are nurseries in Berkeley that are not located in that small geographic area.

The Yabusakis, said Davila, whose district includes their nursery, has been very supportive of their effort.

“Small nursery businesses that have operated in Berkeley for many years should not be excluded from participating in the growing adult-use cannabis industry,” wrote the authors of the council item. They pointed to Amoeba Records as a business that has successfully “hybridized” with its new dispensary Hi Fidelity, located next door with a separate entrance. (State law would require the Yabusakis to fence off the different areas.)

When that item came up, Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who said she supported the premise, said she had concerns with its scope and vague definitions. The council referred the item to city staff for further evaluation.

It is expected to come back up at a special City Council meeting dedicated to cannabis issues Oct. 9.

Tomoko Yabusaki, who bought the property with her late husband in 1984, still weeds and works to keep it tidy. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

This week, at Tuesday’s council meeting, a number of speakers cautioned the city to keep the public-health perspective in mind — and institute several changes to dispensary location rules, warning labels, types of products allowed, and legal distance from schools — before moving ahead with the cannabis proposals.

Based on the most reliable and up-to-date scientific evidence, while legalization can help mitigate the negative social effects of the war on drugs, excessively rapid introduction of newly legalized recreational cannabis presents a significant potential threat to the public health, safety and welfare of the residents of Berkeley, and particularly to youth and pregnant women,” wrote the city’s Health Commission in a report

The council said it would consider those recommendations at the Oct. 9 meeting.

On the nursery item, Masao said his family has felt support from neighbors and old customers.

“Everybody’s on board — even the landlord, which is my grandma,” he said.

Tomoko Yabusaki, his grandmother, owns and lives on the property with Kenneth, Masao and Masao’s fiancée Kayla Sherpa. Tomoko said she has become a cannabis convert herself, using CBD balm for aches and pains.

The old nursery sign is tucked away against a back wall. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

After her daughter Emi, a central, friendly figure at nursery, died in the spring of 2014, she and Kenneth felt they didn’t have it in them to continue running the operation by themselves. Tomoko’s husband Frank, Kenneth’s father, had died several years before.

“We were out here cleaning tomatoes or something,” said Kenneth, standing on the old nursery grounds last week. “She looked at me, I looked at her, and she said, ‘I’m tired.’” He glanced at his son Masao and said, “I’m so glad he caught the bug.”

If the nursery is able to reopen, it will do so in a neighborhood that has changed significantly since the Yabusakis first set up shop. When they opened in the 1980s, “there were gunshots almost every night,” Tomoko said.

“My father’s thinking even back then was, we’re going to change Berkeley one plant at a time,” Kenneth said.

At the beginning of this year, according to Tomoko, she “was almost dying. God said, ‘Come back, wait until your grandson opens the nursery.’”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...