War refugee’s cross-Atlantic voyage blossoms into a gift that keeps on giving

‘It’s like a story of survival for generations to come, and we intend to keep passing it down.’

SHARE War refugee’s cross-Atlantic voyage blossoms into a gift that keeps on giving

This pink geranium was brought into the country from Slovenia because Mary Horvat wanted to see it grow in her new homeland.


The things refugees carry. 

In 1985, Mary “Mati” Horvat, a Slovenian immigrant, exited O’Hare Airport carrying a secret.

To avoid detection, Horvat held it in the palm of her hand.

A war refugee who left Slovenia with little else but what she could carry before moving to Wilmette as a house servant in the 1950s, she returned to her homeland to see her dying sister. While there, she hatched a plan to bring back a flower: specifically, a tiny “cutting” of an old-fashioned heirloom geranium plucked from a nephew’s garden.

It was a U.S. Customs no-no. 

“I warned her, but mother just wanted to see the flower grow again in America — a remembrance,” recalled Horvat’s daughter, Danica Turk, who accompanied her mother on that trip back to Slovenia. 

Although she was warned by her daughter the suitcases would be searched and the cutting lost, Horvat even hid the plant plot from Turk until they exited customs.

“How crafty was that?” chuckled Turk, who lives in Prospect Heights. “I was stunned when she told me what she had done!


Danica Turk warned her mother it would be a customs violation to bring in the geranium as they came back through O’Hare. But her mother slipped it through anyway, even without her own daughter even knowing about it.

“That pink geranium was a memory of mother’s family home on top of a hill surrounded by meadows,” added Turk, who will turn 96 later this month. “Mother recalled a hill where geraniums and roses and dahlias grew, glowing in the backdrop of a shining sun.”

Turk takes comfort in the flower story as she now watches a war unfold in Ukraine. Her family tells a harrowing tale of life in Slovenia during World War II, when her father was beaten and imprisoned by the Nazis, and its aftermath.

“I was a 13 years old when Hitler’s Nazis confiscated our home in Slovenia in 1941 to use as their [local] headquarters,” she recalled.

The family fled and dispersed. Turk eventually ended up in England, where she spun cotton as a war worker and later earned an advanced degree in chemistry.

“I know how hard it must be for the people of Ukraine, who are dealing with the invasion of their own country. It is an awful thing,” she said.

“It’s terrifying to encounter the invader. We had no chance. I really don’t believe Ukraine has a chance. But I truly hope they do. I pray they do. But it will take a miracle. I don’t mean to sound negative. But a fight usually leads to a flight after a country is invaded.” 

The flight for her family was long and arduous.

“My mother knew tragedy,” Turk said of her family’s experience. Horvat was even arrested, beaten and crippled when a communist regime took over Slovenia after the war.

Turk and her mother separated and eventually came to the U.S. at different times. Turk was granted U.S. citizenship in 1979. The family now lives throughout the northern suburbs.

After the 1985 trip, the flowers were planted in a relative’s nursery in Northbrook.

“When the Slovenian geraniums began to bloom in America, my mother would exclaim: ‘Here it is again. Here it is again! They made her so happy.’” 

Mary Horvat died in 1989, spending the last four years of her life enjoying her secret “Sun Day” flowers.

In a twist, a clipping from the flowering Slovenian gems now blooms in Turks’ Greenhouse in Grayslake.

Claudia Turk, who married Danica Turk’s stepson, Barnabas, now runs the business. Her beloved husband died seven years ago.

“The geraniums from Slovenia we keep going for the family — not as anything commercial,” Claudia Turk said. 

“Sometimes people find them and like them and order them. But we don’t promote them or advertise them. But it’s amazing how many plants have been made from one single cutting in 1985.

“It’s like a story of survival for generations to come and we intend to keep passing it down to our family’s future generations!”

The flower is named Danilo, after Mary Horvat’s cousin, who gave her the cutting that came to America. 

And, Sneedless to say, five years ago, I spied Horvat’s tall, pink family secret hiding, unmarked, in a corner at Turks’.

That’s when they found a way into my garden.


The Pappas paper: Watch for Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas to host a Property Tax and Innovation Summit on May 24-25 on how she uses technology to handle Cook County’s very complicated property tax system.

Sneed is told more than a dozen countries from the Organization of American States, including Brazil and Mexico, were invited by Pappas to check out the advanced financial system she uses while attending an OAS conference in the Dominican Republic several months ago.

“Our system enables Cook County residents to not only pay their tax bills online rather than having to head into our office, but we now have a website which enables them to search for  refunds and check out a 20-year history of their property taxes in 108 languages. 

“They wanted to see it, so I invited them,” said Pappas. “And we are doing it in my office at City Hall. 

Sneedlings …

Saturday birthdays: NFL star Rob Gronkowski, 33; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 38, and movie producer George Lucas, 78. Sunday birthdays: tennis player Andy Murray, 35; retired football standout Ray Lewis, 47, and football legend Emmitt Smith, 53.

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