Horticulturalist is a word that many people are unfamiliar with. They usually don’t even know what it means. Other names like gardener, landscaper, botanist, or even farmer are affiliated with a career in plants. However, the term horticulturalist is derived from Latin hortus meaning “garden” and cultus meaning “to cultivate.” Therefore we do not simply garden, design, research, or grow food; what we do encompasses all of these things. My view of the horticulturist is someone who gets their hands dirty, but also understands the history of the plant they are planting. They have taken the time to learn what, how, and why things work the way they do in plants. It’s not just about the beautiful flower they will behold when the plant matures, it is a fascination with how that plant will create that flower.
Since the moment I learned the word horticulturalist, I have wanted nothing else but to be called one. The following is my story on becoming a horticulturalist.
The first time I ever tried to plant something was when I was nine years old. I had a pink and white playhouse that I felt needed some plants in front of it to make it feel like a home, so I stole some of my mother’s seed packets. I’m not positive, but I believe they were Tradescantia or also called “Wandering Jew”, the purple variety. I sprinkled some on the ground and expected them to grow easily. I now realize that I never watered these seeds and I planted them into straight sand during the summer. I was very disappointed when a few weeks later nothing had emerged, so I planted more seeds…still no plants. I decided that gardening was too difficult for me.
My association with plants did not improve because of my mother and grandmother. At around the same age they would take me with them to lower Alabama to the “You Pick It Yourself” farms. I hated this. It would be the middle of July and there we would be in the blazing sun carrying buckets collecting pole beans. My mom and my grandma would laugh and gossip while picking the beans, but me..I was hiding underneath large leaves in a crop row with maybe 3 beans in my bucket waiting for them to finish. If that was the end of it then maybe my hatred for vegetable plants would not have been so severe; however, when we arrived home the fun would not be over. All they had picked would now need to be washed, peeled, shucked, chopped, boiled, canned, freezed, or whatever else they could think of to do with this stuff. It was midnight when my head would finally reach the pillow. Although, I can’t help but remember having to say how good the beans were at every holiday because they had canned those beans themselves. For them the whole process was worth the reward.
Somewhere between shelling peas and my grandmother’s garden I started to get the urge to garden myself. You see my grandmother had an amazing garden. I would pretend to be Alice and her garden was my wonderland. She had gigantic elephant ears planted in a peculiar way that I’ve never seen since. They were trained to grow upwards creating a wall of leaves as if you were in a jungle. She would plant all different kinds of peppers in large white buckets. Garden ornaments were everywhere including a frog couple sitting underneath an umbrella and a statue of Mary, which is where she always hid the prize egg on Easter. But her absolute favorite thing in her garden was a very large circular bed of red Amaryllis that bloomed every spring. Every year she would have her picture taken with them. Her garden gave her joy and I couldn’t help but notice it.
In high school I planted my first little bed of plants around the oak trees in our front yard. I planted Torenia also called Wish Bone Flower. The morning after I planted them I rushed outside to see how they were doing and I was astonished to find them laying on the ground roots and all! They had been pulled out of the ground! I’m in my front yard yelling ,”Stupid kids! I’ll find you!” My mom comes outside to see what I’m hollering about and realizes in an instant what had really happened. She starts laughing hysterically at me. I turn to her and say, “What’s so funny?” She tells me, “Sweety, it wasn’t kids that pulled up your plants, it was squirrels.” So began my war with squirrels.
My freshman year in college I needed a part-time job and I wanted to do something I actually enjoyed, so I applied at a local plant nursery. I was hired immediately with a lot less experience than I originally thought. One day a man asked me how to propagate a plant we carried and I tried to make it seem like I knew exactly what that word meant. He didn’t fall for it . During my time at this nursery one moment in particular stayed with me and I believe it was this that made me want to earn my degree in horticulture. An older gentleman was standing in the shop. He looked like he was waiting to be helped, so I asked him, “Can I help you?” He said, “No, that’s okay. I’m waiting for her to finish.” The “her” was my co-worker Suzette. I insisted that I worked there and I would be more than happy to help him. Suddenly he says, “Well she’s a little bit older, she will know more.” It was like a slap in the face. I swore that some day I would know so much about plants that my age would not matter.
I found my way into a horticulture program after changing my mind three times. What made my education unique was that I had seen what plants do, but I didn’t know why they did those things. So when I learned something I had seen occur before and then learned why or how it happened, a light bulb could literally be seen floating above my head. In my botany class I learned what a node was. As soon as I got home I dashed out on my back porch to look at my Angel Trumpet growing in a container, and sure enough there was the node. I had seen it a million times, but had no idea what it was!
Later on down the road in my college career I found myself hunting for plants with diseases. This is not usually something gardeners look for in anticipation. It was for a plant pathology course that required 10 plant diseases identified. It meant you had to find a plant with a disease, bring the infected leaf into the lab to be looked at under a microscope and pray there would be a disease present. “Wow! Look at that! It’s sooty mold!”
If I had to pin point what was the best moment for me in my college career it would have to be in my Plant Identification class. We would have to identify plants around the campus providing the botanical names and the correct spelling. Not an easy task. This particular day we were being tested on trees. Oak trees can be very difficult to correctly identify. My professor pointed at a monstrous oak tree and asked us to identify it. I stood there and looked up at the tree what seemed like forever. Finally I wrote down an answer and turned it in. After everyone was finished he said, “Okay Darlene, tell everyone what tree that is.” I closed my eyes in achievement and said, “Sand Live Oak, Quercus geminata.” Each class would bring me to new heights as a gardener and bringing me closer to the title I wanted so badly.
Finally my college career came to an end and I graduated with my Bachelor’s of Science degree in Environmental Horticulture: Landscape and Nursery Management. Not long after I graduated college I was hired at a small plant nursery on the verge of having to close its doors. My very first day I was standing behind the counter having been there for only about 20 minutes, and this woman walked in the store. She apparently had been there before because my owner knew her. We hadn’t even been introduced yet when suddenly she grabbed my hand and said, “Are you the new horticulturalist?” Six years after that man had doubted my knowledge about plants and 17 years since I planted my first seed, I smiled and said, “Well, yes I am.”