5-10-5: Peter Zale, Curator of Plants and Plant Breeder at Longwood Gardens

Peter_Zale

Please introduce yourself.

Peter Zale, Ph.D. Plant breeder, horticulturist, and botanical explorer.

The arts or horticulture?

For me, horticulture, but I certainly appreciate the undeniable relationship between the two.  At the time I became interested in plants, I was also very interested in drawing and would render botanical illustrations of the plants that interested me most.  This soon changed after I began growing and propagating plants in my first garden, and my interest in drawing and the arts diminished as I became enthralled with the plant science. I have been on that path ever since.

Some people attribute their love of gardening to their parents or grandparents, others their neighbors or teachers. How did you initially become interested in plants?

As a freshman in high school, I was assigned a leaf collection project in a freshmen biology class.  We were to identify, collect, press, and create herbarium specimens of native and cultivated trees of the greater Cleveland, Ohio region.  The project was meant to teach us the fundamentals of taxonomy.  Certain tree species, such as Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) and Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) were part of a large list of rare taxa considered difficult to find, and were worth extra credit if included in the final project.  Finding these rare plants became something of an obsession for me, and my family supported my fledgling interest by taking me to places like Holden Arboretum and the numerous metroparks in the Cleveland area to search for these plants.  In the end I found most, but not all, of them and for my final grade I received something like 300 points out a possible total of 100.  Even after the project ended, I still wanted to find those that I couldn’t find during the course of the assignment, and started going to nurseries, buying them, and planting them. It wasn’t long before my Mother’s yard was filled with these plants and many others.  In many ways I am still working on this project!

 You spent 6 years managing a large commercial nursery before deciding to enroll in higher education again. It is always hard for people to leave the workforce and become students again (needless to say, plenty of career changers have gone through this journey). Although one never stops learning during their jobs, how did you become motivated to devote yourself to the scientific discipline of horticulture and botany?

I had wanted to go to graduate school after completing my Bachelor’s, but I think one of the problems with graduate school is that most students tend to enroll right after finishing a bachelor’s degree.  For purely academic disciplines, this is the best thing to do, but horticulture is different, and academia is just one facet of a huge array of opportunities that exist.  I also had a chance to be part of an industry experience that I could not pass up, so I put grad school on hold and went to work.

My industry experience started while I was still an undergraduate at Ohio State.  My college roommate’s father had been in the restaurant industry most of his life and was very successful at it, but had always wanted to start his own nursery.  When I was two years away from graduating, he sold the restaurants, followed his passion, and decided to start the nursery.  My experience was totally unique.  From its inception, I was involved in every phase of the operation.  I helped choose the land where the nursery was started, was involved in the planning and development phase, and ultimately managed operations on the entire farm.  This was a tremendous experience, but over time I started to plateau in my daily routine, and I knew that some of things I wanted to do with my life, such as plant breeding and exploration were just not going to happen if I had stayed there.  So I left the nursery to explore other opportunities.  I was immediately offered another, similar job at the largest production nursery in the Cincinnati area, but during my senior year at Ohio State I did a study abroad trip to England, and made a good connection with the faculty advisor of the trip.  He happened to be a well respected member of the OSU horticulture department, and told me at that time that if I ever wanted to enroll in graduate school, that there would be a place for me in his program.  So, six years after he told me this, I went back and had a conversation with him and the place was still there for me.  So, after much deliberation and many sleepless nights, I went back to school.  Transitioning back to the student lifestyle wasn’t easy at first, and I specifically remember taking my first exam in grad school and having a mini-panic attack.  I remember thinking to myself  “what the hell am I doing here?  I’m too old for this!”  Ultimately, going back to school was one of the best decisions of my life, but for those in a similar situation, my advice is this.  Go back to school with a well-defined plan for your future.  Don’t go back with the thought that your future will just work itself out because you are a grad student and will ultimately have an advanced degree.  Scientific discipline is no substitution for passion and enthusiasm, but it does help temper and direct it.

Plant breeding can be carefully controlled or spontaneous – surprises still can happen despite biotechnological strides. To what extend does control ends and nature’s will begins in your work?

Personally, I think the breeding process begins with nature’s will, and becomes more controlled as advancements are made. I approach all of my breeding projects this way; collect as much raw germplasm as is possible, emphasizing wild collected material, and some key cultivars that might exhibit characteristics you are interested in, and go from there.  This ultimately provides a broad template, but over time, the success and failures of certain germplasm accessions become evident and help shape different breeding avenues; this method does also provide a few surprises along the way!  Not only does this method ensure that my breeding efforts remain novel and unduplicated by others, but it also allows me to refine the process in unique ways.

Phlox ovata ‘White Mountainside’.  A unique flower color variant of this underutilized species that I found in western Virginia

Phlox ovata ‘White Mountainside’. A unique flower color variant of this underutilized species that I found in western Virginia

This seems to be the opposite of what many (or most!) commercial breeders do. They often begin with a limited genepool, and a ridiculously narrow range of genetic variation, and rely on advanced breeding techniques to generate new variants.  Sometimes this works, sometimes not.  Hence, you get 100’s of new introductions every year that are basically the same as their competitors.

For example, there are many people starting to breed Phlox right now, but basically all of them use plants that are available in the trade as the basis of their breeding programs. Before I even began hybridize phlox, I developed a large (probably the largest in the world) germplasm collection of Phlox by collecting new forms of widely cultivated species, and poorly known, rarely cultivated species.  I also brought at least 3 species into cultivation.  By doing this I was able to see a cross section of the total variation in the genus, and make informed decisions about where to begin the breeding process.  It also allowed me to differentiate my efforts from those of everyone else breeding Phlox.  Many of these hybrids are based on taxa that have never been cultivated to a large extent, but I would never have known this if I did not initially seek to understand the breadth of variation in the genus.  Because these initial hybrids are immediately different from what is being done, we are starting to employ some of the cutting-edge breeding tools that can further advance breeding lines, and further contribute to a unique, adaptable, and reliable product.

Do you see or liken plant breeding to an artistic process? Certain colors and shapes must be preferable over others, and plant breeders do seem to develop a particular style.

I think it depends on the breeding objectives and personal interests of the breeder.  In something like phlox, many people want to breed for resistance to disease.  In this case breeding may be more pragmatic and defined by rigorous scientific objectives and protocols rather than flower color, plant form, or novelty.  However, the artistic license may come later after the initial goals are met.

However I do think there is an artistic side to breeding, and that this is closely tied to passion for certain plant groups, especially for those that work in genera that are “off the radar” of the typical plant consumer.  One genus of great interest to me, that exemplifies this, is Trillium.  I personally find them to be among the most simplistically elegant and distinctive of all plants. Although they have tremendous importance as native plant species in the U.S., I also see tremendous opportunity for breeding and enhancement, especially given the diversity seen in wild species.  Most people don’t realize the range of flower colors, leaf variegation patterns, and breadth of plant sizes and habits that exists here; new species are still being described from the southeastern U.S.  I am not the only one to think this; In New Zealand, there is a small, dedicated group of Trillium growers and hybridizers that have begun to develop this variation and some of the results are astounding.  There is even a small business there that breeds and sells Trillium stems for the cut-flower industry!  So yes, there is definitely an artistic side to the breeding process, but like my breeding philosophy, it starts with the plants.


The foliage of Magnolia virginiana "var. ludoviciana"

The foliage of Magnolia virginiana “var. ludoviciana”

Your M.S. dissertation ‘Studies on the Optimization and Breeding Potential of Magnolia virginiana L.’ beautifully bridged the ecology and horticulture on one of our beautiful native North American flowering trees. How did the topic come about and what did the subsequent research discover?

When I talked with my advisor about coming back to graduate school, he mentioned numerous projects that I could work on.  I knew I wanted to get involved in plant breeding and botanical exploration, and the only project that fit this category was a project involving the enhancement of Magnolia virginiana for increased landscape usage.  This project was also new to his research repertoire, so it also gave me the opportunity to help develop a research project, rather than just plug-in to a more established, ongoing project.

The most important part of this research, in my opinion, was what I didn’t publish in my thesis!  From 2007-2009 I designed and performed collection expeditions to study M. virginiana in the wild and obtain germplasm.  During that time I was able to collect seeds from throughout the range of the species and develop one of the most comprehensive germplasm collections of this species in the world.  This work taught me the value of collecting, not only for plant breeding, but also conservation.  Most of the M. virginiana cultivars on the market are similar to one another, but when we started growing these wild collected accessions, I started to see horticulturally useful variation that could lead to real breakthroughs in the breeding and selection of this species, but also the uniqueness of certain populations that might one day garner conservation priority.  Some of these unique collections have been passed on to the U.S. National Arboretum and have become part of their collection.


Left: Some of the Phlox hybrids I created under evaluation at the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center. Center: Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii is one of the most promising members of the Phlox pilosa complex for cultivation.  It is more compact and floriferous than other forms of P. pilosa.  It also reminds me of plant collecting in Kentucky.  It has a very restricted natural range and has become very rare in the wild. Right: A clone of Phlox nivalis discovered in the Florida panhandle.  This clone is a unique color pattern in Phlox.

Left: Some of the Phlox hybrids I created under evaluation at the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center. Center: Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii is one of the most promising members of the Phlox pilosa complex for cultivation. It is more compact and floriferous than other forms of P. pilosa. It also reminds me of plant collecting in Kentucky. It has a very restricted natural range and has become very rare in the wild. Right: A clone of Phlox nivalis discovered in the Florida panhandle. This clone is a unique color pattern in Phlox.

Native plants became the focus again when you tackled your doctoral dissertation ‘Germplasm Collection, Characterization, and Enhancement of Eastern Phlox Species’. It is always interesting to leaf through old horticultural books and find Phlox paniculata popularized by Europeans when other Phlox species have tremendous future in gardens. We are finally seeing selections of these species, such as Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood Purple’ and Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’, established in gardens. Anything interesting in the pipeline from your doctoral research? 

Yes! I have about 20 or so selections, of both species and hybrids that are being trialed for introduction.  That may seem like a lot, but because I dealt primarily with species and germplasm accessions that had not been previously used for breeding, there is quite a bit of novelty among these selections.  I have had numerous plant breeding companies look at these plants and they have all been blown away by the results.  This is very exciting and I hope to continue with this work as I move into the next phase of my career.

An intensely colored clone of Phlox villosissima (syn. P. pilosa ssp. riparia or P. pilosa ssp. latisepala) selected from a roadside population in Kerr County, Texas.  Despite the southern origins of this taxon, it is proving to be one of the most adaptable and persistent taxa in the P. pilosa complex.

An intensely colored clone of Phlox villosissima (syn. P. pilosa ssp. riparia or P. pilosa ssp. latisepala) selected from a roadside population in Kerr County, Texas. Despite the southern origins of this taxon, it is proving to be one of the most adaptable and persistent taxa in the P. pilosa complex.


I imagine that your work takes you to unique ecosystems. What are some of your favorite natural areas in North American to explore? You seem very partial towards the pine savannahs and bogs.

The habitat of Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii, a very rare phlox of the interior low plateau region of western Kentucky.  The herbaceous layer of plants was exceptionally rich and included a blend of prairie forbs and woodland plants.

The habitat of Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii, a very rare phlox of the interior low plateau region of western Kentucky. The herbaceous layer of plants was exceptionally rich and included a blend of prairie forbs and woodland plants.

I designed and executed 16 different collection expeditions throughout the eastern U.S., and while I do love the pine savannahs and pitcher plant bogs of the coastal plain, there are a couple of other areas that I favor slightly more.  First would be the state of Kentucky.  I suppose that may sound strange, but Kentucky is a state of extraordinary physiographic diversity, this in turn translates into often overwhelming plant diversity within a small geographic region.  While I did not cover the entire state, some of my best botanical discoveries happened there, primarily within the rugged hills of interior low plateaus of the central part of the state.  This area has historically been poorly botanized, so the herbarium record is incomplete, so plant-hunting there is rife with new species and unknown variants of well-known species.

Left to Right: A view of the mountainous valley and ridge province of western Virginia from the top of Bald Knob; Rhododendron prinophyllum in full bloom amongst the acid soil loving flora on Bald Knob; Trillium undulatum in the same region.

Left to Right: A view of the mountainous valley and ridge province of western Virginia from the top of Bald Knob; Rhododendron prinophyllum in full bloom amongst the acid soil loving flora on Bald Knob; Trillium undulatum in the same region.

Another favorite was the shale barrens of the valley and ridge province on the borders of Virginia and West Virginia.  This region in well-known for harboring rare, endemic plant species, but is also one of the most diverse plant species regions of the eastern U.S.  Again, the extraordinary physiographic and geologic diversity in the area has contributed to this proliferation of species.  This region also fulfills my love of being in the mountains, and is relatively remote, so it allows for a good escape from the city life in Columbus without having to drive too far.


Left: A yellow form of Trillium decipiens found along a roadside in Alabama.  Does it get any better?  Center: One of my clones of Trillium maculatum f. simulans.  One of my all-time favorite plants.  I found this along a roadside next to a dilapidated house with hundreds of kids toys scattered throughout the yard.  This has tremendous breeding potential. Right: Trillium recurvatum f. shayi ‘Little Rabbit’ is a new introduction of the yellow flowered form of T. recurvatum.  This was selected by a dear friend of mine in southeastern Indiana for its dwarf habit and rapid vegetative propagation.  Most forms of f. shayi are tall, slender plants that do not readily increase.

Left: A yellow form of Trillium decipiens found along a roadside in Alabama. Does it get any better? Center: One of my clones of Trillium maculatum f. simulans. One of my all-time favorite plants. I found this along a roadside next to a dilapidated house with hundreds of kids toys scattered throughout the yard. This has tremendous breeding potential. Right: Trillium recurvatum f. shayi ‘Little Rabbit’ is a new introduction of the yellow flowered form of T. recurvatum. This was selected by a dear friend of mine in southeastern Indiana for its dwarf habit and rapid vegetative propagation. Most forms of f. shayi are tall, slender plants that do not readily increase.

Novelty drives the horticultural industry. Unfortunately the rush to fulfill the public’s demand for novelty has led to disappointing duds and caused older selections or simply good garden plants to fall out of favor. We risk discouraging the public from gardening because the ‘new plants’ fail not to horticultural ignorance, but simply their poor performance outside of the greenhouse. How long do you trial your results before they are deemed ready for introduction?

I think any new introduction should be trialed for at least three years before introduction.  More importantly, the trials should be held in a diversity of different climates, environments, and garden conditions to accurately gage the overall adaptability of a particular selection.  Of course, by doing this, someone else might usurp your efforts, but I feel like what I’ve developed is unique enough to withstand the time needed for proper trials.  I think it is also important to determine the ultimate market. For example, the Phlox introductions are likely to be on the mass-market, but a special form of a Trillium may just be distributed to plant collectors interested in amassing unique forms of a particular genus or species.

Hepatica nobilis ssp. acuta ‘Nimbus’.  My selection of this typically white or pale pink-flowered species from a variable population in southwestern Ohio.  It needs further evaluation, but the initial results are promising.

Hepatica nobilis ssp. acuta ‘Nimbus’. My selection of this typically white or pale pink-flowered species from a variable population in southwestern Ohio. It needs further evaluation, but the initial results are promising.

Some people might argue that the search for novelty does not need to involve exotic destinations overseas when our backyards can still provide interesting germplasm. For example, in an effort to safeguard its natural heritage, New Zealand has imposed strict legislation on importing exotic species, if not introducing stringent quarantine requirements, causing plant breeders there to lament the ‘tighter lids’. Although your graduate research tackles native species in North America, exotic species overseas still draw your attention. What is your philosophy on developing a balance between protecting our natural biodiversity against introduced pests and allowing for plants of possible economic significance to be imported?

There are two parts to this.  First, I have tried to focus in areas where there has been little previous collection in climates quite different from my own in central Ohio, and the majority of the eastern U.S.  Most of what I have seen and collected there is not going to be hardy here, but might have value in to the industry when marketed as an annual or container crop etc.  However, I have sent collections from these places to a few select friends in the Pacific Northwest, where many might be hardy.  In this case, I collaborate with knowledgeable plant people that have a sense for what might be a good garden plant, and what could potentially be an invasive species. Serious plant people are uniquely attune to the dangers of invasive species, and just as much as I don’t want to be responsible for introducing a potential problem plant, they don’t want to be growing them either.

My overseas collecting efforts have been very targeted, and I have purposely avoided generalist collecting which might result in the introduction of a potentially invasive species.  In Vietnam I specifically wanted to find the recently described Lilium eupetes, an epiphytic lily closely related to the rare Lilium arboricola, which was my target in Myanmar.  These are rare plants with exacting cultural requirements that are not likely to be great garden plants, but they are botanically interesting and make good stories for botanical gardens or private growers that might succeed with them. Obviously these areas are rich in genera that have invasive potential such as Euonymus, Berberis, Lonicera, etc.  While these plants are interesting and ornamental, I do not collect them because of their invasive potential.  Other genera such as Quercus, are also quite common in these areas and have broad appeal, and although there is no previously described invasive potential, the opportunity for importing unknown pathogens is huge.  The USDA still allows for the importation of acorns with some special treatments, but even with such precautions I think the risk is greater than the reward.  As I watch all of the ash trees in Ohio die off, I cant help but think what would happen if the oaks were to become infected or afflicted by a new disease or insect pest.  So as tempting as it is, I do not collected Quercus when abroad, and choose instead to focus on collecting and promoting our native species.

If the pine savannahs and bogs of Southeast US exposed an interesting flora for you in our backyard, the lure to traverse across oceans for different plant life was still irresistible. How did your overseas expeditions fit with your graduate research? 

Lilium was one of the priority genera for the OSU/USDA Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center where I did my PhD work.  Even though I did not work on Lilium for my dissertation research, it is a genus I am personally interested in, and I often collected native species when I was in the field collecting Phlox.  As I developed these projects and a comprehensive native Lilium collection, they culminated in presentations and publications.  A British friend suggested that I travel to Vietnam to study the recently described L. eupetes in the wild.  Even better was the fact that he offered to pay for it! So off I went.  Not only did I find L. eupetes, I found more of it than had ever been found previously.  Riding this momentum, I wrote a grant to the North American Lily Society and they funded an expedition to Myanmar the next year.  While these experiences didn’t directly benefit my dissertation work, they complimented my domestic plant hunting experiences and have helped me gain greater perspective in plant collecting and diversity.  Understanding plant diversity is like understanding cooking; you need to travel and experience different climates and ecosystems to gain a complete appreciation of the greater picture.


A view of the imposing Himalayan range in Northern Myanmar on our ascent to Phongun Razi.

A view of the imposing Himalayan range in Northern Myanmar on our ascent to Phongun Razi.

Due to its political repression and hermit reputation, Burma (Myanmar) is relatively unexplored for its biodiversity awaiting to be tapped and catalogued before modernization sweeps into the country. Earlier plant explorers Frank Kingdon Ward and Richard Schultes did manage to document some of the botanical riches there, and modern plant explorer Dan Hinkley has made a few forays there, giving us horticulturists a glimpse of its floral potential. Of the world’s bio hotspots, you chose to travel to Burma. What led to that choice?

Myanmar was not a place I had ever really thought of going to until I started to focus more on Lilium. Truth be told, I had never even thought of traveling to Myanmar, but when I returned from Vietnam in 2013, I was hungry for more international exploration.  My experience gave me some “street cred” among the world’s comparatively few plant collectors and I was invited by a contingent of British plant explorers to explore the region.  In a way the opportunity just kind of fell into my lap, but it gave me the opportunity to search for the long lost Lilium arboricola, so I went.

The cloud and subtropical forests must yield endless plants, such as gingers. orchids, magnolias, and bladderworts. What are some of the promising plants you saw in Myanmar?

Impatiens cf. stenantha in Kachin state, northern Myanmar

Impatiens cf. stenantha in Kachin state, northern Myanmar

One of the most beautiful and promising plants encountered was an impatiens, tentatively identified as Impatiens aff. stenantha.  Everyone who sees the photos wants it!

Left: Crawfurdia cf. campanulata in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at ca. 3000m in elevation; Right: Tripterospermum sp. in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar

Left: Crawfurdia cf. campanulata in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at ca. 3000m in elevation; Right: Tripterospermum sp. in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar

Another group of plants I think is worth more interest from horticulturists are the vining gentians in the sister genera Tripterospermum and Crawfurdia.  On both of my trips to Southeast Asia, I have seen them in flower and fruit at all elevations and always think, “why aren’t these grown in gardens more than they are?

Quercus lamelloseQuercus lamellosa was one of the most interesting trees found on the trip and the unique acorns that littered ground always amazed us at each encounter.

Lilium aroboricola in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at 2300m in elevation

Lilium arboricola in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at 2300m in elevation

I went to Myanmar with the specific goal of finding the long lost Lilium arboricola.  This epiphytic lily was originally found by Kingdon-Ward and described by Stearn.  It flowered once in cultivation in 1962, promptly died, and has not been seen again since that time.  Even before I left, I was doubtful about finding it, as it was the proverbial needle in a haystack.  But, while hiking a narrow ridge through a pocket of cloud forest, I stopped to rest, and there it was. Without a doubt it was one of the finest botanical moments of my life.

There are so many others.  How much space do you have?!


It is easy to glamorize plant hunting afar – the threats of landslides, unfriendly natives, inclement weather, and a subsistence diet on stale biscuits or unrecognizable cuisine never seem to loom largely in the public’s conscious when murmurs of admiration and envy are elicited from audience members at seeing the pics of beautiful landscapes or plants. Any harrowing experiences or near-misses in your plant hunting exploits?

I am happy to report that I have not had any near misses while abroad, although the geographic isolation and rugged topography in these regions certainly sets the stage for it.

The strangest and most nerve-wracking experience I have encountered was in northwest Arkansas of all places.  My traveling companion and I were following a gravel road and stopped briefly to admire one of the many turquoise-colored, spring fed rivers in the region when out of nowhere, an unmarked police vehicle drove up, slammed on its brakes, and came to a sliding stop behind our vehicle. Two plain-clothed police officers got out of the vehicle and immediately started harassing us about our intentions and repeatedly asked us if we were planning to drink beer and kayak down the river.  When we started to explain the reason for our trip and started talking about plants they became immediately disinterested and eventually left us alone.  We didn’t even have kayaks with us and I wondered what prompted their investigation.  Then I remembered the two large coolers in the backseat of the car!  They probably thought they were filled with beer, but much to their dismay they were only filled with the plant germplasm we had collected.  They had thought they were going to make a big bust, and were immediately disappointed when they realized we had a legitimate reason for the being where we were.  Needless to say, we were mortified after the experience, but glad that it did not proceed any further.


Left to right: The form of Lilium canadense found in Ohio, and a fantastic garden plant; A cream-colored seedling of the normally orange Lilium catesbaei that appeared in  batch of seedlings.  You can imagine my surprise and excitement.  This color form is very rare in wild; Lilium lijiangense is one of the best Chinese Lilium species for the Midwestern and Eastern USA, but little known and rarely grown.

Left to right: The form of Lilium canadense found in Ohio, and a fantastic garden plant; A cream-colored seedling of the normally orange Lilium catesbaei that appeared in batch of seedlings. You can imagine my surprise and excitement. This color form is very rare in wild; Lilium lijiangense is one of the best Chinese Lilium species for the Midwestern and Eastern USA, but little known and rarely grown.

Imagined that you’ve been shipwrecked, but permitted to select one plant to breed. What is your desert island plant?

How about one genus?  Lilium.  It has extraordinary diversity within and between species.  I don’t want to imagine being confined to a single species!  This probably sounds rather conventional, but many lily species are rarely cultivated, and there exists such a great amount of diversity within and between species.  There is enough room for experimentation for several lifetimes, even though there has already been a tremendous volume of work in the genus.

The Taiwanese form of Lilium gloriosoides.  One of my desert island plants.

The Taiwanese form of Lilium gloriosoides. One of my desert island plants.


I always wonder what kind of garden plant breeders have. Is it a garden full of rare plants? Or gardening at home is restricted to vegetables and edibles? What kind of garden do you tend at home?

I am steadfastly dedicated to growing plant species of known provenance, and plant collecting is one of my life’s passions.  Private gardens can serve as a tool for plant conservation, especially when there is a well-executed plan for collection, propagation, and dissemination.  Currently, I cultivate a collection of about 2000 taxa, and most of these are my own collections or the collections of some of my plant hunter friends.  When I come home at night, I don’t take off my “horticulturist hat” and switch to a different hobby, rather I switch genera!  This collection also serves some of my personal plant breeding interests and endeavors.


2003 Heronswood Nursery Catalog; this nursery's garden replete with rare and uncommon plants inspired Peter's repeat visits.

2003 Heronswood Nursery Catalog; this nursery’s garden replete with rare and uncommon plants inspired Peter’s repeat visits.

Your career certainly puts you in touch with the international community of gardens and plantspeople. What gardens, private and public, have inspired you? Individuals?

As previously mentioned I did a study abroad trip to England for my last semester as an undergrad.  During this time we visited many gardens, public and private, but two stand out in my memory and I still think about them with frequency. First is the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh (RBGE) in Scotland. This place was an epiphany for me.  With over 50,000 taxa in cultivation there, I couldn’t help but study every nook and cranny of the gardens.  In fact, after the study abroad had ended, I was traveling with friends on the continent, but kept thinking about RBGE. So I left my friends and went back to Scotland and studied the garden for the few final days of my trip.

Also, while there I had the opportunity to visit a small public garden in Lake District called Holehird Gardens.  This may be my all-time favorite garden. Nestled into a mountainside, there grew many of the plants I could only dream about in the Midwest: flowering Meconopsis, Pleione, Primula, etc.  I hope to go back there someday.

I should also mention the gardens at Heronswood.  I made five pilgrimages there in the early 2000’s over different seasons.  I was amazed at how much the garden changed from season to season and the phenomenal complexity of the plantings.  I’m glad to hear that it is open to visitors again as it sure to influence generations of horticulturists to come.

Four individuals that have vastly inspired my career are Jim Archibald, Edgar T. Wherry, Mary Gibson Henry, and my friend Dr. Warren Stoutamire.  I will never forget the first Archibald seed list I ever received.  It was a revelation. Although I had been earlier influenced by Dan Hinkley’s collecting forays into southeast Asia, Jim Archibald’s work was concentrated primarily in eastern Turkey and Iran.  Collecting in those regions had never crossed my mind and the seed lists opened up the flora of an entire region to me. Traveling to and collecting in Iran is still one of my life goals.

Anyone who has studied Phlox knows the name Edgar Wherry is synonymous with the genus.  What I admire most about him is his dedication to botanical clarity, persistence as an author, and indefatigable disposition.  He mortgaged his life to study Phlox and wrote down seemingly every thought he encountered.  He was also a gardener, which seems rare among modern day botanists and evolutionary biologists.

In my opinion, Mary Gibson Henry is one of the most under-looked and underrated American botanists.  Despite her privileged life, she relished intensive fieldwork, described new species, and endeavored to create a world-class garden at the Henry foundation.  She found and described one of my all-time favorite plants, the mythical Lilium iridollae – the pot-of-gold lily.  I think part of the reason I cherish this species so much is because of the passionate way she wrote about it in her original description of the species.

Lastly, my friend and mentor Dr. Warren Stoutamire.  In many ways I have modeled my own career and interests after him.  He was among the first to propagate native orchid species from seed, tended a personal greenhouse full of botanical rarities from around the world, and was a professor at University of Akron.  Some of my most treasured interactions with other human beings were with him at his home and greenhouse.

What messages or goals do you aim to project through your work? Some plant breeders aim for enhancing or improving the efficiency of the food supply, others beauty, and few the twin joys of monetary and posthumous gains. I remember reading about plant breeders and chefs who collaborated to identify and improve flavors and other traits that make vegetables more delicious.

I want to be known as an innovator in the fields of plant breeding and botanical exploration. In ornamental plant breeding, it seems like good good ideas come along relatively rarely, but are rapidly adopted by everyone out there and beat to death.  Look at genera like Heuchera and Echinacea.  The people that initiated breeding in these genera are true innovators, but subsequent efforts are by others that have just jumped on the bandwagon and essentially repeated the same thing over and again.  This is exactly what I want to avoid.

Plant collection is vital to plant breeding and provides a means for botanical gardens to contribute to conservation and differentiate themselves.  In my opinion it is more important than ever, and while it may seem like every place on earth has been visited by humans, there still remains a plethora of places where plant hunting has been limited.  This was a big part of the reason I went to Myanmar.  I hope to continue with this and visit some of the world’s remaining botanical treasure troves.

Any advice for those interested in diving deeper into plant breeding as a career?

It’s harder and harder to find good training in ornamental plant breeding in academia.  I feel exceedingly lucky to have had training in ornamental horticulture.  Training in vegetable or crops breeding can provide a solid background, but because of the laboratory intensive nature of those breeding programs, there exists a disconnect between them and traditional breeding techniques.  Many of the breeders coming out of these programs have more in common with molecular biologists than traditional plant breeders.  So if you want good training, my suggestion would be to seek out the right academic institution and try to get experience through internships at breeding companies and botanic gardens.

Follow your intuition and be individualistic.  There are too many people working in ornamental plant breeding that are repeating what has already been done.  Don’t be afraid to promote yourself.  This is a competitive field, just because you might produce fantastic plants, that doesn’t mean they will make it big or your accomplishments will be recognized.

Don’t be afraid to make crosses when you have a good idea and the plants to make it happen.  It’s easy to romanticize about using sophisticated techniques like embryo rescue or mutation breeding, but basic principles of plant breeding are still responsible for some of the best new plants out there.

Cheers to those interested future plant breeders!


Thank you Peter!  Check out his blog at http://www.botanicazales.com


Terraces of Taiwan Part 2

The multitude of plants basking in shade or sun never bores me during walks through the lane ways of Taiwan because they give some insight of people’s affinity with plants and their ways of growing them in limited spaces. I remember being led upstairs to the rooftop terrace where hundreds of orchids, all hung from a trellis, were growing and flowering under a shade cloth that protected them from the intense tropical light.

Aralia

Three houseplants, popular ornamentals for celebrations and house warming, are recycled as long-lived container plants for the terrace. The first two in the center is Plerandra elegantissima (false aralia) while the two on the right side are Pachira aquatica and Zamioculcas zamiifolia, an aroid.  Pachira aquatica, commonly known as Malabar chestnut, is often sold as “money tree” because it is thought to bestow financial prosperity. Sometimes the plants are seen with tied red ribbons and placed outside of businesses. It’s funny sight to see plants sprouting red ribbons during Chinese New Year.

 Dendrobium

 Dendrobrium aphyllum are cultivated on tree fern slabs that are hung from the poles. This orchid, native to India, Myanmar, Thailand, and south China, will eventually form naked pseudobulbs after the new shoots seen here shed their leaves. These pseudobulbs become covered with hundreds of lavender flowers with white lips in winter (late February to January). Pots of Hippeastrum (amaryllis) and Cordyline fruticosa complete the terrace garden, and a large Magnolia champaca will produce strongly scented white to creamy yellow flowers.

Camellia

This terrace is more modest than the previous one, but it does not suffer from a lack of interest . A gnarled Podocarpus macrophyllus has been carefully pruned to keep its manageable size, and a flowering Cattleya orchid has been brought out from its growing area elsewhere. To top it off, large pink blossoms cover a camellia next to a sock rack.

Staghorn Ferns

A beautiful Clerodendrum wallichii steals the attention from chrysanthemums, staghorn ferns, pitcher plants, and succulents in the same storefront featured in this past Tuesday’s Terrace’s Jiufen plant shop.

Bonsai

Bonsai had its origins in the Chinese penjing, which the Japanese later appropriated as their own. The owner of this terrace erred from having a miscellany or hodgepodge of plants, opting instead for elegant simplicity and cleaner lines in this display of three penjing. Surprisingly the display looks contemporary and well suited to the building steps.

Ferns on Walls

Sometimes nature intervenes, putting its ‘graffiti’ on human dwellings. The crevices of this stone wall have provided ideal moist and cool niches for these ferns and mosses. Allowing nature to express its creativity this fashion is no different from our approach towards self-seeding in the garden. No precise planning can replicate the ingenuity with which plants deposit themselves in unlikely places.  ~ Eric

Tuesday’s Terrace: Plant Shopfront in Jiufen (九份)

vscocam-photo-1

Here plants spill forth from the storefront in Jiufen, Taiwan, tempting visitors in this popular tourist destination to purchase a pot of camellia or chrysanthemum as a memento. Each inch of space has been maximized for full effect and dissipates the notion of ‘no terrace is too small for a plant or two’.  Inside the store, pots, tools, and garden accessories are displayed and can be bought as well. ~ Eric

Terraces of Taiwan Part 1

With a population density of 662 per km2, Taiwan (台灣) is the 16th most densely populated country in the world, with Taipei City (excluding New Taipei City) and Kaohsiung boasting approximately 2.6 and 2.7 million people each. Much of Taiwan’s mountainous interior is inhabitable, leaving the general population to reside in coastal plains and river basins. Space in urban areas is premium, and residences can be 3 to 5 stories tall if you discount the high rise buildings and skyscrapers. There is scarcely any space for gardening, although parks and public spaces are not short of greenery.

I have watched Taiwan rapidly modernize in the last 20 years  – once people took 1-hour domestic flights from Taoyuan or Songshan Airports to Kaohsiung or the 5-hour train journey back and forth, today the high speed trains have largely replaced these transportation modes and cut the time incredulously to 1 1/2 hour. Efficient clean subway systems now run in Taipei and Kaohsiung. Imported goods from Japan and Europe vie for attention with Taiwanese products in elegant department stores, Taiwan’s consumerist temples. And a strong cafe culture, abetted by the Taiwanese’s overseas experiences, have emerged  – having afternoon tea and coffee, and sweet pastries has become a popular routine.

The Taiwanese appetite for technology and food certainly has not gone un-whetted nor has their affinity for gardening and nature gone unbidden. In the garden courtyard of former tobacco factory-converted art galleries, the cool winter air was scented with large flowering shrubs of Osmanthus fragrans. It is rare to find a balcony or terrace empty, not decorated with plants. Some of the plants are familiar houseplants in northern climates that flourish outside in the subtropical climate of Taipei and Kaohsiung. ~Eric

Osmanthus_fragrans

In the courtyard of this dwelling, the owner had placed five pots of Osmanthus fragrans (桂花, guìhuā) because their scented flowers would be a pleasant olfactory welcome for visitors. Hanging above the potted plants are two poles either used for hanging laundry or baskets of plants. One may ask why plants with showier flowers or foliage were not used in lieu of Osmanthus, but subtlety is sometimes valued more in East Asian cultures than Western ones.

Cyathea

 Here a Cyathea holding well, despite in need of roomier quarters, softens the brutal concrete pillar of this three story residence in Kaohsiung. The golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) flow around the fern, spreading the greenery on the ground. With its large fronds, the solitary Cyathea creates a strong focal point without overwhelming the pillar, demonstrating that significant impact can be made from one architectural plant rather than several grouped together.

Pots on Terraces

On the other hand, plants are grouped together to create a continuous green tapestry, concealing stained concrete walls and eyesores and humanizing the wear and tear of a house. Here in Taipei, this humble dwelling has bromeliads, cactus and succulents, and random houseplants in assorted containers with no conceivable order. An Epipremnum aureum has been permitted to clamber up on a post right of the house. Cover the greenery with your hand, and the house looks rather humdrum. Seeing plants in these urban environments can be therapeutic not only for the homeowners, but also pedestrians who walk through the neighborhood.

 Pots on Stands

Going up instead of down can be a creative solution to tight spaces – here each plinth either has a pot of Adenium obseum (between the front red gate), Beaucarnea recurvata (ponytail palm) (second from the left), or Sansevieria (blue and white pots). More plants, including a Breynia distchia (the clipped dome) and caladiums, are spread across the terrace. Both homeowners managed to present an attractive entrance replete with plants, and red is an auspicious color in Chinese culture.

Hanging Houseplants

Begonias, bougainvillea, and orchids occupy every inch of this terrace no wider than 3′ – it’s amusing to catch the sight of a laundered shirt or pants drying in the sun. A wooden sign below pleads with the public not to touch or steal the plants.

Overflowing vegetation

In a busy Taipei laneway full of retail stores and restaurants, the second floor terrace can be barely made out as the vegetation escapes from the grille into the open air and light. An unidentified succulent dangles at irregular intervals across the edge of both storefronts.

Tuesday’s Terrace: Cestrum nocturnum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

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Today’s terrace shows a mature specimen of Cestrum nocturnum, a West Indies shrub covered with its chartreuse tubular flowers, arching by the side of a dwelling. Its fragrance does not become perceptible until evening – it can be described as overpoweringly sweet. However, one will prefer smelling Cestrum over the motorcycle fumes! The contrast between two different scents plays off the natural and urban domains.

“One travels more usefully when alone….”

 

Taipei 101, once the world's tallest building, anchors the skyline of Taiwan's largest city Taipei.

Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building, anchors the skyline of Taiwan’s largest city Taipei.

 

One travels more usefully when alone because he reflects more. ~ Thomas Jefferson

 

 

5-10-5: Horticulturist Wonsoon Park


Wonsoon and I first met when he attended the annual pool and BBQ party for Longwood Gardens students at Chanticleer. After graduating from the Longwood Graduate Program in public garden management, he returned to South Korea where he now tends and designs plantings. It has been interesting to discover how horticulture is seen and practiced in Korea especially when much attention have been focused on China and Japan.

Wonsoon Park pollinates the flower of the Victoria waterlily at Yeomiji Botanical Garden, South Korea.

Wonsoon Park pollinates the flower of the Victoria waterlily at Yeomiji Botanical Garden, South Korea.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Wonsoon Park, a plant lover. I majored in Horticultural Science from Seoul National University, and went through several jobs as a book editor. Then I changed my career to be a horticulturist. Recently I have completed the International Gardener Training Program at Longwood Gardens, and Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture at the University of Delaware. Now I’m working for Samsung Everland company as a Senior Manager of the Park Landscape Center.

The arts or horticulture?

The arts based on horticulture

Despite graduating with a degree in horticultural science, you were a book editor prior to your professional development as a horticulturist. How did you first become interested in horticulture and why did you return to the profession?

I grew up in rural town where I helped my family to work for rice paddies and vegetable gardens, and this led me to choose Horticultural Science for my college major. Those plants in the gardens were not the fancy and showy ones but onions, sesame, pepper and cabbages, and my grandmother grew some grapes and persimmon in her backyard garden. So the first impression of horticulture to me was sort of farming or agriculture until I found its real charm later.

I became a book editor since I loved reading and producing books about science and nature. While I was exposed to many books about plants and gardens, I rediscovered horticulture, especially when I visited New York Book Expo in 2003. I’d like to learn more about horticulture not about agriculture but about flowers and gardens. Soon I was obsessed by the world of horticulture and I traveled to many gardens and natural areas whenever I had free time, before I moved to Jeju Island, the most beautiful and ecologically important island in Korea, not only to work in a botanical garden named Yeomiji but also to explore the island’s unique flora and nature.

The tulip display at Samsung Everland Company

The tulip display at Samsung Everland Company

What does your job involve?

I’m currently working for Samsung Everland Company, which has the largest amusement park in Korea like the Disney World. There are several display gardens including the Four Seasons Garden and Rose Garden within the park. As the Senior Manager, I’m mainly in charge of planting design in the park area including the Four Seasons Garden which is a year-round garden from tulip displays to winter holiday season mingled with garden ornaments according to various themes.

Tulips en masse at the Everland Park.

Tulips en masse at the Everland Company.

You were a graduate of Longwood Graduate Program, which gave exposure to North American horticulture. What aspects of North American horticulture did you find interesting?

Networking. It seemed to me all the horticultural professionals and plant lovers were well connected each other from the east coast to the west and to the south. It was very easy to communicate with people since they were willing to share their knowledge and experiences, which I really appreciated. I liked the fact that there were so many great public gardens and nurseries to visit, as well as organized plant record systems, books and other valuable resources.

Heewon Garden, at the Ho-Am Art Museum, is a recreation of a traditional Korean garden. Traditional Korean gardens are less concerned with human intervention (less formal pruning) and more so with spiritual balance and harmony while preserving a wild natural feeling.

Heewon Garden, at the Ho-Am Art Museum, is a recreation of a traditional Korean garden. Traditional Korean gardens are less concerned with human intervention (less formal pruning) and more so with spiritual balance and harmony while preserving a wild natural feeling.

South Korea is better for its Korean pop (as seen in ‘Gangnam Style’) and Samsung, but less so for its fine arts and culture. The Western audience are familiar with Japanese and Chinese gardens, but less so with Korean gardens. Without resorting to broad generalizations, how would you define or characterize a Korean garden to a first-time visitor?

Traditionally, Korean gardens are harmonized with the surrounding nature according to the balance of Yin and Yang and geomancy minimizing possible modification and artificial factors. Since seventy percent of the Korean landscape is covered with mountains, I guess it’s a lot easier to build architecture and gardens using existing topographical properties. As for the planting design for Korean gardens, there are some rules choosing proper trees and shrubs at the right place around the garden, while those ornamental trees and shrubs don’t have artificial shape which can be seen in Japanese garden style. You can find the Korean palace garden style when you visit royal palaces in Seoul such as Changgyeonggung Deoksugung. Besides, one of my favorite Korean gardens is Hee Won garden of Ho-am Art Museum in Yongin city.

Jeju Island's diversity of habitats makes it ideal for a travel destination to see Korean flora.

Jeju Island’s diversity of habitats makes it ideal for a travel destination to see Korean flora.

Because the Korean peninsula is a geographical juncture between China and Japan, its flora is similar with those of neighboring countries. Ulleung-Do and Jeju Islands, as well as Seoraksan, frequently appear on the canons of planting hunting exploits. Where would you take a horticulturist to see plants in the wild?

Jeju Island would be a great place to explore, since there are many diverse habitats within a relatively small area at different altitudes from the seashore to Mt. Halla. Those habitats include Gotjawal (a uniquely formed forest vegetation on the lava terrain), 367 Oreums (volcanic cones), seashores, wetlands and alpine regions. My favorite plants include Lycoris chejuense, Allium taquetii, Lycopodium integrifolium, Aruncus dioicus var. aethusifolius, Crinum asiaticum var. japonicum, Rhododendron weyrichii, Euphorbia jolkini, Abies koreana, just to name a few.

The pale orange flowers of Lycoris chejuense glow against the bracken fern at Jeju Island.

The pale orange flowers of Lycoris chejuense glow against the bracken fern at Jeju Island.

 

Crinum asiaticum var. japonicum inhabits wet habitats in Korea.

Crinum asiaticum var. japonicum inhabits wet habitats in Korea.

Korean plants, like those from China and Japan, are popular garden plants. For instance, we grow Abeliophyllum distichum, Acer triflorum, and Stewartia pseudocamellia var. koreana here. What are some of your favorite native species?

Recently I found Jeffersonia dubia, Heloniopsis koreana, Epimedium koreanum could be those of my favorite ones. I love Abeliophyllum distichum, Disporum sessile, Rhododendron schlippenbachii, as well as Matteuccia struthiopteris, Chloranthus fortunei, and Primula sieboldii.

Jeffersonia dubia, the Asian counterpart to our native twinleaf Jeffersonia diphylla, is one of Wonsoon's favorite Korean plants. It is a true spring ephemeral, disappearing with summer heat.

Jeffersonia dubia, the Asian counterpart to our native twinleaf Jeffersonia diphylla, is one of Wonsoon’s favorite Korean plants. It is a true spring ephemeral, disappearing with summer heat.

 

The flora of Jeju Island - Starting top left clockwise: Hydrangea serrata f. acuminata; Symplocos chinensis f. pilosa; Malus sieboldii; Euonymous hamiltonianus; Lycopodium integrifolium; Maackia floribunda; Aconitum napiforme; Clerodendrum trichotomum.

The flora of Jeju Island – Starting top left clockwise: Hydrangea serrata f. acuminata; Symplocos chinensis f. pilosa; Malus sieboldii; Euonymous hamiltonianus; Lycopodium integrifolium; Maackia floribunda; Aconitum napiforme; Clerodendrum trichotomum.

South Korea is considered the most wired, if not one of most high-tech, country. How does one disconnect from the virtual world and engage with the natural world? Is garden visiting popular among Koreans as it is for Europeans and other nationalities?

The gardens and their cultivation are still less popular in Korea compared to other nations. There are over 60 public gardens on the list of Korean arboreta and botanical Gardens. But many private gardens have been struggling with their operation due to the lack of revenue source, while municipal or national arboreta and botanical gardens are relatively doing fine since they are supported by government. People prefer the latter since they have free or low price entrance fees.

Speaking of engaging the natural world, the baby boom generation loves mountain hiking, while families with young children like to go out for their daily exercise during weekends and holidays. Public gardens are just one of those places. I don’t know much about how teenagers and younger generation are exposed to the natural world.

Koreans still enjoy hiking in natural areas.

Koreans still enjoy hiking in natural areas.

A Korean recently said in Conde Nast Traveler Magazine: “Korean people happily embrace anything that comes off the plane at Incheon Airport, but we won’t eat a pig’s feet restaurant unless it’s three generations old.” Given how Confucianism is ingrained in traditional culture, are Koreans more receptive to wild-looking gardens than ‘big bang’ displays commonly seen in U.S. and Europe?

Although ‘big bang’ displays still work well in many public gardens, Koreans are getting more like to enjoy native plants in a natural setting. In addition, the number of people returning to home village or farming is increasing. They’d like to tend a vegetable garden called “teot bat” as well as enjoy the natural landscape. Also, urban farming and gardening is growing gradually.

The seeds of Camellia japonica, Wonsoon's desert island plant, yield oil useful in cosmetics.

The seeds of Camellia japonica, Wonsoon’s desert island plant, yield oil useful in cosmetics.

If you were marooned on an island, what one plant would you take with you?

Camellia japonica. It’s a nice plant for temperate coastal climate. Camellias have many beneficial properties. Its seed oil is useful for skin care, while the flower bud purifies the blood and stimulates the heart. In addition, the flowers are good enough to please me during my lonesome life in deserted island. I hope for a Camellia forest to form in the future until people find that island and my traces.

Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania, is an inspirational garden for Wonsoon who wrote about it in a Korean gardening magazine.

Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania, is an inspirational garden for Wonsoon who wrote about it in a Korean gardening magazine.

What places and gardens inspire you?

Chanticleer inspired me a lot. Whenever I visited the garden, my mind was filled with special feeling by constantly changing flowers every time and different landscapes every year. Chanticleer was the first garden when I was writing a series of articles about the most beautiful American public gardens for a leading garden magazine in Korea. I loved to walk through Asian Woods and Pond Garden, and learned many ideas about containers and hanging baskets around the main houses. I remember Hidcote Manor Garden in UK was a great place full of inspiration and ideas with many different types of room gardens. Longwood Gardens, of course, is like my second home that gave me unforgettable experiences with so many good people and wonderful plants!

Wonsoon Park and Tim Jennings, Senior Gardener for the Outdoor Water Lily Display, at Longwood Gardens

Wonsoon Park and Tim Jennings, Senior Gardener for the Outdoor Water Lily Display, at Longwood Gardens

What advice would you give to your peers interested in studying horticulture in Korea? I noticed that a few number of Koreans have trained and studied in UK, especially RHS Wisley.

Studying abroad as a trainee or intern would be a great help to build a solid horticultural career. To prepare applying those international programs, it might be better know Korean plants and gardens first, as well as having some practical hands on experiences. I think Chollipo Arboretum runs one of the greatest internship programs in Korea to learn a good deal of plant collections including Magnolias, Acers, Hollies and many more.

What do you look forward the most?

I’d like to become a real professional in this field domestically and internationally, and make influential gardens throughout my career path. I want to be in charge of a garden like Chanticleer which I could maintain everyday and learn more about plants for the rest of my life.

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