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


5-10-5: Matt Lobdell, Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matt Lobdell

 

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Matt Lobdell taking notes on a clipboard during the 2015 plant hunting expedition in Alabama.

Please introduce yourself
Matt Lobdell, Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum


The arts or horticulture?
I appreciate the arts, but I’d have to say horticulture!


How did you become fascinated with plants?

My fascination with plants grew as I became more aware of their diversity. Through high school and my early undergraduate years I was generally aware of the differences between oaks, maples, and other trees, but my interest was really piqued when I took an ecology course during my sophomore year that involved a tree survey as a final project. I was fascinated to learn that there could be as many as 20 distinct tree species in a small transect and became curious about the characteristics used to diagnose one from another. This survey led me to take an internship at the Polly Hill Arboretum in Martha’s Vineyard, where I would learn even more about tree diversity.


Martha’s Vineyard is better known as the affluent summer playground, but it has a year-round resident community comfortable with island life. I imagine that growing up on the island enabled you to partake recreational activities outdoors. Can you single out natural areas that were impressionable?

I remember the area around my parents’ house, which was only about a half mile away from the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. When exploring the area, I encountered both oak trees and seemingly impenetrable bear oak thickets, as well as the occasional sassafras, pitch pine, or beetlebung (our regional common name for Nyssa sylvatica). I found the ecosystems at some of the beaches interesting, particularly at Lambert’s Cove Beach where I’d often pick something I called “beach plum”, but would later realize was just Rosa rugosa. At least I got the family right.


Margaret Mead the distinguished anthropologist once remarked: “Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” How did you find your anthropology degree applicable to your methodology towards plants?

What I found most rewarding about studying anthropology was the integrated approach the field takes to studying and understanding a topic. As a Curator, I try to also take an integrated approach to studying and learning about plants. I strive to both understand what make a plant significant from a botanical perspective, as well as understand its historical utilization in order to assist with the interpretation of its significance to the visitor.


Eventually your minor in environmental studies influenced you to pursue opportunities to intern in public gardens. Polly Hill Arboretum was the first public garden where you interned in 2005 as its garden intern and 2008 as its first collection management intern. What were several invaluable skills at Polly Hill you took away?

During my initial internship there I learned some basic horticulture and grounds management skills which I was able to build upon in later positions. As a collections management intern I gained exposure to plant records, accessioning, evaluating plants within the collections, and some other basic skills that would cement my decision to pursue a career as a curator.


Your experience in public arboreta makes it clear that woody plants are your forte. What is it about woody plants that you find appealing? Their sense of permanence?

I think that definitely has something to do with it! However, I think the size of trees in particular also provides shade, stability, and other services that allow one to interact with it in a manner they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with other types of plants.


For two years you had worked as a horticulturist for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy which transverses Chinatown, Financial District, Waterfront, and North End neighborhoods in Boston.This position is more community-oriented and amenity-centered rather than the collection- and scientific-focused of your current job. What lessons did you take away from being a public parks horticulturist that other experiences did not provide?

The Greenway was the only position I’ve had that put me in a true urban area, so it was interesting to learn just how many challenges trees have to face when growing in those conditions, and truly impressive that some are able to grow there at all.


Your masters dissertation at University of Delaware examined Styrax in cultivation. How did Styrax, as opposed to other woody genera, come to become the focus of your research?

I was looking for a group of ornamental woody plants that might benefit from a general survey-type study, and was looking for something that hadn’t already been overdone. My advisor, John Frett, suggested either Itea or Styrax and I chose the latter. We were both surprised to learn the genus had approximately 130 described species, so we chose to focus on those with some history of cultivation in order to keep the study manageable.


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Styrax hemsleyanus (Hemsley Snowbell) native to central China.

Styrax japonicus and S. obassia are commonly represented in cultivation. What other members of the genus would you wish to see more grown in gardens?

Styrax japonicus and S. obassia are probably the most cold hardy and suitable for a variety of landscape conditions. I’m also partial to Styrax americanus, a southeastern US native. It’s a shrubbier species with pale green leaves and though the flowers are small, they have an interesting reflexed form. Styrax hemsleyanus is also a favorite, which is similar to S. obassia but most of them I’ve seen have slightly smaller leaves with prominent venation which can look interesting while vegetative.

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Stryax americanus showing its small reflexed flowers.

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The Morton Arboretum’s Malus ‘Dolgo’ whose fruits are considered suitable for making crab apple jelly.

 

You currently work as The Morton Arboretum’s head of collections and curator, which brings tremendous responsibilities for a 1,700-acre arboretum. What does your daily day look like?

I’ve found it to be a bit different each day! I’ve been involved with everything from selecting plants for the collections, planning wild collecting trips, applying for funding to assist with infrastructure improvements, and assisting with development of BRAHMS, a plant records database. I’ve never found there to be a shortage of projects to work on, but do try to carve out a bit of time each week to walk the grounds and check on the performance of the plant collections.


The Morton Arboretum is one of the few arboreta that actively engages in scientific education and research without the appending university affiliation (i.e. Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Morris Arboretum of U Penn, University of Washington Botanic Garden). How does your role/relationship fit with the science and conservation section, such as the ArbNet, the Center for Tree Science, and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative?

I remain available to share my knowledge of the collections with our science and conservation staff, and particularly encourage them to carry out research within our collections when possible, assisting with logistics as necessary.


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Magnolia collection in full flower at The Morton Arboretum.

The Morton Arboretum’s living collection contains approximately over 200,000 living plants which represent 3,925 taxa. The collection is arranged in three groups: geographic, taxonomic, and special habitats. Do you have specific areas in these groups you find yourself revisiting? 

The Magnolia and Oak collections are personal favorites as they are groups of my interest. I also like to explore our Plants of China collection which boasts a diverse assemblage of material due to our history of collaborating with NACPEC (North America-China Plant Collecting Exploration Consortium).

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Magnolia ‘Elizabeth at The Morton Arboretum’s magnolia collection.

If you were to take a friend or a family member around Morton Arboretum, what would be some of the outstanding trees you would take care to point out?

All depends on the time of year! However I would make sure they saw some of the large Acer miyabei on the Arboretum’s west side, as well as the Abies nordmanniana in the Central and Western Asia collection.


Most people see the Midwest as having prairies, not woodlands, and may be surprised to encounter the Morton Arboretum’s trees. What are the natural woodlands in Illinois that people can visit?

The eastern US forest extends into the Chicago region, though prairies become much more common as one travels west. Kankakee River State Park and Starved Rock State park are two must-visit sites in the area. Of course The Morton Arboretum also has an extensive restored woodland which is a must see as well.


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Subalpine meadows in the Tusheti National Park, Georgia.

Within two years of your job, you participated in your first overseas plant hunting expedition as part of the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), Given its geographical position between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and its two mountain ranges (Greater and Lesser Caucasus), Georgia has a floristic diversity that is beguiling for botanists and horticulturists alike. It is relatively underrepresented where plants are concerned in US plant collections, and has tremendous scope for woody plants like Crataegus pentagynaTilia cordata, and Fagus orientalis. What were some of the highlights in the trip?

Fagus orientalis, as you mentioned, is a spectacular tree and important component of the forests of the Caucasus. We were also able to collect from some of their oaks, including Quercus macranthera and Quercus hartwissiana, as well as two maple species I hadn’t heard about until I started looking into the flora of the region in detail: Acer ibericum and Acer velutinum. Overall, it was a fascinating country to visit and I feel fortunate to have been able to learn about their flora from the experts at the Georgian Institute of Botany who joined us for the expedition.

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Matt examining plants in Republic of Georgia.

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Acer ibericum in Georgia.

The Caucasus region is again the destination this year as planning is underway for Azerbaijan, one of Georgia’s neighbors. What would be the objectives of this expedition that would be different from those achieved in Georgia? 

My main objective in Azerbaijan would be to collect some of their endemic taxa, particularly those such as Acer hyrcanum and Parrotia persica found in the Hyrcanian forest. This would allow a different portion of the flora of the Caucasus to be collected separate from that in Georgia.


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Magnolia pyramidata, one of the big-leafed magnolias native to eastern US.

What is your desert island plant?

If I could choose just one it would be Magnolia macrophylla. I often accuse it of being the tree that got me into horticulture. Once I saw the size of the leaves and flowers and learned it was something that could be grown outdoors in New England, I found myself really curious about plant diversity and wanting to learn more about trees.

 


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Matt preparing a herbarium specimen of a magnolia collected in Torreya State Park, Florida.

Do you have advice for those aspiring for a career in public horticulture, especially in the curation and collection-based areas?

I  found it helpful to work at a variety of botanical gardens in order to learn both a diverse assemblage of plants, as well as several different ways to approach curation and plant records techniques. I’d also encourage those to seek out someone with a job that sounds interesting to them and ask them how they got to where they are. I’ve found most people are generous with their time and more than willing to share their experiences.


Thank you for the interview, Matt!