This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the National Green Centre (NGC) trade show hosted by the Western Nursery and Landscape Association in St. Louis. As an optional event at NGC, Dr. Michael Dirr led a plant walk through the grounds of the Missouri Botanic Garden (MoBot). Our small group (about 30) was made up of industry professionals — arborists, landscape architects and designers, growers, breeders, wholesale nursery owners, Master Gardeners, and others.
If you’ve ever done any reading on trees and shrubs, there’s a good chance you’ve run across Dr. Dirr’s name. In the minds of many, Dr. Dirr is where all discussion ends when you’re talking about woody plant experts. He is the author of the most comprehensive books on the subject, including the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, considered in academia to be the definitive volume in the field. The opportunity to attend what was essentially a two-hour field class with Dr. Dirr was too good to pass.
|Dr. Dirr discusses new developments in Lagerstroemia (Crape Myrtle)
Accompanied by Jim Cocos (VP of Horticulture for MoBot) and Chip Tynan (Manager of MoBot’s Horticultural Answer Service), Dr. Dirr led our group through MoBot as he shared his views and experiences of the trees and shrubs in the collection, while simultaneously engaging the members of the group to contribute their perspective as well. It was equal parts lecture, field quiz, and panel discussion.
|Laura Hayden (@DurableGardener), Dr. Dirr, unknown attendee, Robert Smith (Arbor Day Foundation)|
At one point in the walk, Dr. Dirr used a young Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) to spur an extended discussion with the group on how the industry might market this valuable, yet underutilized species. The conversation quickly turned into an examination of how the industry markets trees in general.
Although the opportunity of listening to all of these voices of the industry would have been worthwhile on its own, we were also witness to some of the finest specimens in MoBot’s collection. I’ve seen many of these trees in past visits, but this was my first winter visit. Winter is the best time of year to see the true structure of deciduous trees, when their branches are not shrouded in foliage. On this crisp, sunny day the woody elders of MoBot stood above us in almost spiritual majesty. To hear Chip Tynan tell some of the stories of these trees only served to multiply my humble reverence.
|Magnolia × loebneri ‘Merrill’|
|Cornus controversa (Giant Dogwood)|
From the first steps into the garden, I knew I was among the least “expert” of the group, so I focused on absorbing as much knowledge and insight as I could, occasionally asking a question of clarification. By the time I stepped back on the bus to return to the America’s Center complex where NGC was held, I was almost overwhelmed; it was simply one of the best educational experiences of my life.
|Dr. Michael Dirr, me, and Chip Tynan|
Before the walk, I’d be hard pressed to explain the difference between cuneate and cordate. But Dr. Dirr’s enthusiasm for these plants helped me realize that the source of passion for plants lies both in being awed by their grandeur and in understanding their details. His generosity and willingness to share his knowledge was paralleled by his expectations of his students — those of us that had the privilege of walking with him on that beautiful Saturday afternoon in the garden.