Dr. Richard W. Lighty
by BARBARA PAUL ROBINSON
photography by ED WHEELER
ALWAYS FASCINATED BY VARIATION IN NATURE, Dr. Richard W. Lighty says, “I knew by the age of 10 that I wanted to grow up to be another Luther Burbank.” He still has the book his scientist-father gave him, entitled Luther Burbank: Plant Magician. Indeed, plant genetics, or to be more precise, cytogenetics, became his academic interest, first as an undergraduate in horticulture at Pennsylvania State and then in a doctoral program at Cornell. But Dick, as he is known, is a unique combination of scientist and plant lover, with wide-ranging interests. His lively blue eyes sparkle as he recounts in his warm, rich-timbered voice that his professional life took place in “three 15-year segments—the first spent learning, the next teaching, and the third developing and running a public garden,” each quite distinct and distinguished careers.
Like Burbank, who developed what Dick believes to be still the best baking potato, Dick worked with potatoes and other agricultural crops, but his deeper interest has always been in ornamental horticulture. For his PhD dissertation, he analyzed the chromosomes of Madonna lilies, proving that all grown in this country originated from a single clone. He still loves lilies, and has quite a few in his own marvelous garden just outside Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where he has lived with his wife, Sally, since 1961.
After leaving Cornell, Dick assumed that he would find a job with a seed company, but instead, a mentor, Walter Hodge, urged him to consider a position at Longwood Gardens. Right out of Cornell, he became the geneticist in charge of the experimental greenhouse at Longwood. As part of a cooperative program between Longwood and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dick went to Korea in 1966 on a plant-collecting expedition. The flora of Korea, like that of China and Japan, evolved in conditions similar to those of the eastern United States, but had been long neglected by Western botanists. And so for four months during the growing season, Korea became Dick’s base of operations. Despite heat prostration, sore muscles, food poisoning, severe dysentery (he lost over 20 pounds), primitive living conditions, and challenging roads, he mailed back cuttings, live plants, and seeds of 450 different woody plants, ferns, and herbaceous treasures. “I didn’t lose a thing,” he says with pride. Thanks to Dick’s connections with private gardeners, nurserymen, and plant societies, plants that have performed well in his own garden have been disseminated across the country. One of my own favorites is a tough and beautiful little woodland plant he brought back from Korea, Aruncus aethusifolius, while Dick’s friend and fellow plantsman Bill Frederick treasures a selection of Iris ensata var. spontanea that Bill describes as “electric mauve,” and there are many others that deserve to be better known.
Shortly after his return from Korea, Dick began the teaching segment of his career when he became the director of a new Longwood graduate program at the University of Delaware, whose goal was to train graduate students in ornamental horticulture. Over time, Dick introduced business and economics courses, so that what had been a graduate program in ornamental horticulture became the Program of Public Garden Administration. Dick is proud that some of his students have become leading figures in the world of public horticulture. Members of this group include Judy Zuk, president of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Jane Pepper, president of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, and many others.
With his fame in the horticultural world growing, Dick joined the board of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, and was sought by many other organizations for advice, lectures, and expertise. Then, in 1982, he received a call from Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, asking for his advice on their own property, Mount Cuba, near Wilmington, Delaware, where they had been thinking of establishing an arboretum or public garden. Wisely counseling them to select a particular focus, and having learned that Mrs. Copeland loved wildflowers, Dick suggested that they develop a garden featuring the native piedmont flora. They loved the idea, and who better to execute it than Dick? For the next 15 years, Dick served as director of the Mount Cuba Garden for the Study of Piedmont Flora, in what he says was a wonderful partnership with Mrs. Copeland, “each learning important lessons from the other.” Their legacy is a unique public garden that seamlessly blends visual beauty and educational lessons in the use of native plants—a high point in one of American horticulture’s most diverse and richly productive careers. H