Nebraska sprawls flat and wide across the central Great Plains. With its inhospitable climate of extremes, it seems a less-than-ideal place for plant breeding, selection, and introduction. A fifth-generation native son has changed that perception.
Dale Lindgren, a professor of horticulture at the University of Nebraska West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, trials, breeds, and selects beautiful tough perennials. Upon arriving at North Platte, he was smitten by the penstemons started there by his predecessor. Lindgren’s first introduction, Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, released in 1985, is familiar from coast to coast, thanks to its burgundy foliage, showy white flowers, longevity, and unusually adaptable nature–all qualities not often found in the beardtongue genus.
Lie has since bred other notable penstemons: there’s unusually hued Penstemon barbatus ‘Schooley’s Yellow’; ‘Prairie Snow’ and ‘Prairie Palette’, both seed strains of the showy Nebraska native species P. grandiflorus; and ‘Prairie Splendor’, a huge-flowered, long-lived hybrid. His work with other genera has produced two recent introductions: a compact, extrafloriferous form of purple prairie clover, Dalea purpurea ‘Stephanie’, and tough, long-lived Dianthus ‘Prairie Pink’.
A visit to Lindgren’s research plots in North Platte gives a sense of the scope, detail, and dedication of this man’s work. Under a relentless June sun, rows upon rows of penstemons burst from blackish gray, riverbot-tom silt-loam, in every color of the rainbow, like a cornfield gone mad. In greenhouses and cold frames, penstemons are grown in containers and forced into bloom for hand pollination under glass, which keeps insects out of the picture. Thousands of crosses are made and more than 10,000 seedlings result in a typical year.
Then comes detailed record keeping as the plants are observed. No fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides are used. With the sharp eye and ruthless judgment inherent in the best plant breeders, soft-spoken Lindgren walks down the rows, noting a few tiny leaf spots on one gorgeous grape-colored hybrid, the impure white flowers of another. The plants are grown in the test fields for two to three years and then tilled back into the soil to make room for newcomers. The really good ones, perhaps a handful each year, are given a number, propagated, and then watched for as long as nine years before one or two are named and released to the trade. During that time they are also sent to other locations for trial. Chief criteria are winter hardiness; disease and insect resistance; length, color, and size of bloom; and longevity.
This past year, perhaps feeling the weight of nearly 30 years of work, a sense of mortality, and the urgency that colors any project dependent on university funding, Lindgren has pushed to release a larger number of his best plants than usual. His wish is to continue to do what he loves best, going far afield looking for more plants with which to work, walking the long rows of his floral progeny and inspecting them, expanding his program to include native grasses and sedges for groundcover and alternative lawns, and perhaps someday, having a laboratory to study molecular markers to aid in his breeding efforts. Gardeners would do well to wish the same for him. H
Growing Penstemons: Species, Cultivars, and Hybrids
Compiled by Dale Lindgren and Ellen Wilde; Infinity Publishing Company, June 2003, $17.95
This book is a must for potential and already incorrigible penstemaniacs. Detailed yet user-friendly, with a refreshing emphasis on real-life gardening experiences and practical applications, the book also offers exceptional appendices, including sources, when and where to see penstemons in bloom, recommended species by region, and native species by slate and province.
Events Around the Country
COMPILED BY ERIN KAPPELER
Annual Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival
Sierra Madre, CA 626-306-1150 www.sierramadrechamber.com
The Annual Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival affords horticultural afficionados the chance to see the world’s largest blooming plant, the 112-year-old, 250-ton Wistaria Vine of Sierra Madre. The vine, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1990 and named one of the Seven Horticultural Wonders of the World, sports over 1 million lavender-hued blossoms. The Wistaria Festival also features an art and garden fair and live music in downtown Sierra Madre.
New England Spring Flower Show
Boston, MA J 617-933-4900 www.masshort.org
Stop by the Bayside Expo Center in Boston to take in the New England Spring Flower Show. The show, dedicated to celebrating New England’s unique landscape, features a variety of events, from amateur competitions to gardening demonstrations and lectures. Themed events “ throughout the week offer something for everyone in the family. Male gardeners can enjoy a night with David Mellor, Fenway Parks director of grounds, to learn g about “Gardening for Guys” on March 12. Women can enjoy “Girls Night Out,” featuring a fashion show and makeovers by local salons, on the 16th. The show caters to children as well, with the Children’s Festival on the 17th featuring animals, crafts, music, storytelling, and, of course, gardening activities. On the 19th, the whole family can gather together to enjoy “Music 5 in the Gardens” as they take one last look,at the fabulous gardens on display.