A Gardening Life: Dr. Richard W. Lighty

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Dr. Richard W. Lighty

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 his doctoral program at Cornell. But Dick, as he is known, is a unique combination of scientist and plant lover with broad gauge interests. His lively blue eyes sparkle as he recounts in his warm, rich-timbered voice that his professional life took place in “three fifteen year segments — the first spent learning, the next teaching and the third in 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 did work with potatoes and agricultural crops but his deeper interest has always been in ornamental horticulture. For his Ph.D. 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 childhood sweetheart, Sally, since 1961. They first met when Dick was four years old . He says “long courtships – I definitely recommend them.” 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, conducting plant research and breeding. But he also began to pay attention to the cultivation methods used by the old gardeners who had worked at Longwood for many years while it was the private domain of Pierre S. DuPont who were reluctant to abandon their traditional techniques. With Longwood a public institution. Dick had to convince these skeptics that modern, scientific methods could produce the plants needed for the seasonal displays in less time by using new growing mediums, fertilizers and disease prevention techniques.

As part of a cooperative program of Longwood and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dick went to Korea in 1966 on a plant finding expedition. The flora of Korea, like that of China and Japan, grew in conditions closely related to the eastern United States but had been long neglected by western botanists. Communist China was then inaccessible but the Korean War was over so Korea became Dick’s base of operations for four months during the growing season where he studied and collected desirable plant material. Heat prostration, sore muscles, food poisoning and severe dysentery – Dick lost over 20 pounds — primitive living and challenging road conditions did not deter the mission He mailed back cuttings, live plants and seeds of 450 different plants, woody plants, ferns and other herbaceous treasured. Dick smiles, saying “I didn’t lose a thing.”

Dick has been an outspoken critic of non-profits that sponsor plant finding expeditions but fail to adequately absorb and evaluate the results and get worthy new plants out into public use. Instead, they are “planning the next trip before they’ve had time to digest the previous trip — that’s the crux of the problem.” Thanks to Dick’s personal efforts and connections with private gardeners, nurserymen and plant societies, he has selected plants that performed well in his own garden to disseminate across the country. One of my own favorites is the tough and beautiful little woodland plant he brought back from Korea, aruncus aesthusifolius, while Dick’s friend and fellow plantsman, Bill Frederick, treasures Dick’s Iris Ensata var. Spontanea that Bill describes as “electric mauve.” Another one of Dick’s great Korean finds is popular grass, Calamogrostis arundinacea var. brachytricha, but there are many others not yet well enough 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 to train graduate students in ornamental horticulture. In sending him to his interview, the Director of Longwood told him, “We’ve interviewed a number of people and the ones the University likes, we don’t like. The ones we like, the University doesn’t like.” The University wanted academic credentials while Longwood wanted someone with experience in public gardens. Dick, of course, satisfied both. Over time, Dick’s broader interests 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 progeny have become leading figures in their own right, such as Judy Zuk, President of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Jane Pepper, President of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, Paul Meyer, Michael Bailey and many others.

Increasingly well known, Dick joined the board of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta and was sought after by many other organizations for advice, lectures and expertise. Then in 1982, Dick received a call from Mr. And Mrs. Copeland asking for his consultation in connection with their own property where they had been thinking of establishing an arboretum or some kind of public garden. Wisely counseling them to select a particular focus and having learned that Mrs. Copeland loved wild flowers, Dick suggested they develop a garden featuring the native Piedmont flora. They loved the idea and who better to execute it than Dick. After fifteen years as Director, Dick retired from the Mount Cuba Garden for the Study of Piedmont Flora, after what he says was a wonderful “partnership” with Mrs. Copeland, “each learning important lessons from the other.” Their legacy is a unique public garden, seamlessly blending visual beauty and educational lessons in the use of native plants.