The purple & white orchid is Dendrobium Super Ise. The yellow & brown flowered orchid is Oncidium Mackenzie Mountain. Both are hybrids.
Meet Jimmy Grogan, Master Gardener
Contributed by Sherry Wilson
Master Gardener Jimmy Grogan speaks the language of plants. Originally a teacher of English as a Second Language, he experienced a kind of epiphany one day riding in a rickshaw in Java where he worked. The beauty of the botanical world struck him suddenly and dramatically. For the first time he started a garden and in that tropical area he quickly had a very satisfactory jungle.
A trip to the forests of Borneo brought a second revelation about the natural world—the fantastic and enormous tropical trees in all their impressive diversity. He was awed by the huge specimens in the dipterocarp family, a tropical tree family that seems to dwarf even redwoods and sequoias. “They are the giants of the tree world. One tree looked like a rocket ship with buttresses 20 feet up,” he recalled.
“I didn’t want to be an English teacher any more. I wanted to work in tropical forests,” he decided. “There is something about looking at a tree. Plants engage. There is love. It is emotional. It’s relational,” he explained with passion.
Returning to the States, he earned a master’s degree in forest ecology at Yale University and then spent two years in Thailand. “That was when I first experienced the diversity of the tropical forest. There were 400 species of trees and I had to know all of them,” he said.
“To me botany is a language. When you collect the names of things, their identities, you begin to know who you are dealing with,” he added.
After two years he went back to Yale for a PhD specializing in mahogany, with research in Brazil. “In the mid-1990s, mahogany was a big international controversy,” he said. Mahogany has long been a choice wood for furniture-making but “it’s a resource that vanishes on contact with people. The result is a huge opening-up of a large swathe of the Amazon for development.”
For Jimmy, the Amazon in Brazil was “an incredible adventure, a wild, wild West scene. I was always on the frontier.” There was always a lot of violence associated with the lumber industry in South America including a “mahogany Mafia,” he said.
Jimmy spent about 10 years in Brazil, mapping the patterns of mahogany clusters as a population ecologist. “Then my back went out after an injury and it required surgery. That was 13 years ago,” he said.
“I washed up in Leverett. I have a brother and a sister in this area. I was essentially tied to a bed for four years,” he recalled.
While he was recuperating, his sister asked him to do something about her dying houseplants. He happily obliged because “When I had my hands on plants, I didn’t have pain.” He became hooked on house plants, especially cacti and succulents, started buying his own plants and ended up with perhaps 300, many of them under lights.
He was trying to figure out a new career since he couldn’t work in remote forests again due to his back.
While visiting his parents in North Carolina he became friends with the director of the greenhouses at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who suggested Jimmy consider greenhouse work, adding, “You need to know something about orchids.” Jimmy had been vaguely aware of orchids in the tropics where they mostly grow in the trees but he was too focused on the trees themselves to appreciate the diversity of the orchid family.
Back in Massachusetts he asked local orchid guru Bill Hutchinson if he would take him as an apprentice in his Amherst greenhouse, which he did for three years starting in 2008. He also visited the college greenhouses often. One day at the Talcott Greenhouse at Mount Holyoke College he noticed one of their prized orchids was badly placed for its growth habit. He mentioned the problem to employee Gail Fuller who later asked him to become a greenhouse volunteer taking care of the orchids.
In 2012, he became a paid part-time employee and last fall was hired as full-time manager of the Talcott Greenhouse.
“This is a great opportunity to be able to do something with plants,” he said with enthusiasm. “I don’t know what it is about plants but when I look at a plant, it responds.”
Jimmy prefers plants that offer a challenge in growing rather than those that are easy. “The plants I really like are the plants that require me to be engaged. I need new things to challenge me. I love it when I get new things to play with!”
Understandably, some of his favorites are ones he first encountered in the tropics like Murraya paniculata, a shrub with white very fragrant flowers. He also likes a silver jade plant (Crassula arborescens) which comes from South Africa. He warned, however, that you need to water it very lightly during its natural dry season, our summer, or you’ll kill it. It also needs a bit of shade during the summer. “I love that a plant is itself even though it’s 10,000 miles from where it came from.”
He even grew a mahogany tree from seed, back in 2008. It outgrew its pot four years ago and was planted in the main greenhouse in the ground. It continues to grow and had to be “topped off” last summer so it wouldn’t go through the roof. (If you would like to learn more about Jimmy’s work with mahogany in Brazil check out the website: www.swietking.org.)
photos are of Murraya paniculata, the understory shrub that I first met
in the mountains of Thailand. The white flower is very fragrant.
Jimmy also took the training course of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association in 2011. “I knew I needed to get out in the world and I wanted to meet people. It was a great opportunity to learn stuff I didn’t know. I didn’t know much about horticulture or agriculture, just silviculture (the study of trees).”
For the past three training sessions, Jimmy has taught the full-day program on botany to new interns, their very first class. “I’ve been so grateful to be part of the program, to offer something back to the class.” (He is also a very popular teacher according to the interns.)
Accepting the fact he couldn’t return to work in the tropics was traumatic but Jimmy has found a new career, which includes sharing his knowledge and his love of plants with the public. “Working with plants is the number one source of aesthetic pleasure in my life,” he said.