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Withering field: Plant science students needed to regrow horticulture

Jan. 31, 2014 - 10:49AM   |  
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Coming from image-conscious professionals who prefer to gush about the beauty of flowers and the joys of growing vegetables, the words were downright shocking: “Horticulture is under siege.”

The letter penned by a half-dozen of the country’s most prominent plant people was sent in December to 800 schools and universities, government agencies, industry associations, and growers of everything from almonds to onions. The letter warns that if something isn’t done soon to boost the ranks of plant scientists, breeders, students and others, horticulture could become a lost art and a forgotten science.

By the book, horticulture is the art and science of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers and ornamental plants.

More often, in the public mind, “it’s a guy with a pickup truck and a lawn mower, a low-paying job requiring manual labor and no college degree,” said Mary H. Meyer, horticultural science professor at the University of Minnesota and president of the American Society for Horticultural Science.

Meyer cites other career opportunities: plant breeding; greenhouse and food production; the cut-flower, landscape, and nursery industries; public gardens, parks and sports turf; research into global climate change; plant pests and diseases; water quality, biofuels, and food safety and security; and the psychological and physiological benefits of plants.

Horticulturists say the crisis has been building for decades, greatly influenced by the globalization of the food and flower trades, the population shift from farm to city, and the loss of personal connection to the land.

“When do most people get interested in plants now?” asked Richard Marini, head of Pennsylvania State University’s plant science department. “Usually, when they buy a house, and by then, they’re out of college.”

In another sign of the times, 18 months ago at Penn State, the agronomic and turf scientists merged with the horticulturists to form the plant sciences department.

Pauline Hurley-Kurtz, chairwoman of the landscape architecture and horticulture program at Temple University’s Ambler campus, says that although student interest in traditional horticulture — ornamental shrubs, trees and plants — is holding steady, practical courses on growing food, storm-water mitigation, native plants, landscape restoration, urban arboriculture, even beekeeping, have become popular in the past two or three years.

“We’re doing much more environmental horticulture here,” Hurley-Kurtz said. “It’s the way of the future, but we still need professionals who have a background in horticultural science.”

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