July 16, 2013

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Summer rains beauty on Purdue's Horticulture Gardens

By Tom Campbell

Up and Running with Bootstrap

Purdue’s Horticulture Gardens wrap around the Horticulture Building on Marsteller Street with the beauty of a ring wrapping around a finger.

But instead of resembling an engagement ring with a single, overwhelming stone, the half-acre gardens look more like costume jewelry, full of sparkling stones bursting in the colors contained in a box of Crayola crayons. And not the 64-crayon box, but the 120-crayon box that holds colors such as purple pizzazz and razzle-dazzle rose.

Within the gardens are some 1,200 species of plants with names that are just as much fun to say as they are to look at. There are plants named spike speedwell, foxglove, candy lily and sneezewort, to mention a few.

But whether it is the petunia or the hairy alumwort, there is a reason each plant has a home in the garden.

“We are a little bit different than a regular botanical garden,” said Mary Lou Hayden, horticulture collections manager since 1991. “A lot of regular botanical gardens have pretty vistas and views, and design the beds so they are more ornamentally attractive.”

But this garden is a classroom, too.

“Our mission is to have a sample of every plant we can get. We want to have everything in here that is on the plant list for horticulture professor Mike Dana’s herbaceous plants class,” said Hayden. “And right now, that list is at 650 species.”

All fit along walkways and garden paths like pieces of a technicolor puzzle.

During the summer, when the gardens are at their peak of color, there are only occasional visitors to the garden, much to Hayden’s chagrin.

“It’s disappointing to me because we work really, really hard to make everything look so pretty,” Hayden said. “The peak month of color is right now, in July, and there just aren’t many people here to enjoy it.”

Photographers come to snap pictures of the plants, and amateur gardeners come looking for ideas to augment their own gardens. But compared with the fall, the only buzz in the garden is provided by the bees.

“We’ll have people in here all the time once classes start,” Hayden said. “The veterinary school uses the gardens because they have a toxicology class. Their students study plants that are toxic to livestock, and we grow a lot of those plants.”

She said botany and plant pathology as well as entomology students use the gardens, too.

“We purposely don’t spray for many insects,” Hayden said, “because it is important for the students to see what kind of damage pests can do to different garden plants.”

Last year’s drought meant Hayden and her team spent nearly 75 percent of their time just watering plants. This year’s damp, cool spring and summer has afforded them the opportunity to grow plants that would not have survived last summer.

“I’ve never been able to grow sweet peas out here to save my soul,” Hayden said, “but we’ve got them 4 feet tall and they’re blooming like crazy out here this year.”

Hayden hopes the cooler, wetter conditions continue, at least through the end of July.

“If these cool and damp summer conditions continue through July and August, we may be able to hold on to our colors by the time the students return.”

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