Harry Luther – tribute by Mike Bush

Tribute to Harry by Mike Bush

I feel the world is a bit smaller today – and the horticultural part of it smaller still.

Harry was 60, and only two weeks older than I. We met after high school in a class learning botany through Florida’s native plants in junior college in St. Petersburg, FL during the summer of 1971. At that young age of 19 he already had a wide and professional knowledge of plants – obviously more than many of us in the class, as he had been managing the Nursery for Webb’s City, a crazy, mammoth department store that was part future mall or Wal-Mart and part vaudeville. The nursery operation was similarly huge and also offered and bid on landscape installations. Harry related to me that the “nursery cans” (usually old soup cans) were the primary container, and eventuallywould rust through in nursery or in the Florida sands. However it was still not a good idea to plant them in their cans, so Harry would have to pull a few plants out of every line of Surinam Cherry hedge to be sure the help hired off the street each morning was actually removing the plants from the cans.

While we both grew up in St. Pete, he seemed to find his way to plants more thoroughly and sooner, discovering many operations before they went out of business in the plant boom of the 70′s.

 He was responsible for much of the operations at Earl J. Small’s Growers in Pinellas Park, FL, adjancent to St. Petersburg, where he bred gloxinias and produced hundreds of thousands of plants for wholesale, including execum. This was an ‘old style’ operation, with all plants grown under aging wood and glass houses. Very professional and rather prolific.

 While Harry was still working at Small’s, he began collecting in Mexico, usually overland through Texas (a distance of 3,000 km; Singapore to Rangoon, Burma is only 2,500 km!), bringing back specialty plants the he and an early partner would sell in their personal nursery. While FL has many species of Tillandsia, I think it was on these trips that Harry really saw the diversity in the genus and began to be v.interested in bromeliads. He knew Mulford B. Foster, longtime bromeliad expert in central Florida and had his respect. Later the Bromeliad Identifcation Center would be named for Mulford Foster.

 Harry never drove. While his eyesight could find an orchid in a tree 50 meters away and 20 meters high, issues of depth perception and  judging speed kept him to taxis, his favored transport even in Florida – where you can NEVER EVER find one by waiting at the street. You must call first. He did take the bus, and as a result saw much more of wherever he was living (only St. Petersburg or Sarasota) as he was freed from the responsibilities of driving.

 Even  in the early 70′s he was great in the field, fun to work with and amusing in his careful, often-acerbic views of the world. He smoked to a fault and quit after by-pass surgery ten years ago. He hated having his picture taken and went for years without a successful capture. It’s true that he had a fondness for cats. At Selby Botanical Garden, there was always a “garden cat” or two and Harry would look out for them, taking them to the Vet for their needs and ills. He also had a cat or two at home. During my short time in Singapore, I knew him to gently care for several litters of stray catsthat appeared at his apartment building.

 In the early 80′s while I was at Selby, Harry came to work weekends, taking the bus over the Sunshine Skyway coming and going from his home in St.Petersburg, a trip of 75 km. All this for a part-time job with no benefits at low pay so that he could work with one of the best growing collections of epiphytes on the planet. He quickly saw gaps in the collections and began sourcing and collecting important additions, focusing on bromeliads. Soon he was collecting on Garden expeditions in South and Central America – and was always very much a general collector, instantly recognizing a plant as new to him/the Garden or science. His background in horticulture at Earl J. Smalls also allowed him to see the horticultural value in many plants others would overlook. I think that this is where Harry is most misunderstood. He is cursed by his great and deserved reputation with bromeliads that many think that is all that mattered to Harry. This is far, far from actuality. For years at Selby, Harry would set out plants and often plant them in the Garden, helping to diversify the collections – often to the consternation of supervisors like me. And yet he was usually correct, it was only his methods that were maddening at times.

 Following on the success at Selby of the Orchid Identification Center begun by Dr. Kiat Tan, the Garden started the Bromeliad Identification Center (BIC) with Harry as the Director. That did NOT excuse him from his duties with plants that had been expanded from part-time weekend waterer to Greenhouse Supervisor.To make up for low pay, Selby provided Harry with a set of rooms in the Old Selby House on the grounds of the Garden (not the fancy house seen from the street!) He lived in the old Florida home that housed the Gift Shop and meeting rooms. His home was the “servants quarters” – where I had lived previously. With a tiny bedroom above the former garage (meeting room) connecting with a very narrow and steep stairway to an even smaller kitchen, he lived in the very heart of the Garden and only a few steps to the Greenhouses. Harry had found his niche.

 For thirty years, Harry worked at Selby, never giving up any of his horticultural responsibilities and growing his focus on the BIC and publishing. Harry was at times faulted for never having achieved a college degree, yet through his seven-day-a-week focus on  plants, widespread and regular collecting plus meticulous observations, he gained international respect. His colleagues in Singapore can not imagine the Harry they new as being nimble and quick – this was before he broke his back in a fall while reaching for yet another choice plant.

 In fact, my last communication with Harry was regarding a retired WWII veteran living here in San Luis Obispo, who in retirement grewlots of bromeliads. At 92, he came to the Garden a couple of weeks ago when we both realized we knew Harry. “Whenever anyone had a question about a bromeliad and couldn’t get an answer, you knew it was the final word when it came down from on high – from Harry.”

 I don’t know how many Executive Directors worked at Selby during Harry’s tenure – way too many. I overheard a conversation among garden directors in an elevator at a national conference in 2001, wondering, “What was going on at Selby, they have gotten rid of another director?”

 Eventually this parade of changing leadership lead to an increasing awareness that science and plant collections were not as valued to the Garden as Harry knew to be important. Harry made the tough decision to leave his home of 30 years, and the only area he had ever lived to move himself and his research to Gardens by the Bay in February, 2010.

 He died four months short of the end of his contract and a return to his Florda.

 I already miss his spirit, his dry satire, blunt assessments and soft generousity. He suffered no fools. And would let you know. I respect him for his patience and longevity at Selby, striving to keep that Garden relevant in today’s world of botanical science and horticulture.

 I also admire him for his pluck and spunk to leave such a comfortable and familiar situation and move to Singapore and Gardens by the Bay rather late in life, and moving his entire work with him. The most frustrating part of work at GB was not being able to DO work. He had always worked with his hands, growing and propagating plants. He felt that the system of contracted labor was crippling the Garden’s ability to move forward, as staff were only allowed to be ’contract managers’, not gardeners – all in the name of false efficiency.

 Again, today’s world is a smaller place – and the horticultural and botanical world a smaller place still.


Posted in Harry Luther | Comments Off