Hi LariAnn, thank you so much for being in our Spotlight! I've known you for a long time and always wondered how you became so interested in breeding plants. Your work fascinates me, and I truly enjoy reading whatever you write about it. You are such a great writer there is no need for me to even say a word. I'll just let you tell your story in your own words. If I have a question, I'll let you know.
Readers, don't forget to click on the photos to enlarge them and scroll over them for descriptions!
So, where to start? I'll start with my earliest memories of aroids - my parents split up when I was around 10 and one morning, while darkness prevailed outdoors, my Mom woke us kids up really early and said, "Let's go, we're going to Puerto Rico!". None of us knew what "Puerto Rico" was, but we got up sleepily, dressed and went walking with Mom to the Catholic church nearby, about a half mile or so away from our house, where a taxicab was waiting. I thought we'd just be going "somewhere" and that we'd be back for supper. Turns out I was WAY wrong - Puerto Rico was some place we were FLYING to and we wouldn't be coming back in time for dinner.
As we rode in the cab to the airport, I remember wondering about my toys and why I wasn't given time to bring any of them with me. It did not occur to me that I had only the clothes on my back, but I was worried that something really big had just happened and I didn't know what it was.
The flight felt like I was going to another planet, and the arrival confirmed that - I WAS on another planet, with plants that I'd never seen or imagined, and hot temperatures that I'd never dreamed of. The humid air was heavy with the smells of blooms I couldn't even begin to figure out - what a strange new place!
Without going into too many details, one place we visited for a while was the home of a relative of my Mom, a "ranch" of sorts in a small town on the western end of the island. They grew coffee there (how was THAT possible) and the beans drying in the sun had such a heavenly aroma - my senses were on the verge of being overloaded. At another time, we went to another relative's house in a larger town. The house was run down, but at least one significant event happened there. It was there that I saw a plant that astonished me, what I now know as "Xanthosoma" - it was so exotic - the leaves were huge and they came out rolled up! This was unimagined when compared to the northern plants (in Virginia and Maryland) that I was somewhat familiar with. I was entranced by that plant as well as by the banana plants and other strange fruits and smells.
We were in Puerto Rico for about one year, but that year was filled with adventures and mystery. I went to school there, learned Spanish like a native, and saw plants and animals like none I had ever seen before. I remember being able to see a small banana plantation from the bedroom window, and off in the distance, a sugar mill. I saw how fast those banana leaves grew, and how wondrous it was to see those tightly rolled up leaves unfurl - it was magic to me each time I saw it.
During that time in Puerto Rico, I had my first experiences with growing my own plants. They were common plants, for example, I sprouted some beans and had bean plants for a short time. Another one was the "Bruja" (witch), a plant I now know of as Kalanchoe, but the mystery to me was that little plants would grow from the notches in the leaves. I'd seen nothing to compare with that up in Maryland, that's for sure. That is, except for the plants at my grandmother's house in Virginia. I knew her as "Gram" and she had wonderful African Violets growing on her windowsills. I did find out that a new plant could be grown from one of their leaves, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
That time spent in Puerto Rico had a long lasting effect on me, as it kindled in me a deep interest in plants and insects. When my Mom sent us back to my Dad's house in Maryland, I was determined, somehow, to pursue my new interests. I spent most of my free time alone, either reading about insects and plants or outside exploring and seeing what I could discover. Two of the most interesting experiences I had (among many) was seeing my first Praying Mantis and seeing the emergence of the 13 year cicada in our neighborhood.
As time passed, my Dad tore out the old wild rose hedge to the south of the property. Bare ground became available for me to plant something in, and it was also around that time that I grew my first two aroids in pots. One was a "voodoo lily" (Sauromatum guttatum) that I got at Kresge's (now Kmart), and Colocasia esculenta the source of which I'm no longer clear on. I didn't know anything about soil or fertilizer, but I grew these plants nonetheless and was amazed at how they grew.
My Gram also stoked the fire when she gave me leaf cuttings from her African Violets (Saintpaulia) as well as starts from other plants she had both inside and out in her little garden. I began to feel more comfortable outside with the plants than indoors. So much so that, many years later, when I was in Minnesota for a year, I learned how to "grow" my own landscapes on paper when I couldn't grow anything outdoors. It was at that time that Aroidia began to unfold within me.
However, I began drawing plants, insects and other things in those days from elementary school through high school. The plants started out being close approximations of real ones, but later my imagination really kicked in and I was inventing plants that didn't exist. This was the real groundwork for what would begin in my latter college years - the genesis of a whole planet full of what I now call "aroids of the imagination", a planet I named "Aroidia". With the scientific training obtained in college, plus a course in botanical illustration and an art course, I had the tools to go beyond merely drawing realistic imaginary landscapes - I could now name each plant and describe it botanically!
A new seed began to germinate in my awareness, though, and that was the idea that I might be able to bring plants such as I imagined into physical reality through breeding. At that time I did not have a clue as to how I was going to be able to accomplish that, but the desire was there and the drive, latent as it was, purred along quietly inside me until I met the person who was going to be my lifelong partner. That fortuitous and wonderful coupling was accompanied by the acquisition of plants I needed to perform my first aroid hybridization work. That latent drive then began emergence as a full-fledged passion that has remained with me to this day.
Another motivation spurred me on, and that was when I discovered other plant collectors; more specifically, plant lovers who collected aroids. I was beyond astonished at the plants I learned existed, but to my great dismay, I could not obtain most of them because the prices were too high. Furthermore, I lacked funds to travel to places where I might collect plants to use as trading material. So I began to reason that, perhaps, if I developed new plants through breeding, they would be considered rare enough to trade for the plant material I needed to do further work.
This plan turned out to work so well that doors opened for me to obtain plants which I can no longer find in collections. Sadly, most of those plants were lost to me in Hurricane Andrew, and they may never be replaced.
That hurricane was one of many turning point events in my life; another that preceded it was when we purchased our home, and some years later, the birth of our son was another such milestone. Amazement comes over me when I realize that Slate, our son, is graduating from high school in June 2011!
To be sure, many other experiences have filled my life, including college years, my spiritual development, jobs at several different nurseries, writing a book and so much more. I could write a story about the changes and growth in each facet of my life, but one recurring theme that has been with me through it all is my love and passion for plants.
Sigh. I knew I'd do this, get so caught up in your words and those wonderful drawings you do that I would forget to ask questions. But before the question, I have to mention your Gram. I think Grandmothers are a common thread that connect many of us to our love of plants. I know that's true for me, too. Anyway, I'm curious about something, how do you decide on the plants you want to breed? How do you decide on an outcome?
When I start each day, I have an idea of what plants I would like to cross, based on what is blooming and what I hope will bloom in the right time sequence to enable me to do the work. If the timing is right, I then do it, but if not, I do whatever I can do with what is available. To me, no cross is ever a waste of time, because one of the attractions of mixing plants up is the unexpected that can, and does, come up in the seed tray. But I do have goals and plans as far as where I want to go with particular plants or groups of plants.
What does the future hold for Aroidia? Well, I'd like to find someone who catches the vision that I see for my plants and who will appreciate what I've done already, enough to fund the production, run with it and bring some plants to market for me. I'd much prefer continuing my hybridization work rather than going into nursery production myself. Of course, I have dreams as well, and every once in a while I imagine what I could do with a transgenic laboratory. There are some traits in certain aroids that I'd like to get into other aroids, but the traditional hybridization methods won't work for them because the plants are too far apart genetically, even though they are all aroids. With a transgenic lab, some of the most exotic and spectacular of the Aroidian flora I've envisaged could actually come out of my imagination and into reality. So that is one big dream I have.
And maybe some of those wonderful Aroids would have what it takes to cross growing zones, too. Just imagine, tropicals growing year round in Kentucky. See, I have big dreams too! LariAnn, what's a typical day like for you?
Today I don't have to carry my few plants in a bag as I did when leaving college for the holidays or for summer. Instead, a typical morning for me is to go out and make my rounds, checking hundreds of plants and seeing if any blooms await pollination. Depending upon the plant in question, I may have to do a pollination before leaving for work, or I may just make note of the blooms for pollination late in the evening that same day, after sunset. I check seedling trays, review developing berries, verify that everyone is getting watered properly, and perhaps move a few plants around so they can get either more light or less. I greet the squirrels, including our two family pets, TipTop and LittleFoot, and give thanks for the new day and all the blessings of this life as I look around and see Aroidia being revealed from imagination to life, one plant at a time.
You use all those big words that I usually stumble over, but you name your squirrels TipTop and LittleFoot. How fun!
LariAnn, thank you so much for taking a few minutes out of your very busy and extremely interesting life to join us. Every discussion with you is an education in itself. I'd love to be able to visit you and your plants and I'd love to watch you as you work. Best wishes to you and your family. I hope you'll continue to share your work with us through more articles.
If you'd like to learn more about LariAnn's work, visit this cubit. You'll also find more articles about Aroids there, too. In addition, LariAnn has two other interesting cubits: Alternative Health Care and Greenhouses and Shadehouses.
Look at the Aroidia website. You'll find lots more information there.
Thank you for joining us. We'll meet you right here again next week when we see who Nancy brings to the Spotlight.
Thanks again, LariAnn!