David R. Clark is an ornamental horticulturist whose popularity as a lecturer stems from his ability to educate and entertain. Clark studied horticulture and floraculture at SUNY Cobbleskill College in the Catskills, but his interest in plants and flowers began as a boy growing up on a farm in Eden.
Clark’s creative garden talks – “Strange Sex Life of Plants,” “Hydroponically Speaking,” “Ten Plants That Rocked History” are delivered as he builds floral arrangements. His energy and talent have caught the attention of botanical groups around the country.
Clark, 53, lives in Hamburg. He speaks regularly at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, Bradford Area Gardening and Landscape Symposium and at Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. On greatgardenspeakers.com, he has earned many five-star reviews.
People Talk: What was your first brush with horticulture?
David Clark: I was 3 years old and I remember putting water in all the bottles that my mother kept her plant cuttings in. And I would look at the roots and look at the algae growing. It was very cool.
PT: How does your garden grow now?
DC: When I moved in, there was nothing except some basketball shrubs in front of the house. I lived in the house a year to see what would pop up on the grounds. You don’t know what kind of gems will be growing in those gardens. You don’t know what that person has done there, but I knew I wanted to start landscaping after a year. A garden usually looks good for 25 years, and then things die, pass on. They don’t grow. I’ve been here for 30 years.
PT: What motivated your garden design?
DC: It’s a woodland setting in middle suburbia. It has hundreds of daffodil bulbs in the springtime and hundreds of tulips. I don’t like the summertime – it’s hot – so in the springtime after a long ungodly winter, it’s a riot of color for six weeks and then it turns green. Some perennials and some summer flowers come up and then it goes quietly into foliage for summertime. It’s a pretty hardy garden.
PT: Tell me about a finicky flower.
DC: Episcia, like an African Violet. They’re called Flame Violets and grow in warm and humid conditions, almost impossible to grow in your house. They are delicate but spectacularly beautiful.
PT: Describe the state of horticulture in this country.
DC: Unfortunately the United States is not a flower country like Europe and Canada. Buffalo is a garden town. We have National Garden Festival and Garden Walk. We have great growing conditions here – limited but great. We have the lake that actually balances the summer. It also produces snow, which plants need because it acts like a blanket to protect them from the frost cycle.
PT: How do West Coast gardeners compare to us?
DC: Well, they have 12 growing seasons every year as opposed to us having one. They’re constantly growing out there. I was surprised because they do so much hydroponics with strawberries and different fruits.
PT: Why do you arrange flowers as you present your talk?
DC: To stand in front of an audience for one or three hours, they get bored. I get bored. Besides, I was a magician as a kid. I taught myself magic.
PT: Your new talk is “Strange Sex Life of Plants.” What is that all about?
DC: It’s a new Science Cafe that I’m working on. It will go behind the scenes of how plants make more of themselves. Propagation, but not without human help. Science Cafes are less structured than my horticulture classes where I’m teaching people botany or soil science. I teach hundreds of Western New York gardeners every year.
PT: Does each garden club have its own personality?
DC: Absolutely. Some are garden clubs. Some are very gifted floral design clubs. Some are philanthropic and work for their communities. Sometimes people will move from one club to another because they don’t fit that niche. Some clubs dedicate themselves to a certain kind of plant like hostas or day lilies. Some are all about competition and exhibition. When you go to the Erie County Fair, competition is fierce.
PT: Your presentations are very creative.
DC: I do Science Cafes to bring new members into the Botanical Gardens. Last year I did two: “Plants in Motion Pictures: The Horticulture of Hollywood” and “10 Plants that Rocked History.”
PT: How did bamboo change history?
DC: Good question. Bamboo shoots are in Asian food, but you can also build buildings and scaffolding with bamboo. The first light bulb filament was made from bamboo.
PT: When it comes to horticulture authors, who do you read?
DC: Any of Amy Stewart’s books are good. “Wicked Plants” is about plants that are deadly, stinging, or they kill you, burn you. Or they fumigate you. She tells how Abe Lincoln’s mother was killed by snakeroot. The cow ate the snakeroot and she drank the milk from the cow and passed from poisoning.
PT: I bet you are never boring.
DC: I used to be, but I had an Amazon parrot for about 23 years, and I had an iguana. I had fish tanks. I had to be home so I didn’t do a lot of traveling. I lost my parrot, Aku, about eight years ago. He talked on the phone, cracked jokes, laughed at television. My iguana passed, and the fish gradually went away. When my dad passed I brought his entire orchid collection to my basement, like 150 plants. But I had to stop because the humidity and water were basically wrecking my house. It was 70 percent humidity down there.
PT: What’s a huge tech advance in your industry?
DC: LED lighting. It’s so cost effective. I just did online training with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in the U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington for a program called Landscape for Life. It was all about sustainability.
PT: What is a recent flower trend.
DC: Obviously the Pantone color of the year which is radiant orchid. All the colors of purple, lavenders, misty blues. Some people are designing flowers in glass. Some people like doing tied hand bouquets that look really beautiful in a glass vase. Botanical floral designs are being done on a natural base – say a twig or a log – and you attach moss and weave ivy through it. Add lilies of the valley and orchids to peak out on top.
PT: When your hobby becomes your livelihood, what becomes your hobby?
DC: This. I eat, live, breathe, sleep this industry – not only my floral work. I go to all the design shows. Do I dream? I dream I’m back in college.