Mark Dimmitt, Plant Freak Extraordinaire

Mark Dimmitt in his tropical greenhouse
About a decade and a half ago, when I was new to Tucson, and my own plant-freakness was just starting to be nourished by the Sonoran Desert, I was told about Mark Dimmitt.

“He is the king of plant-freaks in this town” I was told by more than one person. Dr. Richard Felger, one of my fist botany mentors and the founder of Drylands Institute, told me it was my homework to hang out with Mark, who managed the botanical collection for the non-profit. I gave Mark a call (Dr. Felger suggested to Mark to have me help him pot up Trichocereus) and arranged to hang out with him one Saturday morning.

I read a quote from Mark recently where he said that his goal was to overwhelm visitors. That was certainly my reaction the first time I strolled through his orchid greenhouse, tables of Trichocereus, and several other greenhouses and plantings that had an array of plants I knew, plants I had only read about, and some I had never even heard of.

Mark is my favorite sort of plant freak. Though he loves weird plants the most and favors succulents, cacti, caudiciforms and tropical epiphytes, he is not beyond growing beds of Zinnias or corn. But you don’t look at his “common” garden plants the same when you are in his realm. The exotic nature of his collection seems to rub off on the periwinkle, pansies or basil. You look at them differently, I suppose, noticing the attributes of their form that are normally obscured by familiarity. He also has a knack for seeking out the nicest varieties of such things. Yes, even his common garden plants will often be of a non-pedestrian variety.

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His landscape is far from manicured. There are literally so many plants there, especially these days, that just about every available bit of open space is taken by something photosynthesizing. His goal is not one of design, but rather one of accentuating an appreciation for the plant kingdom for its own sake. The needs of the plant determine where they go, not the frivolous idiosyncrasies of motif.

Mark was very patient with me when I first came on the scene. I was obviously zealous about plants and knew a thing or two about desert flora. But not having had the proper exposure to this new world, particularly the tropical things like the bromeliads, orchids, and aroids, I fired questions at him for the first few hours. I was most struck by the large Amorphophallus titanium plant which looks like a palm supported by a spotted lizard’s leg (the entire “plant” is really just one leaf, the trunk being the petiole). His specimen of Welwhichia mirabilis also amazed me; something I had never seen outside of photos.
I spent whatever weekends I could at his place, first working with the Trichocereus, then his Adeniums, which he had started to get serious about breeding at the time. Then I moved onto helping him with the orchids and bromeliads. I was never regular, having my own plants to manage—I owned my own small plant nursery at the time. Some months I was there every weekend. Sometimes a few months would go by. But I tried to get over to Mark’s as much as I could.

Before this last year, I was in the midst of a plant-hiatus. I took a break because I literally was so obsessed that it was becoming a serious impediment in my personal life. I came back to plants only after I let some of my other interests have some time, and developed a more healthy non-plant related social life. During that time I avoided nurseries, plant society meetings, and all the usual places that fed my obsession. However every 6 months to a year I would give Mark a call and go over and hang out, potting up a few things (he ALWAYS has plants that need to be divided or potted up, etc). I have started to help mark out on a regular basis again because I learn so much from him. There are not very many people who I can talk to about plants the way we talk about them. I can bring up about almost any plant group and more often than not he has tried to grow it, or at least knows someone who has. He also always has something new and fascinating growing at his place. And there is always something I never noticed before.

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Along with Mark’s incredible skill and shared obsession he is also a fascinating person. He is well aware that the plant-collecting bug is a mental quirk of a kind, and often jokes about it. He prides himself on his social awkwardness and I find his honesty and directness incredibly refreshing.

The following in an interview we conducted over email:

What drew you into plants initially, and what drew you into plant-freakdom (where you became more than just a horticulturist)?

Both sets of grandparents and a pair of great-grandparents were gardeners and farmers, so I was surrounded by plants from my earliest memory. They were huge gardens where I could (so I thought anyway) hide from my parents and be completely alone. (I’ve always enjoyed solitude.) From those memories I still think of plants like hollyhocks and delphiniums as flowers that tower over my head; to a little kid they looked like trees. (Years later I was reminded of this perception by the line from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”: “Cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head…”

The plant that converted me from hobby horticulturist to obsessed freak was gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa). It happened in my freshman year in high school (see answer to next question). I pollinated two of my plants and successfully grew out the seeds. I was amazed to see a whole lot of variation in the seedlings, a couple of which were more beautiful than the parents. I was stricken by the urge to mess around with gene pools and create things that didn’t occur in nature. Gloxinias have all but vanished from the public consciousness. I haven’t had one for 20 years, and plant catalogs carry only 2 or 3 varieties if any.

Did you have anyone who influenced you as a grower and general plant-freak initially? How about now?

My first mentor was my high school biology teacher, Ace Palmer. He was an iconoclast who reveled in breaking the rules, and encouraged his students to challenge authority. There was a small greenhouse attached to the classroom, completely empty. When he learned that I liked to grow plants, he turned it over to me. I quickly filled it with hundreds of plants; can’t remember where I got them all. (The classroom itself was full of cages of animals – rats, mice, tropical fish, lizards, and snakes. I also bred tropical fish and tried to breed snakes.)

Who would you consider some of the best growers you know? What do they grow?

There are many superb growers; I hate to list any because I will overlook many of them.

Steve Hammer, mesembs

Dylan Hannon, many plants but especially bulbs

Leo Song, many difficult succulents (first to flower Welwitschia, had Dorstenia gigas volunteering on his greenhouse floor)

Larry Grammar, excellent at both culture and staging

Chuck Hanson, all succulents but especially euphorbias

Gerald Barad, stapeliads, first to learn how to pollinate them

What was the first group of plants you became obsessive about?

Orchids (for growing only, not hybridizing). I got my first Cymbidium when I was in my early teens, from Stewart’s Orchids. For hybridizing, it was first Gloxinia, then Lobivia-Trichocereus, Tillandsia, and finally Adenium.

Have you sworn yourself off of any group of plants? If so, why?

Rhododendrons and lilies; they just can’t be grown here. Actually, I keep trying lilies, with almost always disastrous results. If I had another lifetime and lived in Seattle, I’d definitely breed rhodies and lilies. Lilies have the same simple, symmetrical flower that adeniums have, plus there is no flower that smells finer than a lily.

Carnivorous plants (been there several times and they always disappointed me with poor performance)

Bonsai (they require more time than I’m willing to give them)

Do you have a theme to the current repertoire of species you grow?

Weird plants, especially epiphytes and succulents with showy flowers. I shun almost all common plants that I see everywhere else.

What plant(s) in your collection have you had the longest/how long have you had them?

I have a database, so I can actually answer this one with certainty:

Several Trichocereus hybrids that I’ve had since 1968.

Fouquieria macdougalii, 1968

Cymbidium canaliculatum, 1969

Dendrobium phalaenopsis ‘Malibu’, 1969

Amorphophallus konjac, 1969

Encyclia alata, 1970

Cyphostemma juttae, seed sown 1970 (I was then living in Riverside. The first couple of summers that I worked on my degree in the Chiricahua Mts, I took it with me.)

Selenicereus macdonaldiae, 1972

Oncidium splendidum, 1973

Dendrobium anosmum, 1973

Zamia furfuracea, 1973

Adenium multiflorum, 1978

Is there any plant/group of plants you could never tire of?

Orchids, adeniums, bromeliads, flowering bulbs; probably mesembs if I ever got into them in the first place.

Any new plant groups you are growing?

I got more serious about collecting bulbs in the late 1990s.

Are there any new plant groups on the horizon you might play with breeding?

Probably not; I think I’ve found my niche.

What group of plants have been the most rewarding as a grower and for what reasons?

Orchids. Their flowers are fantastic, and I even like their odd growth forms. With 25,000 species and more than 100,000 registered hybrids, I will never run out of new ones to discover.

What plants have been the most rewarding as a breeder? I assume you would mention Adeniums here. Elaborate.

Yeah, adeniums. When I was involved in each group of plants, I was completely into gloxinias, trichos, and tillandsias in turn. But I ran out of steam for various reasons, the main one probably being that I had no one else to talk to about the hybridizing. Gloxinias are very prone to rot. I eventually got tired of having cactus spines in my fingers. There were many bromeliad collectors in California, but when I moved to Arizona in 1979 there was no one else here to talk with. There was an active Trichocereus breeding group in Germany, but it was difficult to correspond with them by snail mail, and they weren’t into trading material.

Adeniums started out the same way. I became obsessed with yet another group of plants that almost no one else knew or cared about, and there was no commercial value to them. Then two things happened. Adenium popularity began to grow in the 1980s, exploded in the 1990s, and continues today without any sign of slowing. The other and probably greater event was the development of the internet. It made it easy for me to become aware of the many adenium aficionados all over the world. I’ve described this in the history chapter of the adenium book. The short explanation for my continued interest (beyond their meteoric rate of improvement) is that I realized that I had been involved from the very beginning in the development of adeniums as a horticultural plant.

You have a large collection of plants. How have you kept up with it over the years?

My view is that I don’t keep up. It amazes me that most visitors don’t seem to notice the dead plants scattered all over the yard, and the mountain of them in the compost pile. I know there are still a lot of live ones, nearly 10,000 at last inventory. The simple answer is that I don’t do anything else except work enough to pay my bills. It’s an obsession, after all.

People who grow at your level show an amazing dedication: the amount of time, money and energy spent. Why do you continue to put so much into plants? (I know this is a stupid question, but “normal” people may not understand, and I am curious about your answer since I am not sure how I would answer that myself)

I’ve heard several people answer this question with something like: For those who share our passion, no explanation is needed; and for those who don’t, probably no explanation is possible.

I strongly suspect that the plant collecting bug is an abnormality similar to alcholism, gambling, and other obsessive-compulsive disorders. It isn’t recognized as a psychological disorder because no one has ever asked for help, so the phenomenon hasn’t been studied. In my case I think it’s Asperger Syndrome. Sometimes called the geek syndrome, it’s characterized by normal to high intelligence, poor social skills, and a tendency to become deeply obsessed with very narrow subjects. Many other plant freaks I know have similar quirks.

Were there many people growing Tillandsia when you first started? How did you get into growing/hybridizing them?

The Bromeliad Society was founded in 1950, but I didn’t join until about 1984. Most members collected the tank types and there was virtually no commercial source of tillandsias. I saw my first tillandsias when I met Richard Felger in 1967. He had several species that he had collected in Mexico, and gave me some. I was hooked. In the next couple of years I gathered a number of other species from collectors in the L.A. area. Nearly all of them had been collected in the wild; there were almost no commercial sources. By 1970 I had a substantial collection. My friend from UClA, Paul Isley, got hooked on them after seeing my collection, and he decided to start a tillandsia nursery when he graduated. I tried to talk him out of it, arguing that they had no commercial value. He ignored my advice, and his nursery Rainforest Flora is quite successful.

You have been to many amazing places around the world. What were some of the most incredible as a plant freak? Elaborate.

Actually, my travels to wild places has been restricted mostly to Latin America, with one memorable trip to Western Australia. However, I’ve seen many travelogues of other places. I’m confident that no place can be more strange or beautiful than central Baja California. The sculpted granite boulder fields are landscaped with equally sculptural plants in abundance: boojums, cardons, various elephant trees, red-spined barrel cacti, blue palms, ocotillos, 6-foot wide agaves, and more.

The southwestern corner of Australia was also eye-opening. It’s basically chaparral, which is the biocommunity where I grew up in California. But there are 20 times more plants, and the mix changes noticeably every 10 miles. An inordinate number of them have big, weird, and colorful flowers. I must have seen 100 species of terrestrial orchids in 10 days. And among all these weird plants, blue-tongued skinks (shinglebacks) were as common as fence lizards here. The foot-long, chunky, heavy-scaled lizards show no fear. They just warn you not to come closer by gaping their fluorescent blue mouths.

You love weird plants. Are there any you want to grow that you are not growing yet? If so what?

Of the plants I don’t grow, I’d say that I’m most fascinated by the mesembs. I’ve long wanted to construct a miniature landscape using the various species in a realistically constructed rockscape.

Plant freaks seem to be always looking for new alien plants. What species last shocked you with it’s weirdness?

It’s been quite a long time since any amazing botanical discoveries have been made. My last stunner was probably Adenium socotranum. There were very few pictures of it until Socotra opened up to Westerners after the Cold War ended. A couple of my friends went on the first tourist trip, and the photos they brought back blew me away.

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One thought on “Mark Dimmitt, Plant Freak Extraordinaire

  1. Enjoyed this interview very much. I am a budding plant freak with 150 or 200 succulents (including several of Mark Dimmitt’s clones). And maybe 100 orchids.

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