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Plant collection blooms in researcher’s garden

April 20, 2012

By KERI COLLINS LEWIS
For Starkville Daily News

A Mississippi State University researcher’s lifelong fascination with plants inspired him to collect thousands of specimens from all over the globe.

Then, Victor Maddox, a scientist in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, created his own Garden of Eden on nine acres near Maben.

“I decided to arrange my collection thematically and plant the areas in front of the house with Old World plants from Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. The backyard has plants from the New World — North and South America,” Maddox said.

Clematis in several different colors blooms along his driveway, and Maddox can rattle off Latin names for each family, genus and species as quickly as he can state the ages of his six children.

In his travels, the Latin names give him a starting place when discussing plants, because the common names in other languages can be quite different from their English names.

“I focus on collecting at the family level, with species in as many families as I can get,” he said. “For example, I have 500 or more that are xerophytes from numerous plant families. These plants grow in dry climates, in both cold and warm deserts.”

Maddox’s interest in the world’s flora began when he was just 10 years old, and his collection includes plants passed down from his parents, including a 38-year-old bottle palm. He holds a bachelor’s degree in horticulture with a minor in botany from Southeast Missouri State University, a master’s degree from MSU in agronomy and a doctorate from MSU in agronomy specializing in turf and native grasses, with a minor in plant taxonomy. During college, he managed a private university collection of about 7,000 hybrid orchids, some dating to the 1940s. Now he manages his personal collection.

“I have a lot of outdoor plants and six different greenhouses with removable roofs,” he said. “Part of my maintenance strategy is to compartmentalize the plants based on hardiness. This helps control heating costs, because I can heat some houses when it is 50 degrees, and wait until it is 25 degrees to heat others.

“I also keep some plants in containers while others can go in the ground; it depends on the needs of the plant,” he said.

Collecting plants is different from gardening but includes many of the same tasks and knowledge, Maddox said.

“If someone wanted to get started, I’d suggest starting locally. Look at native plants and what can be acquired within your budget,” he said. “If you have a big budget, you can go to the Web and find almost limitless possibilities.”

Imported plants may be under restrictions and protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, commonly referred to as CITES. In the United States, certain plants are protected under the Endangered Species Act, but for plants obtained through international trade, CITES is the governing agency.
Would-be collectors should also consider whether or not a plant is an invasive species.

“Many of our common ornamentals are also invasive. Consider the economic value and harm of what you’re planting. Privet hedge is an example. Every privet species in the state is introduced,” he said.
Federal and state laws regulate invasive species.

“The problem with invasive species is that they are the second biggest threat to our endangered and threatened plant species, after human threats,” Maddox said.

John Byrd, a MAFES and MSU Extension Service weed scientist, said anyone considering planting an invasive species should ask themselves three questions.

“Can I contain this plant material within the desired site when I’m old and feeble? When I die, can my grandchildren eradicate this plant without spending their entire inheritance? Will I be considered a good neighbor if this plant material escapes from my property onto my neighbor’s property? Whether it’s bamboo, wisteria, bermudagrass or another ornamental but invasive plant, people should be aware of the plant’s potential to take over.”

Byrd, who works regularly with Maddox, said his colleague’s role in Mississippi is invaluable.

“I regard Victor as perhaps the premier plant taxonomist in the Southeastern United States,” Byrd said. “His unique plant collection includes live plant material from geographic areas with significantly different climates from Mississippi’s, which makes it even more exceptional.

“He has the potential to be a herbarium curator or botany taxonomist at any institution of higher education in the South. I am fortunate he prefers Mississippi,” he said.

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