Well, you tell Chris Corby I agree with him that it’s about time someone did an article recognizing all my achievements,” was Dr. Jerry Parsons’ first comment in an interview for this feature. And that is “pure Parsons,” according to those who know him best. Cocky, maybe, but all agree that Parsons’ impressive career as Extension horticulture specialist, which spans a quarter of a century in San Antonio, deserves praise.
Known for his irreverent humor, Parsons is a pioneer in the area of “edutainment.” He has cultivated quite a following throughout South Texas over the past two decades through newspaper columns and his radio and TV horticultural programs, with new fans cropping up weekly. Never shy, Parsons revels in the limelight and wears his reputation as a contrarian like a badge of honor.
A descendant of a Wild West Show trick shooter, friends and colleagues say Parsons’ growth habit was established early and there is no taming him.
“I tried to ‘administer’ Jerry, and he was always creating opportunities,” Dr. Sam Cotner, a part-time horticulture professor and recently retired head of horticulture at Texas A&M University, who filled the position Parsons now holds from 1968 to 1974, recalls. “It was like trying to manage a fire ant! He was always round and about. People tell me when I had that job is the last time that position had any dignity.”
Persistent, precocious, pugnacious – all are adjectives that describe the eccentric Bexar County Extension personality. Parsons can be as invasive as crabgrass when it comes to advancing his ideas, which to the benefit of gardeners have taken root throughout the Lone Star State and beyond. His horticultural pursuits began with homegrown tomatoes.
“I grew up in Tennessee, just outside Memphis. My great uncle was a big gardener. I like to eat tomatoes and I like to grow them. I got in it, mainly, for that reason. Tomatoes are the number one vegetable crop for most home gardeners… It just got out of control from there,” Parsons recalls. “I got a B.S. from the University of Tennessee in agricultural education. Then I got a Masters in vegetable production from Mississippi State and went to Kansas State for a Ph.D. in fruit production. I came to Texas mainly as a vegetable specialist. That was in 1974. Right after I arrived, I started writing a weekly column for the San Antonio Light, and I began working with Bill McReynolds at WOAI radio. I worked for free, and I found that when you work for free, you’re in more demand. Anyhow, newspaper and radio programs won’t let you write or talk about vegetables all the time. They get tired of hearing about turnips, so I started doing a program on ornamentals on the TV and wrote about them in the newspapers. Then I started getting into turf and landscape.
Although his specialty remains vegetable production, Parsons has revolutionized the plant introduction arena and is the father of CEMAP (Coordinated Educational Marketing Assistance Program) at Texas A&M University. The plant introduction and promotion program is now a model for similar programs throughout the United States.
Parsons is credited with having introduced all of the productive hybrid tomatoes (Big Set, Bingo, Celebrity, Heatwave, Jack Pot, Merced, Spring Giant, SunMaster, Surefire and Whirlaway). Some of his fruit and vegetable handiwork includes Green Comet and Baccus broccoli, Coho spinach, and Snow Crown cauliflower. The precocious Parsons introduced mandarin oranges (satsumas Citrus reticulata Blanco) as container plants for colder climates to Texas gardeners.
“We just released the new satsuma varieties after 15 years of development,” he notes.
Parsons was also the genius behind a plethora of popular flowers, including many of the Texas Superstarâ„¢ plants. Some of his achievements include: Blue Shade ruellia and Bonita pink and Katie dwarf ruellia; Tex-Tuf verbenas; Firebush (Hamelia patens); Texas Gold columbine; Indigo Spires salvia; Carpet petunias; Mari-Mum marigold; Plum Parfait, Eclipse and Burgundy Sun coleus; Belinda’s Dream rose; Blue Princess verbena; VIP petunia and Laura Bush petunia; Firespike (Odontonema strictum); Stars and Stripes pentas; Moy Grande, Red River and Flare perennial hibiscus; Bunny Bloom larkspur; dwarf bush morning glory; and purple heart (Setcreasea pallida).
Parsons calls plant breeding “the easy part” and suggests the “hard part” is getting an increase in the plant population in order to have them on the market by tens of thousands.
The San Antonio horticulturist unabashedly “grows against the grain.” He is unapologetic about his preference for showy, colorful flowers.
“I know a lot of people are high on these native plants. I admit I don’t know all the science on it, but I can recognize ‘ugly’ 100 miles off. I don’t care if it’s a hundred or a thousand years old if it’s ugly, I don’t want it,” says Parsons. “Greg Grant calls me the ‘King of Gaudy.’ Ninety percent of the stuff I like has big flowers, and any color is okay as long as it’s red.”
These days, Parsons is involved in new products development at Colorspot (formerly Lone Star) in San Antonio, the largest containerized-plant producer in Texas. Parsons says because of expense required, the people at Colorspot are picky about plant selection and always look before they leap into production.
“They want 500 or 600 plants to look at, and if they like it, they’ll grow 20,000. They look for plants with mass appeal. They’ve got to sell themselves,” he insists. “If you just listen to the people, you’ll know what to develop. You can basically go into a nursery, check out the roses, for example. Watch which ones their looking at and smelling. What do people want in a rose? They want a fragrant rose, and like for it to be disease resistant, but resistance is usually not on their mind. It has to be very attractive and good for a cutflower. This is where color becomes involved. There are a lot of red roses, but the main color people want is yellow.
Parsons admits he is not a fan of antique roses, and despite all the “hype,” he says statistics show they have not been well accepted by home gardeners.
“Antique roses have been around for 15 to 20 years, and only have about five percent of the market, compared to the hybrid. And they’re ugly as hell!” Parsons opines. “We don’t talk a lot about our failures. The biggest promotional failure that Greg Grant and I ever had was antique roses. That’s where my ‘love’ of them comes from.”
Selections for the disappointing venture included Martha Gonzales, with maroon foliage, Caldwell Pink, and Marie PaviÃ©, a fragrant white rose.
“We started growing them as transplants in 4-inch pots, 5,000 to 6,000 of them. We did a complete television special on them, and put them in both San Antonio newspapers for an entire month – every day, every week, eight columns. I threw more media at them than any other project and didn’t sell a one. The reason? Because they don’t look like a rose, and if I’d been listening to my wife, I’d have realized that right off because she had to ask me what they were.”
Parsons friend and frequent collaborator, Greg Grant, by Parsons’ standards, is one of the best rosarians in the state. Greg was one of the original ‘Rose Rustlers’ – the guys that go out and steal off of people’s graves. These guys are serious. If you ask them to name the top 10 roses, they’ll get in a fist fight. Anyhow, the fact that the roses flopped is what got me to fooling with the bluebonnets.”
Grant’s first exposure to Parsons was at a Texas Horticulture Society meeting in San Antonio when he was in college.
“He later took me under his wing, when I became the county horticulturist in San Antonio. Jerry makes you learn whether you want to or not, mainly through shame, embarrassment and humiliation! A very effective combination I might add as I learned more in one year from Jerry than I did in six years at Texas A&M. He’s the best teacher and the best friend I’ve ever had,” says Grant, who currently lives and works in East Texas.
Grant admires Parsons’ “can do” attitude, and insists there is no other horticulturist like him on earth.
“He finds a way to make things happen, mainly through steadfast determination and hard work, which usually makes up for his lack of good sense!” says Grant. “Jerry doesn’t care who he makes mad if something needs to be done. As a matter of fact, he prefers to make people mad! He’s the most visionary horticulturist this state has ever known. Jerry’s as loyal and tenacious as a Jack Russell terrier. You better hope he’s your friend! He also has a great (though warped) sense of humor. He’s not happy unless you’re so mad you could die, or laughing yourself to death.
“People either love Jerry or dislike him. When he was doing his weekly radio program for Bill McReynolds, some of the things he was saying would make people mad and they’d call me. There were representatives of some garden clubs that wanted me to take him off the air.
When I told Jerry, he would make cracks on the radio like ‘Help me get off this damn radio. That’s the best danged idea I ever heard. Here’s my boss’s phone number. Give him a call.’ And they would get madder. That’s his method. He believes a good offense is a good defense, so he would go right back at them.
“In all sincerity, when you think about education, you remember things that do irritate you rather than the dull things. He talks about the subject and does some silly things and you remember it.”
Cotner says Parsons is also a master at marketing, and willing to pull out all the stops to succeed. He cites an example.
“The Henry Verstuyft Farm was the first to grow seedless watermelons in the San Antonio area, and Jerry was determined to help them sell them. I’ll never forget, he took a TV crew out there to help promote the melons. Right at the end of the clip, he said, ‘People say these seedless watermelons are better than sex.’ Then he took a big bite, let the juice run down his face, and said, ‘And it is.’ I’m not kidding. The next day, they had the highway patrol out there directing traffic. That’s a true story. He does things in a different way that is highly effective. He’s done hundreds of things like that that make people enjoy him and have made him popular. He is very, very effective as an educator.”
“But I can honestly say, the best thing about my job now is I don’t have to worry about Jerry Parsons. He’s somebody else’s problem!” says Cotner.
Parsons’ proudest achievement to date is the development of a new Texas bluebonnet color palette, including Barbara Bush Lavender, Abbott Pink, and Texas Maroon – his own creations. He also developed the Texas state flower into a bedding plant, spurring what is now a multi-million dollar industry.
“I’ve been working with blue-bonnets for the last 20 years. It started in 1980 with Carroll Abbott. When I first came to Texas in 1974, I’d never seen a bluebonnet and didn’t know what they were talking about. One of the best things about being a vegetable and fruit person is I wasn’t limited by the myths. When people would say, ‘you can’t root that. You can’t grow transplants of bluebonnets,’ I didn’t have sense enough not to try. I rolled right over that superstition,” he says.
According to Parsons, a lot of misinformation has been perpetuated through literature over the years, much of it stemming from bad information printed in early wildflower books and subsequently plagiarized by others.
“Carroll Abbott always said the first liar is gospel. He was called once and asked why a throat of a bluebonnet turns red. He popped off and said, ‘It does that after it’s pollinated.’ He just made that up, but it’s been repeated in a lot of books. He got a kick out of that,” says Parsons, “but that shows you how things can get started. Anyhow, it’s been fun working with the bluebonnets and gratifying to create new colors of the Texas state flower.”
Once again, Parsons attributes the bluebonnets’ success to being attuned to customer interest and filling a market niche.
“I picked up on that because of the response to a TV program on bluebonnets, a brief little segment that was really the dullest story I’d ever done,” the horticulturist recalls. “At the time, I didn’t even know what a bluebonnet seed looked like. Carroll (Abbott) was scarifying them, putting them in a rock tumbler and going and drinking a beer. When you ask him how long to scarify, he says ‘About a six pack.’ That’s all he was doing, and it seemed to me they were coming up a lot faster. Anyhow, we did a short program… Afterwards, the phones were jammed for four hours. The phones locked up the switchboard. So I immediately knew people were interested in this. What I didn’t know, basically, is they were fresh seed, and that’s why they were coming up. Every year you store bluebonnet seed, fertility decreases. For tourists, you could probably sell them pea gravel about the same size and get the same result.”
Greg Grant says the bluebonnet project is a classic example of Parsons’ ingenuity and willingness to go against conventional thinking.
“Though often downplayed by his jealous colleagues and t-sipping purist fanatics, Jerry’s work with Texas bluebonnets was absolutely amazing and probably gave me my only opportunity to watch a wildflower become a bedding plant. It was my first lesson in plant selection and breeding as well. It opened many doors in my mind,” says Grant.
Parsons has great regard for horticulturists of the past.
“I’ve always been a real believer in working with the people who’ve already done it, the old-timers. The greatest horticulturists who ever lived, lived 50 years ago, in the early 1900s. Pick any horticulture product, and there’s an old-timer that knows everything there is to know about it,” Parsons suggests. “They went out there in the bushes and got the best of the natives. Everybody thinks it’s a new concept. All we’re doing is getting trash. They got the good stuff.”
Parsons lists Ernest Mortensen as one of his heroes.
“He was a big developer in the vegetable industry and fruit industry, no matter what fruit – citrus or anything else – he’d done it in the early 1900s when he was working in the Winter, Texas garden experiment station,” he notes.
Some other horticulturists in Parsons’ personal hall of fame, listed under “Heroes” on the PlantAnswers.com web site, include Lynn Lowrey, J.C. Raulston, Benny Simpson, Barton Warnock, Clyde Ikins, Loy Shreve, Sam McFadden and John A. Lipe.
“Then there are the Fanicks from here in San Antone. Ed Fanick lived into his nineties. And he had a son, John, who was also a great horticulturist. We named the John Fanick phlox for him. John was a mentor for Greg Grant, Steve George and others. Lynn Lowery is the best native plant expert in Texas – one of the greatest who ever lived east of the Pecos. West of the Pecos, it’s Barton Warnack,” says Parsons, speaking of a prolific plant collector. Warnock discovered many undescribed plant species in the Trans-Pecos region, more than a dozen of which were named after him. “We’ve made several trips in the same truck, and that’s where you’ll get the straight honky about natives all over the state. Barton mapped the Big Bend National Park. Greg and I went out there when we were working on the Texas Gold columbine. It was originally called the Hinkley columbine, but when we got ready to put that on the market, because of its origin and how it grew – all that kind of stuff – we gave it a Texas name. It only occurs in several places. And we had to be careful in our search for the Hinkley because the people weren’t too eager to let any government or soil and water conservation people on their land because of the problems over unendangered species. But we did get in and today, these columbines are sold by the thousands.”
Parsons’ primary plant project now is to develop a dwarf, sterile bush morning glory. A member of the sweet potato family (Convolvulaceae), this plant’s scientific name is Ipomoea fistulosa. It has a shrub-like growth habit and because it thrives in really dry places, it meets the criteria for the xeriscape plant category. Parson says the bush morning glory is the most prolific bloomer of any of the summer perennials.
“The plant is covered with medium-size, light pink (there is a white form available) blooms all summer. Blooms last only one day but clusters of blooms are formed in the axil of every leaf. Plants can get 6 to 8 feet tall with multiple trunks. When hard frosts kill plants, the tops should be removed; in South Central Texas, plants will sprout again from the hardy root system the following May. Once established, the bush morning glory is a tough, drought-tolerant and heat-tolerant plant. It blooms best in direct sun and will not bloom as well if receiving less than 8 to 10 hours of direct sun. Plants can be cut back monthly to encourage branching and increase blooming surface.
“Cutting back in July will reduce plant height and encourage a spectacular fall display,” says Parsons.
Sam Cotner says the bush morning glory is destined for fame because Parsons has a sixth sense when it comes to detecting the potential in plants overlooked by others.
“He sees things differently. He sees opportunities where most people can look and not see anything, especially when it comes to plant types and new, interesting things. Though few people know it, Jerry was heavily involved in the development of the mild jalapeÃ±o. He worked with a plant breeder, Ben Viallon, known as ‘Dr. Pepper,’ to develop it. Jerry had a lot to do with testing it and trialing it in San Antonio. I won’t say it wouldn’t have happened without him, but he made a real contribution towards the development of that pepper.”
Parsons is also responsible for the promulgation of a number of other popular peppers – Summer Sweet 860 Bell Pepper, Bell Tower Bell Pepper, Capistrano Bell Pepper, Hidalgo Serrano, Grande JalapeÃ±o, Rio Grande Gold Sweet JalapeÃ±o, and his only namesake plant, the Parsons Potent Chili pequin pepper.
Dr. Dan Lineberger, horticulture professor and co-worker with Parsons counts his audacious friend’s versatility as one of his greatest assets.
“Jerry has a tremendous range of scientific knowledge about horticulture. He’s as conversant with ornamental plants and landscaping as he is about vegetable and fruit production,” Lineberger observes. “He is always willing to help others, and gives his knowledge out ‘free of charge.’ He works tirelessly on his projects (and expects the same of others!). He is absolutely devoted to the Texas Cooperative Extension mission and believes strongly in its tradition of service to growers and homeowners alike.”
In addition to the development and popularization of the “colored” bluebonnets, and the maroon bluebonnet in particular, Lineberger praises Parsons for his early adoption and extensive use of the Web as a tool to give others access to his library of information, including his two Web sites, AggieHorticulture/PLANTanswers and PLANTanswers.com, chock full of information as well as some delicious family recipes.
Parsons was recently informed by Shea Mestern, producer for MSN House & Home Section, that several links to PLANT answers have been established on MSN.com, the largest website in the world (http://homeadvisor .msn.com/Garden/Experts NipCommonGardeningMis takesIntheBud.aspx).
“I have been made the official plant expert for the Microsoft Network since I am the only fool who would do it for free!” says Parsons, in his typical self-deprecating manner. “The main reason I consented to do this was to bring more traffic to PLANT answers.”
Lineberger and Parsons are working to put an extensive archive of Weekend Gardener videos up on the Web right now.
The Web site is still in the seedling stage, but when complete will feature close to 400 digitized television news segments done by Parsons through the years.
Lineberger first met Parsons when, as a new department head at TAMU in 1990, he traveled to San Antonio to visit a large nursery manager.
“I immediately was fascinated by his ‘colorful’ personality, impressed by his depth of knowledge, amazed by the energy and enthusiasm he has for his job, and entertained by his ‘humor.’ He and I jointly made the decision to put his information on the Web rather than set up an email list to answer questions, and the rest, they say, ‘is history.’ He has willingly contributed a wealth of information to Aggie Horticulture, and his use and encouragement of others to use the Web has helped make our Web site the most widely used source of horticultural information in the world. I consider Jerry a most valued colleague and a true friend.”
The pair’s new Web site,PLANTanswersTV, will be an archive of digital video segments that will be streamed through the Web to users on demand, offering QuickTime and Real video formats to serve the needs of different audiences.
“Some of today’s computers may not be quite powerful enough to view them, but most will, and certainly those of the near future will all be.PLANTanswersTV will have almost all of Jerry’s Weekend Gardener segments, and they range from features about Japanese persimmons to methods for preparing fall gardens to how to grow water lilies in containers. The video is excellent quality, it’s bright and colorful. And there’s an element of the ever-present Parsons’ humor in every clip.
Most of all, Lineberger appreciates Parsons’ ability to work tirelessly to achieve his horticultural objectives.
“I’ve never seen him out of energy. He works so well with people, and he works so much for all the people, whether they be a home gardener or a large commercial horticultural producer. His good works will be remembered for a long time…after all, they’re on the Web for all to see.”
Parsons’ career is in full bloom. No one knows what may be germinating in that fertile mind of his right now, but more successful projects are bound to sprout. If the past is any indicator, you can count on this unorthodox horticulturist to think outside the flower box, to stir up controversy, agitate his friends and colleagues and delight scores of home gardeners with outstanding plant materials and his unique form of edutainment.
That’s “pure Parsons.”