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Plant man personified
When Ed Hasselkus gives his approval, the plant is a confirmed winner


September 1, 2008

Ed Hasselkus willingly admits that the seed for his lifeís work was planted while growing up on a farm two miles south of Dousman. The 75-year-old Hasselkus, the son and grandson of avid gardeners, retired in 1994 as curator of the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. The public gardens comprise 50 of the 1,260 acres at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum and represent the premier collection of woody plants ó trees and shrubs ó certainly in Wisconsin and likely in the upper Midwest. Part of the collection is the best in the world.

Actually, "retired" is misleading. This well-known and respected plant personality is busier now than ever before, traveling internationally to plant meetings, digging in his home garden, conducting genealogy and, of course, spending part of every day during the growing season continuing his research at the Longenecker Gardens.

His early years set the stage for his future career, but Hasselkus actually enrolled at the University of Wisconsin with thoughts of becoming a pharmacist. "My friends said, ĎYouíre so interested in plants, why not study horticulture?í" he recalls. Earning his bachelorís degree in landscape architecture, he studied for his masterís and doctorate in horticulture and botany and eventually joined the university as a faculty member. One of his professors was G. William Longenecker, who planted the first specimen, a lilac shrub on Good Friday in 1935, in the garden that would eventually bear his name. Although Hasselkus taught in the horticulture department, he had a joint appointment in landscape architecture, understanding that his students, like himself, may like plants but donít always know what they want to do with them.

"Woodies" are his lifeís work. As a teaching resource, the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens boast 2,500 different types of woody plants, 90 percent of which Hasselkus has selected. Besides a significant collection of lilacs, the gardens contain the most up-to-date collection of ornamental crabapple trees in the world and the largest arborvitae collection in the country. In the spring, some 65 magnolia trees burst forth with luscious cup and saucer-shaped blossoms.

Constantly scanning nursery catalogs for new varieties to test, Hasselkus evaluates plants based on their adaptability to Wisconsinís climate and for their aesthetic merit. "Iím always striving to have the best," says Hasselkus, "and looking at which ones are superior and which ones should be discarded." He believes he has the best of the best in the 50 acres and that better would only come with the acquisition of more land.

Nursery owners rely on Hasselkusí intimate plant knowledge to plan for the growing season. Mike Yanny, the plant propagator at Johnsonís Nursery in Menonomee Falls and a former student, likens his former professorís work to that of a beauty contest judge. "Ed would get in all the cultivars (clone or cultivated variety) of a particular genus and recommend which one was the best for our particular area," he says. "If one was the best cultivar of the group of plants, it carried a lot of weight." Potentilla and spiraea shrubs and ornamental crabapple trees have all undergone the Hasselkus scrutiny. He looks for hardiness, good fall color or flower display and disease resistance before pronouncing the winner. Hydrangeas are his current project.

There are nursery owners who owe their business to Hasselkusí work. When he introduced a Whitespire birch to the landscape industry, he actually saved one nursery from financial collapse. "The nursery then produced and sold 300,000 of the trees," he says.

In tribute to his accomplishments, Hasselkus has had both a species of daylily and a chokeberry shrub named for him. The "Gentle Ed" daylily has a red throat and white ruffled edges. The black chokeberryís moniker is "Professor Ed."

Probably not surprisingly, itís a woody ó the fern leaf European birch tree ó which Hasselkus counts as his favorite plant. "Itís gorgeous," he says. "I love the texture and form of it. The bark is so interesting." His home garden has few trees and shrubs; he concentrates on herbaceous perennials in his yard on Madisonís west side.

Hasselkus met his wife, Betty, while they were both students at UW-Madison. He admits that Betty, who retired from teaching occupational therapy at the university, is definitely not a plant person and prefers to spend her retirement playing piano and Scrabble. Having seen their parents with their noses in papers and books, the Hasselkusí two children, John, a chief software engineer and founder of Visual Networks, and Jane, who is director of U.S. and Canada business management for Carestream Health, went on to earn advanced degrees. But like their mother, neither really shares their fatherís passion.

The university has not yet named a curator to succeed Hasselkus. To ensure there is money to support the position, the couple has established the Arboretum Endowment for the Longenecker Gardens to plan for their continued development. But even though the gardens do not bear his name, Hasselkusí legacy is secure. He has 3,000 former students, all of whom he takes great pride in, who carry the Hasselkus stamp of approval.



This article was featured in the May 2008 issue of