The hybridizer: A look at a Cape man known throughout the gardening world

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I don't travel much. My wife tells me I am a homebody. When I do travel, and people find out that I am from Cape Girardeau, I am often asked if I know Rush Limbaugh. My answer is always the same.

"I met him when he spoke at my daughter Nicole's high school graduation."

When I do travel, it usually involves gardening. What surprises me is that no one ever asks me about another famous individual who calls Southeast Missouri home.

That individual is O. D. "Dave" Niswonger, an internationally known iris hybridizer who lives right here in Cape Girardeau. Many of you may be or have been familiar with Dave, because he was the administrator at Southeast Missouri Hospital.

But Dave is also well-known in some international plant circles. While talking to him over the years, I found that he regularly communicates with other plant hybridizers in Japan, Canada and Europe. I'm sure that I have left out a few continents.

He is also regularly judges flower shows. I'm not sure how one judges flowers, because to me they are all beautiful. But I'm sure he figured out a way to determine on which flower to pin the blue ribbon.

Although I think Dave's major interest has been the iris, he has also contributed to other plant genera, such as daylilies. In fact, he has hybridized a dayliliy that he named "Missouri highways." Within two or three years, I think you'll find a whole bed of them standing tall along Interstate 55 just north of Cape.

I met Dave about 20 years ago. What drew me to him was his enthusiasm about plants, how they grew, how one with diligent effort could develop new colors in blooms and new combinations of colors.

As you can guess, a good scientist must be a good planner. Dave is the epitome of a great planner. He has three children, all with the same birthday, but in different years.

I went to school for more than 11 years to learn about plants and gardening. I don't think Dave spent as long being formally trained. But he knows more about plants than I could ever begin to understand.

Today, Dave's enthusiasm and interest in botany and gardening are as strong as ever -- a model for all of us to look up to.

Dave sells his hybrids through a catalogue he prepares each year. He also makes some of his selections available to local garden centers.

Send your gardening and landscape questions to Paul Schnare at P.O. Box 699; Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63702-0699 or by e-mail to news@semissourian.com.

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