(Kristin Eberts) [Order this photo]
Some 80 years and thousands of flowers later, the Cape Girardeau gardener is still growing plants, a hybridizing master of scores of blooms of his own creation.
Niswonger's grandmother instilled in him a love of tending the earth, but it was his childhood, perhaps, that made gardens so vital to his life.
"My dad was a Methodist preacher. We moved around a lot, and we never had a chance to really set down roots," said Niswonger, 85. "So the only place I could ever relate to was Grandpa's farm."
Along the way, Niswonger's fascination with gardening turned to something bigger – learning how to create new varieties of the plants and trees he tended. It's thrilling, he says, to develop new colors of blooms and to realize that you're the only one in the world who has one exactly like it.
Niswonger introduced his first iris, Sapphire Fuzz, in 1967. Since then, he's introduced more than 250 varieties of irises, 39 daylilies, 20 daffodils, seven gladiolas, three dahlias and three nut trees.
Many of the names Niswonger gives his creations offer a glimpse into his life. Patton Snowfall and Tracking Rabbits speak to the winters he spent on his grandfather's Patton, Mo., farm. He named one iris Raspberry Ripples after a flavor of ice cream from his younger years.
He's gained international recognition and awards for his creations, and his irises are growing all over the world. Russia. Germany. France. Australia. Latvia. England.
Niswonger does the majority of his plant breeding on a few acres in Gordonville.
He's had varying success passing down his love of gardening. (His late wife, Marie, refused to pull weeds.) He laughs as he recalls a spring day when his three children were working barefoot in ankle-deep mud, planting seeds for his latest batch. His exasperated daughter turned and said, "Mama, why did you marry Daddy?"
During Niswonger's years as a hospital administrator, gardening was his stress reliever. But he retired 20 years ago, and he's still creating new irises.
"We keep improving all of these different flowers every year. It's endless, almost, the colors that can be created," he said. "I still have that same excitement. It's always a thrill to see the new varieties come out of the ground."