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OCTOBER MEETING REPORT - John Clements, SDHS 2022 Horticulturist Of The Year

By Donna Mallen, for Let’s Talk Plants! November 2022.

Current president, Karen England, and the 2022 Horticulturist of the Year, John Clements.

John Clements, SDHS 2022 Horticulturist of the Year

In the elegant San Diego Botanic Garden Conservatory, with a lush cascade of exotic greenery behind him and floating islands of intriguing plant combinations above, John Clements, SDBG’s Director of Gardens, was awarded the 2022 San Diego Horticultural Society Horticulturist of the Year award.

The carrot full sheet cake with cream cheese frosting for 80 guests was from VG Donut & Bakery in Cardiff. And, besides a lifetime SDHS membership, John also received a beautiful wood turned bowl from Ray Brooks and Felco pruners and leather belt scabbard from the board.

It was a perfect venue for honoring him. Since early childhood, he told us, he was entranced by flowers and their fragrance. He has a strong memory of grabbing a rose and pressing it to his face to smell it when he was a very little boy and being enchanted with plants of all sorts ever since.

Presiding over the meeting, SDHS President Karen England noted that John is our 26th HOY recipient of this award since it was first given in 1996.

Our 2021 Horticulturist of the Year, and John’s good friend, Nan Sterman, happily introduced him. Having worked with him over the years on San Diego Gardener, the Facebook Group that she started in 2014, as well as in other gardening endeavors around the area, she described him as “always curious,” and “always helping, and when he does,” she said, “you have a better gardens.” She described his talents as having a “designer’s eye” and “magic hands” with plants.

John described himself as a “plant nerd,” and told us humorous stories of his childhood in San Diego, when he loved seeking out nurseries, many of them now bye-gone, where he met and learned from a long list of gardening luminaries throughout the County – Sinjen, famous for his landscape styling and lacing of trees, nursery owners Bruce and Sharon Asakawa, Evelyn Weidner, Eleanor Widmer, Walter Anderson, Sr. and Jr., and Mia McCarville, to name a few. He lamented the loss of so many of these places and people as our formerly bounteous catalogue of nurseries has dwindled over the years.

As an adult, although his career took a couple of turns downside paths – he became a professional soccer referee at age 18, and spent some time as a “repo man,” recovering cars and airplanes in Baja – he has remained a plant nerd to the core.

John has been actively involved in the San Diego nursery and garden community for 45 years, including his current position at SDBG, where his dynamism and invaluable expertise have contributed greatly to our world-famous garden.

After the award ceremony, as he led a group of us out the door for a brief tour around the adjacent grounds, John first asked if anyone could find one of the notorious Corpse Flower plants residing inside the conservatory while they were not in bloom. Even though he pointed toward one that stood a few feet away, most of us were not able to identify it with certainty, because this plant looks like a large, delicate green fern with a lightly freckled central stem - not at all like the gargantuan red flower within a pale yellowish spathe that makes the news around the world when it abruptly pops up to be pollinated, and crowds of visitors come to take photographs before it fades over a five day period.

We then proceeded to view a few of the plants outside as he gave us gardening tips and information about the unusual specimens in SDBG’s collection. One lesson, from a King Kong Fishtail Palm in the final stage of its current bloom, outside the door of the conservatory: Do not buy a tree in a big box. Restricted to an unnaturally compact space by the box, this tree’s stressed root system will not recover its normal vigor and is doomed to a short stature and a short life. Monocarpic, this twelve-foot specimen will die after it blooms without reaching its potential 40-foot height.

Asked about the rarity of the Corpse Flower, and how its seeds are obtained, John told us that SDBG participates in an international exchange of rare plant plants and seeds through Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). Looking at their website, I learned about this amazing organization, whose goal it is to preserve global plant diversity through their actions. On their website are links to global databases of current threat statistics, and updates on actions being taken by conservationists, including their 2022 Ukraine Botanic Garden Appeal. By supporting our own Botanic Garden, we are participating in these global conservation efforts.

Continuing on our tour, we joined John in enjoying the strong fragrance of a beautiful Cancun Pink Plumeria, raised our eyes to the top of a feathery-leafed three-year old Royal Poinciana (reputedly, one of only two in San Diego), and observed a young Strangler Fig Tree, Ficus benghalensis. Its leaves are stunningly huge, but in the wild, it is a very strong, tall tree that sometimes drops seeds into neighboring palms, resulting in a monstrous Ficus growing atop the palm. In contrast, a dainty “Red Tulip” Leucadendron that stretched out its brilliant red/maroon bracts nearby was an obviously good choice for the home gardener.

As we left the garden, John shared these three words of garden design advice for us to keep in mind: Texture, Color and Repetition, which definitely applied to the beautiful grounds we had just seen.


Donna Mallen is the SDHS board member in charge of programs.

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