Powell Gardens lost a beloved friend last week: Doctor Norlan Henderson passed away peacefully at age 100. It would be fitting to write some witty pun, for “Doc” loved puns, and with an IQ of 180 he had no shortage of wit. He served on the original board of Powell Gardens and had shared so much for the gardens for more than 30 years.
Doc, always the teacher…
Doc was a classically trained botanist with a doctorate in Botany from Florida State University. He could identify 1,000’s of plants and understood the entire family tree of plants so could figure out the identity of almost any plant. Nowadays botanists learn more about the molecular level of plants and can’t even identify most of them! As Professor of Botany, emeritus at the University of Missouri, Kansas City he vouchered the occurrence of native and naturalized plants for the Flora of Missouri as well as studying and writing the iris section for the Flora of North America. He made sure his life’s work of plant specimen vouchers were gifted to Powell Gardens as its herbarium, which is named in his honor. He also shared his love for iris with the gardens on Iris Hill: a collection of 20 years worth of the American Iris Society’s annual Award of Merit tall bearded iris cultivars. The iris that represent the best of the best as voted on by American Iris Society judges. He and his late wife Jean had their own iris farm near Peculiar, Missouri where he hybridized the iris ‘Kansas City’ that appeared on the city vehicle sticker in 1984. Others of his favorite iris cultivars reside on Iris Hill too.
Doc’s Iris ‘Kansas City’ blooming on Iris Hill.
Doc drove out to Powell Gardens to visit almost daily. He knew all the gardeners and staff at Powell Gardens by name and visited with them all regularly. He worked on iris hill every chance he got, with his hands in the earth he enjoyed weeding and tending the iris and dividing a rotation of them every late summer. He sold the extras at the Visitor Center — the proceeds always going back to the gardens. He would wait (like a child waiting to open presents) for the American Iris Society to announce its new Award of Merit winners each year and quickly place orders to make sure he got the plants for our garden. He was here every day during iris bloom season in May and his sharing the special quality and beauty of each variety’s flowers was infectious.
Doc sharing iris hill with many staff, volunteers and visitors.
Doc came into my office at least once a week until he was 95 where we talked the science of botany (I would have a minor in botany were it not for my Landscape Architecture degrees being in the college of design). We talked intense stuff like about photosynthesis and how it can only happen in the living cell, about other miracles plants routinely do like reverse osmosis — how a plant absorbs water through its roots. We talked about patterns and pigments in iris flowers — there is no true red iris! We even talked about the flora of the Florida panhandle where he went to college and studied under the legendary botanist Dr. Godfrey — the Florida panhandle is, since I went to grad school at LSU, a favorite botanical haunt of mine too.
A rainbow of tall bearded iris on Iris Hill at Powell Gardens.
Doc also loved people and was an extraordinary teacher. His family, friends, colleagues and students meant the world to him. He often talked about his family and I was happy to visit with them all at his visitation. We talked about his friends who were horticultural and botanical pioneers from Paul and Emma Cook in Indiana to Frank Galyon from Tennessee — all whose names I recognized through plants named in their honor. He loved to talk about his iris hybridizing buddies and the fun iris names they would come up with for the new colors and patterns they created. Jim Hedgecock, owner of Comanche Acres Iris Garden, named an iris ‘Doctor Norlan Henderson’ in his honor. Doc also talked about his many students and the feedback I always hear from them is he was an inspirational mentor.
Iris means rainbow, so somewhere over the rainbow in heaven– Doc was a man of deep Christian faith — we know where Doc is, free of an aged body and surely cultivating flora and folks with his spirited gifts. I can hear him say: What do you get if you cross a four leaf clover with poison ivy? A rash of good luck!
Doc in 2006 on the bench overlooking iris hill that was dedicated to him by his loving family.
This tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) was planted in Doc’s honor for Arbor Day 1996 (it was his favorite tree) and can be seen thriving in the woodland section of the Perennial Garden.