Originally created 07/11/98

Teacher scouting for plants



ATHENS, Ga. -- Like a horticultural Indiana Jones, Allan Armitage sets his sights on the rare, the lucrative and the climatically hardy when it comes to the plants he tests.

"Right now I'm on a Ruellia kick," he said of the Mexican petunia.

The riot of red geraniums, purple petunias and double-blooming impatients arranged in neat beds at the University of Georgia looks impervious to the full beating they've taken from drought, humidity and heat.

It's no accident that plants flourish in the test garden, which is managed in the pursuit of learning and profit by Mr. Armitage, a horticultural professor at the school and a world-renowned expert on perennials.

When not teaching in Athens, Armitage trots the globe lecturing and keeping his well-trained eye skewed toward plants that might thrive in the Southeast.

He also has a book, Herbaceous Perennial Plants, in its second edition and maintains a Web site for home gardeners. On Thursday, he opened the test garden for its first formal tour.

During a recent informal tour, he navigated the garden with a scholar's mien.

"This is my little kingdom," Mr. Armitage says.

South Campus pedestrians can stroll through the brightest, most abundant flower garden in town. No one knows for sure what variety they spot there will wind up in next season's garden shop.

Mr. Armitage, a Canada native who took a teaching job at the university in the late 1970s and found that he, too, thrived in Athens, is as familiar with the commercial aspects of gardening as the scientific side.

If not a cash cow, the test garden is poised to serve as a source of income for the university, given the booming home gardening market in America.

"Everyone wants new," he said. "New. New. New. We're known for new."

Mr. Armitage often offers horticultural advice to virtually anyone, much like a doctor with ailing friends and relatives.

"How about rosemary?" Mr. Armitage said to a recent caller from the Georgia Green Industry seeking recommendations for plants to give state lawmakers in February on Congressional Day. "Is that not colorful enough? Y'know we're into a new rosemary."

If they're lucky, garden visitors will also glimpse the garden's newest project, "Athens Blue Spires," a type of rosemary for which the university is seeking a patent. The green, spiky shrub is the first plant from which the school will seek royalties.

The University of Georgia missed a financial windfall on "Verbena Homestead Purple," which Armitage discovered, developed and tipped growers about. Its popularity went international.

But now Mr. Armitage has high hopes for the blue spires. He revived the plant from a long-forgotten packet of Kmart seeds and forecasts a bright future.

"This is going to be big," he predicted. "Nobody else has it."