The Plant Whisperer

Horticulturist Mike Bone collects pollen from flowers as part of his plant propagation work at the Botanic Gardens. It's "my dream job," he says.

Photo by Jeff Nelson

Mike Bone is a matchmaker of sorts. Though his name badge says “Curator of Steppe Collections,” he spends much of his time pairing up plants to create new ones. Bone, who as of April 1 has been at the Denver Botanic Gardens for 17 years (“I’ve been the April Fool’s joke all that time”), tends the Steppe Garden at York Street—“planting, cutting things back, doing maintenance”—but also writes and publishes, speaks at garden clubs, and works on the breeding program at the Chatfield site. That’s where he does what he calls his “mad science,” germinating seeds and taking root cuttings. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

How did you get into horticulture?

“My grandfather was a farmer in the Texas Panhandle, and in the summer I would work on the farm, so I got an early love of nature. My dad was an avid outdoorsman—he loved fishing and camping—so I was raised with a fascination for the outdoor world. After high school, I got a job with a local landscape company, and it clicked. I became obsessed with greenhouse growing and making new plants.”

How did you end up at the Botanic Gardens?

“After I got involved in the Plant Select program at a wholesale nursery, I met some of the staff at the Gardens. One day they called and told me about a job opening. I thought, ‘Leave these long, hard hours to go to work at the Botanic Gardens— really?’ It’s been my dream job ever since.”

Why is it so great?

“Much of what I do is propagation—making new plants. It’s my passion. I’ve produced everything from tropical plants to cacti to succulents to annuals and perennials. In our breeding programs, we pick flower A and flower B, put on some Barry White music and make them kiss; then we raise up their babies. We are not only a display garden but a scientific collection garden.”

Where do you get seeds?

“I travel to other steppe regions of the world—Argentina/Patagonia, southern Africa, central Asia—to collect them, bring them back, and grow them. Chatfeld is where a lot of my ‘hands-in-dirt’ work happens. You have a few tiny seeds from the far corners of the world, and you make plants. Then someone sees them in the garden and goes, ‘Oh my god, that’s a beautiful flower—I’ve never seen it before!’ And you can tell the story behind it.”

You must tell us about the beard.

“My wife told me I had to shave for our wedding, because she wanted clean cheeks to kiss. I said that’s fine, but that’s the last day I’m ever shaving. That was Halloween of 1999.”