Well, you tell Chris Corby I agree with him that it's about time
someone did an
article recognizing all my achievements," was Dr. Jerry Parsons'
first comment in an interview for this feature. And that is "pure
Parsons," according to those who know him best. Cocky, maybe,
but all agree that Parsons' impressive career as Extension horticulture
specialist, which spans a quarter of a century in San Antonio, deserves
Known for his irreverent humor, Parsons is a pioneer in the area
of "edutainment." He has cultivated quite a following
throughout South Texas over the past two decades through newspaper
columns and his radio and TV horticultural programs, with new fans
cropping up weekly. Never shy, Parsons revels in the limelight and
wears his reputation as a contrarian like a badge of honor.
A descendant of a Wild West Show trick shooter, friends and colleagues
say Parsons' growth habit was established early and there is no
"I tried to 'administer' Jerry, and he was always creating
opportunities," Dr. Sam Cotner, a part-time horticulture professor
and recently retired head of horticulture at Texas A&M University,
who filled the position Parsons now holds from 1968 to 1974, recalls.
"It was like trying to manage a fire ant! He was always round
and about. People tell me when I had that job is the last time that
position had any dignity."
Persistent, precocious, pugnacious - all are adjectives that describe
the eccentric Bexar County Extension personality. Parsons can be
as invasive as
crabgrass when it comes to advancing his ideas, which to the benefit
of gardeners have taken root throughout the Lone Star State and
beyond. His horticultural pursuits began with homegrown tomatoes.
"I grew up in Tennessee, just outside Memphis. My great uncle
was a big gardener. I like to eat tomatoes and I like to grow them.
I got in it, mainly, for that reason. Tomatoes are the number one
vegetable crop for most home gardeners... It just got out of control
from there," Parsons recalls. "I got a B.S. from the University
of Tennessee in agricultural education. Then I got a Masters in
vegetable production from Mississippi State and went to Kansas State
for a Ph.D. in fruit production. I came to Texas mainly as a vegetable
specialist. That was in 1974. Right after I arrived, I started writing
a weekly column for the San Antonio Light, and I began working with
Bill McReynolds at WOAI radio. I worked for free, and I found that
when you work for free, you're in more demand. Anyhow, newspaper
and radio programs won't let you write or talk about vegetables
all the time. They get tired of hearing about turnips, so I started
doing a program on ornamentals on the TV and wrote about them in
the newspapers. Then I started getting into turf and landscape.
Although his specialty remains vegetable production, Parsons has
revolutionized the plant introduction arena and is the father of
CEMAP (Coordinated Educational Marketing Assistance Program) at
Texas A&M University. The plant introduction and promotion program
is now a model for similar programs throughout the United States.
Parsons is credited with having introduced all of the productive
hybrid tomatoes (Big Set, Bingo, Celebrity, Heatwave, Jack Pot,
Merced, Spring Giant, SunMaster, Surefire and Whirlaway). Some of
his fruit and vegetable handiwork includes Green Comet and Baccus
broccoli, Coho spinach, and Snow Crown cauliflower. The precocious
Parsons introduced mandarin oranges (satsumas Citrus reticulata
Blanco) as container plants for colder climates to Texas gardeners.
"We just released the new satsuma varieties after 15 years
of development," he notes.
Parsons was also the genius behind a plethora of popular flowers,
including many of the Texas Superstar™ plants. Some of his
achievements include: Blue Shade ruellia and Bonita pink and Katie
dwarf ruellia; Tex-Tuf verbenas; Firebush (Hamelia patens); Texas
Gold columbine; Indigo Spires salvia; Carpet petunias; Mari-Mum
marigold; Plum Parfait, Eclipse and Burgundy Sun coleus; Belinda's
Dream rose; Blue Princess verbena; VIP petunia and Laura Bush petunia;
Firespike (Odontonema strictum); Stars and Stripes pentas; Moy Grande,
Red River and Flare perennial hibiscus; Bunny Bloom larkspur; dwarf
bush morning glory; and purple heart (Setcreasea pallida).
Parsons calls plant breeding "the easy part" and suggests
the "hard part" is getting an increase in the plant population
in order to have them on the market by tens of thousands.
The San Antonio horticulturist unabashedly "grows against the
grain." He is unapologetic about his preference for showy,
"I know a lot of people are high on these native plants. I
admit I don't know all the science on it, but I can recognize 'ugly'
100 miles off. I don't care if it's a hundred or a thousand years
old if it's ugly, I don't want it," says Parsons. "Greg
Grant calls me the 'King of Gaudy.' Ninety percent of the stuff
I like has big flowers, and any color is okay as long as it's red."
These days, Parsons is involved in new products development at Colorspot
(formerly Lone Star) in San Antonio, the largest containerized-plant
producer in Texas. Parsons says because of expense required, the
people at Colorspot are picky about plant selection and always look
before they leap into production.
"They want 500 or 600 plants to look at, and if they like it,
they'll grow 20,000. They look for plants with mass appeal. They've
got to sell themselves," he insists. "If you just listen
to the people, you'll know what to develop. You can basically go
into a nursery, check out the roses, for example. Watch which ones
their looking at and smelling. What do people want in a rose? They
want a fragrant rose, and like for it to be disease resistant, but
resistance is usually not on their mind. It has to be very attractive
and good for a cutflower. This is where color becomes involved.
There are a lot of red roses, but the main color people want is
Parsons admits he is not a fan of antique roses, and despite all
the "hype," he says statistics show they have not been
well accepted by home gardeners.
"Antique roses have been around for 15 to 20 years, and only
have about five percent of the market, compared to the hybrid. And
they're ugly as hell!" Parsons opines. "We don't talk
a lot about our failures. The biggest promotional failure that Greg
Grant and I ever had was antique roses. That's where my 'love' of
them comes from."
Selections for the disappointing venture included Martha Gonzales,
with maroon foliage, Caldwell Pink, and Marie Pavié, a fragrant
"We started growing them as transplants in 4-inch pots, 5,000
to 6,000 of them. We did a complete television special on them,
and put them in both San Antonio newspapers for an entire month
- every day, every week, eight columns. I threw more media at them
than any other project and didn't sell a one. The reason? Because
they don't look like a rose, and if I'd been listening to my wife,
I'd have realized that right off because she had to ask me what
Parsons friend and frequent collaborator, Greg Grant, by Parsons'
standards, is one of the best rosarians in the state. Greg was one
of the original 'Rose Rustlers' - the guys that go out and steal
off of people's graves. These guys are serious. If you ask them
to name the top 10 roses, they'll get in a fist fight. Anyhow, the
fact that the roses flopped is what got me to fooling with the bluebonnets."
Grant's first exposure to Parsons was at a Texas Horticulture Society
meeting in San Antonio when he was in college.
"He later took me under his wing, when I became the county
horticulturist in San Antonio. Jerry makes you learn whether you
want to or not, mainly through shame, embarrassment and humiliation!
A very effective combination I might add as I learned more in one
year from Jerry than I did in six years at Texas A&M. He's the
best teacher and the best friend I've ever had," says Grant,
who currently lives and works in East Texas.
Grant admires Parsons' "can do" attitude, and insists
there is no other horticulturist like him on earth.
"He finds a way to make things happen, mainly through steadfast
determination and hard work, which usually makes up for his lack
of good sense!" says Grant. "Jerry doesn't care who he
makes mad if something needs to be done. As a matter of fact, he
prefers to make people mad! He's the most visionary horticulturist
this state has ever known. Jerry's as loyal and tenacious as a Jack
Russell terrier. You better hope he's your friend! He also has a
great (though warped) sense of humor. He's not happy unless you're
so mad you could die, or laughing yourself to death.
"People either love Jerry or dislike him. When he was doing
his weekly radio program for Bill McReynolds, some of the things
he was saying would make people mad and they'd call me. There were
representatives of some garden clubs that wanted me to take him
off the air.
When I told Jerry, he would make cracks on the radio like 'Help
me get off this damn radio. That's the best danged idea I ever heard.
Here's my boss's phone number. Give him a call.' And they would
get madder. That's his method.
He believes a good offense is a good defense, so he would go right
back at them.
"In all sincerity, when you think about education, you remember
things that do irritate you rather than the dull things. He talks
about the subject and does some silly things and you remember it."
Cotner says Parsons is also a master at marketing, and willing to
pull out all the stops to succeed. He cites an example.
"The Henry Verstuyft Farm was the first to grow seedless watermelons
in the San Antonio area, and Jerry was determined to help them sell
them. I'll never forget, he took a TV crew out there to help promote
the melons. Right at the end of the clip, he said, 'People say these
seedless watermelons are better than sex.' Then he took a big bite,
let the juice run down his face, and said, 'And it is.' I'm not
kidding. The next day, they had the highway patrol out there directing
traffic. That's a true story. He does things in a different way
that is highly effective. He's done hundreds of things like that
that make people enjoy him and have made him popular. He is very,
very effective as an educator."
"But I can honestly say, the best thing about my job now is
I don't have to worry about Jerry Parsons. He's somebody else's
problem!" says Cotner.
Parsons' proudest achievement to date is the development of a new
Texas bluebonnet color palette, including Barbara Bush Lavender,
Abbott Pink, and
Texas Maroon - his own creations. He also developed the Texas state
flower into a bedding plant, spurring what is now a multi-million
"I've been working with blue-bonnets for the last 20 years.
It started in 1980 with Carroll Abbott. When I first came to Texas
in 1974, I'd never seen a bluebonnet and didn't know what they were
talking about. One of the best things about being a vegetable and
fruit person is I wasn't limited by the myths. When people would
say, 'you can't root that. You can't grow transplants of bluebonnets,'
I didn't have sense enough not to try. I rolled right over that
superstition," he says.
According to Parsons, a lot of misinformation has been perpetuated
through literature over the years, much of it stemming from bad
information printed in early wildflower books and subsequently plagiarized
"Carroll Abbott always said the first liar is gospel. He was
called once and asked why a throat of a bluebonnet turns red. He
popped off and said, 'It does that after it's pollinated.' He just
made that up, but it's been repeated in a lot of books. He got a
kick out of that," says Parsons, "but that shows you how
things can get started. Anyhow, it's been fun working with the bluebonnets
and gratifying to create new colors of the Texas state flower."
Once again, Parsons attributes the bluebonnets' success to being
attuned to customer interest and filling a market niche.
"I picked up on that because of the response to a TV program
on bluebonnets, a brief little segment that was really the dullest
story I'd ever done," the horticulturist recalls. "At
the time, I didn't even know what a bluebonnet seed looked like.
Carroll (Abbott) was scarifying them, putting them in a rock tumbler
and going and drinking a beer. When you ask him how long to scarify,
he says 'About a six pack.' That's all he was doing, and it seemed
to me they were coming up a lot faster. Anyhow, we did a short program...
Afterwards, the phones were jammed for four hours. The phones locked
up the switchboard. So I immediately knew people were interested
in this. What I didn't know, basically, is they were fresh seed,
and that's why they were coming up. Every year you store bluebonnet
seed, fertility decreases. For tourists, you could probably sell
them pea gravel about the same size and get the same result."
Greg Grant says the bluebonnet project is a classic example of Parsons'
ingenuity and willingness to go against conventional thinking.
"Though often downplayed by his jealous colleagues and t-sipping
purist fanatics, Jerry's work with Texas bluebonnets was absolutely
amazing and probably gave me my only opportunity to watch a wildflower
become a bedding plant. It was my first lesson in plant selection
and breeding as well. It opened many doors in my mind," says
Parsons has great regard for horticulturists of the past.
"I've always been a real believer in working with the people
who've already done it, the old-timers. The greatest horticulturists
who ever lived, lived 50 years ago, in the early 1900s. Pick any
horticulture product, and there's an old-timer that knows everything
there is to know about it," Parsons suggests. "They went
out there in the bushes and got the best of the natives. Everybody
thinks it's a new concept. All we're doing is getting trash. They
got the good stuff."
Parsons lists Ernest Mortensen as one of his heroes.
"He was a big developer in the vegetable industry and fruit
industry, no matter what fruit - citrus or anything else - he'd
done it in the early 1900s when he was working in the Winter, Texas
garden experiment station," he notes.
Some other horticulturists in Parsons' personal hall of fame, listed
under "Heroes" on the PlantAnswers.com web site, include
Lynn Lowrey, J.C. Raulston, Benny Simpson, Barton Warnock, Clyde
Ikins, Loy Shreve, Sam McFadden and John A. Lipe.
"Then there are the Fanicks from here in San Antone. Ed Fanick
lived into his nineties. And he had a son, John, who was also a
great horticulturist. We named the John Fanick phlox for him. John
was a mentor for Greg Grant, Steve George and others. Lynn Lowery
is the best native plant expert in Texas - one of the greatest who
ever lived east of the Pecos. West of the Pecos, it's Barton Warnack,"
says Parsons, speaking of a prolific plant collector. Warnock discovered
many undescribed plant species in the Trans-Pecos region, more than
a dozen of which were named after him. "We've made several
trips in the same truck, and that's where you'll get the straight
honky about natives all over the state. Barton mapped the Big Bend
National Park. Greg and I went out there when we were working on
the Texas Gold columbine. It was originally called the Hinkley columbine,
but when we got ready to put that on the market, because of its
origin and how it grew - all that kind of stuff - we gave it a Texas
name. It only occurs in several places. And we had to be careful
in our search for the Hinkley because the people weren't too eager
to let any government or soil and water conservation people on their
land because of the problems over unendangered species. But we did
get in and today, these columbines are sold by the thousands."
Parsons' primary plant project now is to develop a dwarf, sterile
bush morning glory. A member of the sweet potato family (Convolvulaceae),
this plant's scientific name is Ipomoea fistulosa. It has a shrub-like
growth habit and because it thrives in really dry places, it meets
the criteria for the xeriscape plant category. Parson says the bush
morning glory is the most prolific bloomer of any of the summer
"The plant is covered with medium-size, light pink (there is
a white form available) blooms all summer. Blooms last only one
day but clusters of blooms are formed in the axil of every leaf.
Plants can get 6 to 8 feet tall with multiple trunks. When hard
frosts kill plants, the tops should be removed; in South Central
Texas, plants will sprout again from the hardy root system the following
May. Once established, the bush morning glory is a tough, drought-tolerant
and heat-tolerant plant. It blooms best in direct sun and will not
bloom as well if receiving less than 8 to 10 hours of direct sun.
Plants can be cut back monthly to encourage branching and increase
"Cutting back in July will reduce plant height and encourage
a spectacular fall display," says Parsons.
Sam Cotner says the bush morning glory is destined for fame because
Parsons has a sixth sense when it comes to detecting the potential
in plants overlooked by others.
"He sees things differently. He sees opportunities where most
people can look and not see anything, especially when it comes to
plant types and new, interesting things. Though few people know
it, Jerry was heavily involved in the development of the mild jalapeño.
He worked with a plant breeder, Ben Viallon, known as 'Dr. Pepper,'
to develop it. Jerry had a lot to do with testing it and trialing
it in San Antonio. I won't say it wouldn't have happened without
him, but he made a real contribution towards the development of
Parsons is also responsible for the promulgation of a number of
other popular peppers - Summer Sweet 860 Bell Pepper, Bell Tower
Bell Pepper, Capistrano Bell Pepper, Hidalgo Serrano, Grande Jalapeño,
Rio Grande Gold Sweet Jalapeño, and his only namesake plant,
the Parsons Potent Chili pequin pepper.
Dr. Dan Lineberger, horticulture professor and co-worker with Parsons
counts his audacious friend's versatility as one of his greatest
"Jerry has a tremendous range of scientific knowledge about
horticulture. He's as conversant with ornamental plants and landscaping
as he is about vegetable and fruit production," Lineberger
observes. "He is always willing to help others, and gives his
knowledge out 'free of charge.' He works tirelessly on his projects
(and expects the same of others!). He is absolutely devoted to the
Texas Cooperative Extension mission and believes strongly in its
tradition of service to growers and homeowners alike."
In addition to the development and popularization of the "colored"
bluebonnets, and the maroon bluebonnet in particular, Lineberger
praises Parsons for his early adoption and extensive use of the
Web as a tool to give others access to his library of information,
including his two Web sites, AggieHorticulture/PLANTanswers and
PLANTanswers.com, chock full of information as well as some delicious
Parsons was recently informed by Shea Mestern, producer for MSN
House & Home Section, that several links to PLANT answers have
been established on MSN.com, the largest website in the world (http://homeadvisor
.msn.com/Garden/Experts NipCommonGardeningMis takesIntheBud.aspx).
"I have been made the official plant expert for the Microsoft
Network since I am the only fool who would do it for free!"
says Parsons, in his typical self-deprecating manner. "The
main reason I consented to do this was to bring more traffic to
Lineberger and Parsons are working to put an extensive archive of
Weekend Gardener videos up on the Web right now.
The Web site is still in the seedling stage, but when complete will
feature close to 400 digitized television news segments done by
Parsons through the years.
Lineberger first met Parsons when, as a new department head at TAMU
in 1990, he traveled to San Antonio to visit a large nursery manager.
"I immediately was fascinated by his 'colorful' personality,
impressed by his depth of knowledge, amazed by the energy and enthusiasm
he has for his job, and entertained by his 'humor.' He and I jointly
made the decision to put his information on the Web rather than
set up an email list to answer questions, and the rest, they say,
'is history.' He has willingly contributed a wealth of information
to Aggie Horticulture, and his use and encouragement of others to
use the Web has helped make our Web site the most widely used source
of horticultural information in the world. I consider Jerry a most
valued colleague and a true friend."
The pair's new Web site, PLANTanswersTV,
will be an archive of digital video segments that will be streamed
through the Web to users on demand, offering QuickTime and Real
video formats to serve the needs of different audiences.
"Some of today's computers may not be quite powerful enough
to view them, but most will, and certainly those of the near future
will all be. PLANTanswersTV
will have almost all of Jerry's Weekend Gardener segments, and they
range from features about Japanese persimmons to methods for preparing
fall gardens to how to grow water lilies in containers. The video
is excellent quality, it's bright and colorful. And there's an element
of the ever-present Parsons' humor in every clip.
Most of all, Lineberger appreciates Parsons' ability to work tirelessly
to achieve his horticultural objectives.
"I've never seen him out of energy. He works so well with people,
and he works so much for all the people, whether they be a home
gardener or a large commercial horticultural producer. His good
works will be remembered for a long time...after all, they're on
the Web for all to see."
Parsons' career is in full bloom. No one knows what may be germinating
in that fertile mind of his right now, but more successful projects
are bound to sprout. If the past is any indicator, you can count
on this unorthodox horticulturist to think outside the flower box,
to stir up controversy, agitate his friends and colleagues and delight
scores of home gardeners with outstanding plant materials and his
unique form of edutainment.
That's "pure Parsons."