Plant Man Blossoms Into A MoBot Rosarian

Photo by Ursula Ruhl

By Don Corrigan

As a youngster, Matthew Norman used to play – and work – in his grandmother’s garden in Kirkwood. She inspired his plant career, which blossomed in the decades since he was in the dirt at grandma’s house.

Norman started his plant career right out of Kirkwood High School when he took a job with the Kirkwood Parks & Recreation Department in 2014. Today, he cares for the Missouri Botanical Garden’s (MoBot) two extensive rose gardens.

“The rose gardens are true crowd pleasers,” noted MoBot spokesperson Catherine Martin. “Matthew Norman is the garden’s rosarian and he looks over more than 1,500 individual plants encompassing 250 varieties.”

Roses hold a historically special place at the Garden in Saint Louis. Founder Henry Shaw wrote a small book on the emblem of his native England, entitled “The Rose.”

“Human art can neither color nor describe so fair a flower,” Shaw wrote about the roses in 1882. However, plenty of artists have attempted to capture the essence of roses from Claude Monet to Paul Cézanne to Pierre August Renoir.
In ancient Greece, the rose was associated with the beautiful goddess Aphrodite. In Rome, the rose became a symbol of the Virgin Mary and the rosary with the Italian city’s conversion to Christianity.

In modern-day America, roses are a special gift for wives, moms and grandmothers on a day in May designated as Mother’s Day. Also in America, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1986 to make the rose the official U.S. floral emblem.

An Orchestra Of Plants

“Granny and I were really close and I have vivid memories of sitting on the outside patio underneath the oak tree listening to her talk about all the plants in her garden,” recalled Norman. “She would show me when things were in bloom and how to treat them once the flowers began to fade.

“Being a musician, I formed this analogous association with the plants of the earth being a large orchestra, in which each plant has their own part and contributes to the landscape at different times and with different hues, tones and volumes,” he said.

Norman was so impressed with how much his grandmother knew that he has carried her plant knowledge through his everyday life. He said the secrets of the earth are fascinating and impart a passion for him.

“The joy of being in an aesthetically pleasing natural environment is what gives me the energy to want to do more,” said Norman. “It’s why I do what I do.”

The 2014 graduate of Kirkwood High School recalls his KHS days as fun with plenty of hiking and exploring in the outdoors. He described himself as “a band, and earth science, and extracurricular activity kid.”

After high school, a friend referred Norman for a job working in Kirkwood’s city parks. He was asked if he wanted to fill out an application for the position of assistant horticulturist.

“I think that was the first time I had heard that word – horticulturist – but I was pretty familiar with plants at that point,” said Norman. “I got the job and learned something new every day.

St. Louis: Green Opportunities

For several years, Norman maintained all of the garden beds and display gardens within the Special Business District of Kirkwood, as well as at city hall and at community parks. He also learned to use mechanical equipment and to coordinate volunteer projects.

In 2018, he moved to MoBot as a temp where he learned about retention of plant taxonomy, the formal use of binomial nomenclature, and best practices for taking care of temperate and native plants.

“I now work as an outdoor horticulturist cultivating roses as well as curating, designing, maintaining my specified areas,” said Norman. “The overall objective of the garden has its basis in plant conservation.”

Norman said St. Louis is the place to be if you want to work in the green industry. He said the region is a haven for agricultural and horticultural knowledge and he has many mentors and heroes here.

“I have always had green mentors,” said Norman. “Locally, Pat Mahon is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to native plants, ecotypes and conservation. Theo Smith has been great for me with his enthusiasm for native landscapes.

“And, to all my friends in the Henry Shaw Cactus & Succulent Society, I have to thank them for sharing so much wisdom about plant care over the years,” added Norman. “They are such a wonderful group.”

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