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Horticulture great passes on passion for plants

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

David Knauft flipped through the brown manual he had worn thin since Michael Dirr had given it to him when they first met. As an associate dean, woody ornamentals were just a pastime then.

Now, as the first Dirr Professor for Woody Plant Instruction and Introduction, Knauft's turning his plant breeding skills from plants he has grown as a hobby into a career.

"I want to carry on the passion he has for teaching," said Knauft, who was formerly associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "It's not just about plants."

The brown book was Dirr's "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants," the leading horticultural text and primary reference of its kind on such plants, which include shrubs and trees. It's one of a vast number of publications Dirr wrote, and it grew out of his teaching as a horticulture professor.

Dirr's research has made an immeasurable impact on the nation's plant industry. His work has influenced a generation of students, gardeners, nurserymen and professional horticulturists.

"I was hoping for an individual who cared about students, undergraduate and graduate, and David was the perfect fit," Dirr said of Knauft's appointment. "His enthusiasm for teaching is already reflected in the organic gardening and new plant breeding courses. The latter will open new horizons for students across the plant sciences."

Knauft is enjoying the chance to further pick Dirr's brain as he studies such topics as sterilizing crape myrtles, working on indigo cross-compatibility and controlling invasive plant species. Their friendship and professional teamwork began in 1998 when Knauft moved from North Carolina State University to UGA.

Knauft got his Ph.D. in plant breeding from Cornell University. Before heading to N.C. State in 1993 as head of the crop science department, he taught and conducted research in the genetics and breeding of peanuts at the University of Florida. In November 2004, he re-entered the classroom.

"I worked as a researcher and teacher before my 12 years of administration," he said. "I'm fortunate to still have the opportunity to return to teaching and research."

He didn't return to his work with peanuts. Knauft "didn't want to duplicate existing research in the college and was looking to make a contribution to society. The ornamental field was wide open."

"I wanted someone with energy and desire to serve the nursery industry of Georgia," Dirr said. "David has attended the nursery meetings and interacted with the people who supported this professorship. He is respected by the industry. He has traveled the extra mile to meet, greet, strategize and become a part of the community."

With a background in plant breeding, Knauft brings something new to the woody plant program.

"His best trait is the training in plant breeding," Dirr said. "He's a genuine plant breeder who will take our ornamentals program where I never imagined possible. David and I are working together on breeding strategies for the future. We have a healthy mutual respect for each other that translates to wanting the best for the program."

Knauft agrees. "To be a good plant breeder, you need to be a good plant person," he said. "Having Mike and his advice and his opinions and working with his research program as well has been a huge advantage."

While Dirr has moved on to North Carolina, Knauft has no plans to leave Athens. He said he's "put enough time in my yard." He and his wife have a son who is a junior at UGA.

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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