As one of the world's fore­most plant physi­olo­gists, Har­old Wil­kins dedi­cat­ed his life to study­ing and tin­ker­ing with the sci­ence of flow­ers. But for Wil­kins, that sci­ence was al­ways the means to beau­ty, not the end in and of it­self. He was a man who rec­og­nized beau­ty and cre­at­ed beau­ty and then shared that beau­ty.

"We're al­ways try­ing to im­prove that sci­ence, but at the end we want to share all this beau­ty with oth­ers," said Su­san Bachman West, pres­i­dent of Bach­man's and the third gen­er­a­tion of her fam­i­ly to con­sider Wil­kins a men­tor and friend. "We see the beau­ty in flow­ers, but giv­ing it to some­one? That's where the true joy comes. And Har­old knew that."

Flowers, Wil­kins be­lieved, were like life: a beau­ty that takes tre­men­dous ef­fort to cre­ate but was nev­er meant to last for­ev­er.

Wil­kins died earli­er this month at 87 in Bald­win, Wis., where he and his part­ner had op­er­at­ed Gold Finch Farm since 2004. The fin­est blooms from that 9-acre flow­er farm be­came a staple at Mill City Far­mers Market in down­town Minneapolis, where cus­tom­ers would line up for his flow­er ar­range­ments that were more like sculp­tures.

"He thought of hu­man­i­ty and flow­ers as very inter­twined," said Emily Dusek, who worked at his farm. "He saw the con­nec­tion. At the mar­ket he'd just give out flow­ers to peo­ple. He just did it for the fun."

His pro­fes­sion­al ac­com­plish­ments are nu­mer­ous. He's known as the father of the alstroemeria industry. He met Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter when he won a flo­ri­cul­ture a­ward. He's in­duct­ed in the Flo­ri­cul­ture Hall of Fame. He was an ex­ten­sion flo­ri­cul­ture pro­fes­sor at the University of Minnesota from 1966 un­til 1989. Ten of his Ph.D. stu­dents now lead flo­ral ed­u­ca­tion and re­search at ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties and busi­nes­ses in the Unit­ed States and Canada.

Wil­kins be­came in­ter­na­tion­al­ly known for his work on the alstroemeria. He saw it grow­ing in Eng­land and in Cali­for­nia and was tak­en by the flow­er, which is na­tive to Peru.

So Wil­kins teamed with a local flo­rist to fig­ure how to grow it year-round. It was dur­ing the 1970s oil cri­sis, and Wil­kins was look­ing for crops that could flour­ish un­der cool­er tem­pera­tures so less en­er­gy was in­volved. They came up with the i­de­a of pump­ing wa­ter through tubes around the roots of the plant in ord­er to low­er the tem­per­a­ture of the soil. That es­sen­tial­ly do­mesti­cat­ed the alstroemeria in the Unit­ed States, turn­ing it from a wild­flow­er that bloomed once a year into a year-round flow­er. It's now a flower with strong stems and good longevity that's become one of the top-sell­ing cut flow­ers in the coun­try.

He was a pub­lished au­thor (of "Flo­ri­cul­ture: Prin­ci­ples and Spe­cies") and poet ("The mag­ic is in the morn­ing/The val­ley floor is flood­ed each dawn with a lake of pink mist"). He was a lec­tur­er and storyteller.

He re­mem­bered birth­days and anni­ver­sa­ries, wheth­er it was with a bou­quet of flow­ers for some­one lo­cal­ly or a card shipped to a hor­ti­cul­ture colleague in Thai­land or Is­ra­el or Ja­pan. For him, flow­ers were a way to con­nect the beau­ty of na­ture with the beau­ty of hu­man­i­ty.

Wil­kins learn­ed he had test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19 on Dec. 21. For the next week, he phoned old friends for a nice chat, not re­veal­ing he was sick. He knew he didn't have much time left, and those were his goodbyes. He died on Jan. 7.

A me­mo­ri­al serv­ice will be held at a later date, like­ly in sum­mer. His part­ner of more than three de­cades, Bryan Gjevre, hopes to have seas­on­al flow­ers there: Peon­ies and lil­ies, del­phin­iums and liatris.

Through­out his life, Wil­kins do­nat­ed to nu­mer­ous or­gan­i­za­tions, from the University of Minnesota to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. But Gjevre has a dif­fer­ent i­de­a for how people could honor Wil­kins in his death: Sup­port local flor­ists and gar­den centers by buying flowers — including alstroemeria.

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647