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