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A flower expert grows in New England

Thomas Herrera-Mishler
(Globe Staff Photo / Pat Greenhouse)

Thomas Herrera-Mishler was appointed executive director of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at the beginning of 2005. He had previously worked as director at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, N.C. This year's New England Spring Flower Show, the 135th, runs Saturday through March 19 at the Bayside Expo Center. The Globe interviewed him recently at the society's Elm Bank headquarters in Wellesley, where he talked about the upcoming show and how he fools the plants into thinking it's already springtime here. -- BELLA ENGLISH

You have spent much of your life working with plants. What is the attraction? Without plants, there is no food to eat, no air to breathe. Plants are the fundamental building block of our ecosystem. You can go to the Arctic, where lichen grows on rocks, or tropical rain forests, which are a huge source of our oxygen. The flower show is our major way of connecting plants and people.

The New England Flower Show is considered one of the country's premiere shows. Yet we live in a climate that is not entirely friendly to plants. Why the popularity of this particular show? What sets our flower show apart is that these are plants that could and should be grown in New England. I think it's that Yankee sensibility that if you're going to spend money to go to the flower show, you should take home something useful. The show is educational. It's gorgeous. It's springtime in the middle of winter.

How do you fool all these plants into thinking it's springtime in New England in February and March? We have 20 different species in our greenhouse. We put up plastic sheets to separate the different sections. Some are in full bloom, some are poking along. We say, ''The flower show is coming along! Wake up, damn it!" Some didn't wake up at all. We had to put them in the compost pile. Then, after the show, we bring the plants back home and trick them into thinking it was all a dream. We want them to go back to sleep for five weeks or so.

What would you recommend for fun at the show? The most fun evening will be one I won't be attending, called Girls' Night Out. There will be aromatherapy, cocktails, chocolate, floral arrangements, neck and shoulder massages, and a fashion show. We've got something for men, too. Gardening for Guys is new; it's like spring training for your lawn. We've also got a putting green. Guys say, ''He who dies with the most toys wins." We'll have some toys there.

What will the hard-core plant expert find? You'll see some of the world's leading horticulturalists teach at the flower show. Anna Pavord published ''The Tulip," which is the most fascinating book about how the tulip arrived in Western Europe from Turkey. Her new book is about how Western civilization figured out how to name plants. Mr. [Tetsunori] Kawana, the great master of ikebana, is coming from Japan to create a gigantic, 500-square-foot ikebana flower exhibit. . . . Allen Haskell, the beloved dean of the flower show, died last year, and it was like the end of an era. But this year, his son, David Haskell, and [landscape designer] Paul Miskovsky are doing one of the largest exhibits in our show, and they promise it is going to be a blockbuster.

You moved here from Wilmington, N.C., where plants thrive year-round. Why would a plant guy want to move to the tundra? I had a quarter of a million azaleas growing there, at Airlie. I had 3,000 camellias and a 450-year-old live oak. But my wife and I love Boston. There's something I've always found immensely appealing about New England. I love the landscape, the rocky outcroppings. I love being close to all the cultural institutions. I love the people.

But what about the warm Southern hospitality? I'd rather take Yankee straightforwardness any day.

MassHort has had its share of financial difficulties. Is it still in the red? We're doing OK. It's tough. The last two fiscal years we ended up in the black, just barely. I think as we continue to provide meaningful education programs and develop the next public garden, people will support our cause. We're relaunching a plant-mobile to bring hands-on science-based plant education to inner-citykids.

MassHort is a very Brahmin institution. Are you the first director to have a hyphenated name? Yes. My wife is from Costa Rica. My parents are missionaries in Mexico, and I grew up there. I speak Spanish better than English. At home, my family [including three daughters] speaks Spanish.

What is your very favorite flower? Probably the bird of paradise. It's such a stunning plant.

What would you advise the plant-challenged to try growing? Peace lilies. They're hard to kill, and they don't mind periods of drought if you forget to water them.

Have you ever killed a plant? Of course. Any good horticulturist who's truthful will tell you they've killed more plants than they've grown. You need to experiment. What's the worst that could happen? They can die and you get more compost.

What flowers do you buy your wife? She hates it when I buy her flowers because she knows it's for me, not for her. I buy her jewelry.

Why are roses considered the flower of love? They're beautiful and romantic and they've got a few thorns, just like any relationship.

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