Each year, the Connecticut Horticultural Society (CHS) identifies a resident who has significantly impacted the art of gardening or who has made an extraordinary contribution to horticulture in Connecticut to be publicly recognized and presented with the Mehlquist Award. The award is named for its first recipient, Dr. Gustav Mehlquist, a longtime professor in the Plant Science Department at the University of Connecticut (UConn) and a highly regarded horticulturalist. This award was established in 1987 on the 100th anniversary of CHS.
There is no time more fitting than this 130th CHS anniversary season to present the 2016 Mehlquist Award to Dr. Mark Brand, Professor of Horticulture in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at UConn. Dr. Brand teaches Plant Propagation, Woody Landscape Plants and Plant Tissue Culture and conducts research and extension activities for the nursery industry. Dr. Brand is also a plant breeder, who worked summers alongside Dr. Mehlquist when he was in high school and college. Dr. Mehlquist would hire local youth as summer labor to tend to the plants that were the centerpiece of his work developing cold-hardy rhododendrons and since Mark grew up next to the UConn campus, the summer job was ideal. As a result, Dr. Mehlquist introduced a young Mark Brand to the art and science of plant breeding which ultimately grew into one of his two professional passions – plant breeding and plant genetics.
After earning his B.S. in Horticulture from Cornell University and an M.S. and Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, Dr. Brand became a professor at UConn. By then, Dr. Mehlquist had retired but the head of the department at the time encouraged Dr. Brand to continue the rhododendron breeding work that Dr. Mehlquist had begun – and the rest, as they say, is history.
From the remaining stock of cold-hardy hybrids initially developed by Dr. Mehlquist, Dr. Brand further selected, refined and developed a whole collection, some of which were named by Dr. Mehlquist. Then, in 1999, Dr. Brand released a batch of cold-hardy rhododendrons that he titled the “Raise the Roof” series with such names as “Huskymania,” “Hoopla,” “Slam Dunk” and “Buzzer Beater.” In addition to the Raise the Roof series, his other cold-hardy rhododendrons include “Connecticut Yankee,” “White Peter” and “Wojnar’s Purple.” Dr. Brand has also patented and trademarked the ornamental grass “Ruby Ribbons switchgrass.”
Two of Connecticut’s invasive plants, Berberis thunbergii and Euonymus alata, are being altered for the better by Dr. Mark Brand. Yes, they have great fall color, yes they provide food for birds, yes they look “good” in landscapes but their high seed count have caused many problems. Dr. Brand is working to develop dwarf or compact varieties that are sterile so they can be used in landscapes with no future complications. For the last 15+ years, he has studied the invasive potency of these cultivars and his research has provided guidance on how low seed production must be for a plant to be non-invasive.
In addition, with the increased demand in recent years to use native plants for landscapes, Dr. Brand is currently working to develop superior genotypes of several natives. Brand is also working on the native landscape and nutraceutical plant Aronia. He holds the world’s largest germplasm collection of Aronia comprised of over 115 wild accessions collected from 21 states.
Dr. Brand has also developed a robust UConn Plant Database where UConn students and the general public can get pictures and information of over 500 trees, shrubs and vines. There is a plant selector that allows you to choose plants based on characteristics that are appropriate for your landscaping needs. This application is a tremendous asset to the horticultural community and can be found at hort.uconn.edu.
His love of plants comes through in all his work. Dr. Mark Brand impacts the art of gardening with his new cultivars AND makes extraordinary contributions to the world of Horticulture. He is a Professor who imparts his love for plants every day and develops new cultivars for other plant lovers. It was in 1987 that the Mehlquist award was named for and presented to Dr. Mehlquist and now, nearly 30 years later, his legacy still lives on in the work done by his protégé, Dr. Mark Brand. It seems most appropriate that the Mehlquist Award be presented to Dr. Mark Brand during this milestone 130th season.