Green Thumb: For top propagator Dick Bir, WNC nursery industry is his legacy

Dick Bir has a twinkle in his eye and stories to tell. He knows every nursery grower in Western North Carolina and just about everybody else who’s seriously involved with plants, whether as a professional or a hobbyist. Bir loves WNC’s people and plants equally, which is likely why he was so good at his job.

Now retired, Bir worked for many years at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher. In the late ’70s, his initial task was assisting the Christmas tree industry. Later, he focused on nurseries, specifically on propagating and growing native plants for the landscape. Bir’s many awards testify to the esteem in which his peers held him.

Most recently, Bir received the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, one of 12 Great American Gardeners awards the American Horticultural Society presents annually to individuals, organizations and businesses judged to represent the best in American gardening. Recipients have made significant contributions in at least three of the following horticultural fields: teaching, research, communication, plant exploration, administration, art, business and leadership.

Bir follows in the footsteps of some pretty impressive names — and deservedly so, both his peers and, more importantly, the region’s growers maintain. Brad Martin of the Southeastern Native Plant Nursery in Candler, for example, says it’s thanks to Bir’s research that he can grow his woody and herbaceous species. For 25 years, Bir worked with county agents and nurserymen to evaluate, select and grow better landscape plants — particularly shrubs and trees.

But his primary contribution was with native azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurels. Bir was also instrumental in establishing the influential Native Plant Conference in Cullowhee, beginning in 1984. He continues to speak at the annual event, which has since spurred native-plant movements in Pennsylvania and Alabama as well.

A people person, Bir forged a close rapport with both growers and county agents, doing the research and then shared the findings. In the process, he helped develop a community support structure for nurseries. Bir says he spent a lot of time speaking in churches, community centers and courtrooms, recalling with a laugh, “If dinner was a part of the deal, we’d be assured of a crowd.” Bir’s eagerness to share his knowledge garnered him yet another honor: the 2007 International Plant Propagators’ Society award. Bir says he’s proudest of that accolade, which speaks so directly to his work (the society’s motto is “to seek and to share”).

But it was in the everyday arena that Bir appears to have enjoyed his job the most. He downplays his countless awards, but he can tick off the names of growers, when they started their business, a million funny stories about them and, sadly, if and when they shut down. Bir helped fledgling nurserymen every step of the way. His on-farm studies led to best-management practices that many growers still follow today. His extensive published work includes more 500 articles, and his textbook, Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants, is considered a classic.

When Bir’s career began in 1979, the 25 mountain counties had an estimated 1,436 acres in nursery crops, generating $7.7 million in farm income (about $5,374 per acre). By 1990, there were 3,297 acres producing $59.3 million in farm income (almost $18,000 per acre). That’s a 130 percent increase in acreage, a 668 percent increase in income and a 235 percent increase in income per acre. Many attribute these impressive numbers to Bir’s extension efforts.

Clearly, Bir’s is a career to be proud of. But his greatest achievement may be something all the numbers and the honors can only hint at. “Bir has a wealth of knowledge about plants,” notes landscape designer Mary Hiers, who met him when she was teaching horticulture at Haywood Community College. “But the best thing about him is his welcoming personality. I felt like he helped create a tight-knit plant community in Western North Carolina, one that is ongoing today.”

And that’s a compliment Bir would probably value more than all his awards.

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