Master plantsman Hayes Jackson has changed the lives of multitudes of people with his love of “watching things grow.”

Seeing customers at local plant sales gathered around him, asking questions, talking about unusual plants or just carrying on an animated conversation, could almost lead a bystander to think his words are magical.

Jackson’s knowledge of plants rare, unusual or ordinary has made him the Pied Piper of gardeners.

The scientific names of plants in Latin roll off his tongue as if they were everyday English.

If a person needs a plant identified, no matter how small the clipping or blurry the photo, he can nail it.

As important as knowing plants is Jackson’s boundless enthusiasm to share that knowledge with others. He has worked for the Calhoun County Extension office since 1995. Last year, he also became the director of the fledgling Longleaf Botanical Gardens.

Many might say a plant is simply a plant. For gardeners, but especially for Jackson, there is no such thing as “just a plant” — unless it is privet, by his own admission about the only plant he does not like.

Falling in love with a tree

By age 3, Jackson’s future seemed ordained. While growing up in Florida, he planted the seeds from household oranges and plums. They germinated, fascinating the young child.

When he was 12, he found a wax leaf ligustrum in the woods and mistakenly took it for something special. That day, he decided he truly liked plants.

That same year, he discovered a talent for landscaping and built a waterfall with running water, lining it with plants he bought himself.

As he grew into a teenager, Hayes toyed with the idea of becoming a wildlife biologist, a veterinarian or a meteorologist. A love affair with palms as a teenager sealed his career as a horticulturist.

He earned an undergraduate degree at Auburn University in ornamental horticulture and landscape design, then a graduate degree from Jacksonville State University in environmental biology.

He remains an amateur meteorologist. His Facebook page carries almost daily weather forecasts. One very early morning, as he and I were unloading plants for a sale, he squinted up at ominous clouds that seemed far away and said simply, “Here it comes.” The thunder and rain were soon upon us.

Hayes also still has his love for animals. Over his lifetime, he has had a menagerie of extra large dogs. (His license plate reads “XL DOG.”)

His current sidekicks are Ghube, a rescue, and Loomis, a 2-year-old Great Dane with a personality only a father could love. Loomis has his own fan club, thanks to his quirky personality and puppy-like antics, described in detail on Jackson’s Facebook page.

Loomis may be a reincarnation of his owner as a small child, with an unending curiosity about his surroundings. A young Hayes once asked his mother why the Earth had two names: “If we lived in the World, why was it called the Earth?”

Gardening as therapy

I first met Jackson in 1993. He was standing in the middle of  beds of colorful flowers at The Ivy Elephant, a popular garden center long since closed. He was a landscaper at that time. With one foot perched on a shovel, he seemed the epitome of a gardener.

Our paths did not cross again until 1998, when I enrolled in a Calhoun County Master Gardener class. The other members talked frequently about him, quoting “Hayes this” and “Hayes that.”

At the conclusion of the class, I volunteered at Tree Amigos, a therapeutic horticultural program at Coosa Valley Youth Services sponsored by the Calhoun County Extension office. Jackson was the mentor to the young people in the program as well as to the group of eager Master Gardeners who volunteered there every week.

The program started with a tree farm, where the volunteers and the residents tended thousands of trees, and a greenhouse, where the adults taught the kids to propagate plants.

It was Jackson’s first project in Calhoun County, and proved not to be his last.

Soon I became a disciple, developing a sense of satisfaction in growing plants and loving the results of my hard work.

Jackson came to my house, drew out a landscape with a can of blue spray paint and told me to dig.

Dig I did.

He and I developed a very friendly and longstanding competition to see who might come home with the most unusual plant. I would go into nurseries all over the state and say, “I am a friend of Hayes!” No last name needed. Together, the staff and I would walk the aisles looking for something out of the ordinary.

I have yet to top him, and my husband says I never will.

An uncommon collector

Everyone who knows Jackson is aware of his propensity to collect plants, animals and objects he plans to repurpose.

When he was 12, he had 36 box turtles. (He still stops on the side of the road to move a turtle trapped in traffic.)

Along with his turtle collection, he converted a plastic swimming pool into an aquarium, filling it with a menagerie of fish and other aquatic creatures that he caught himself: turtles, goldfish, even a bass which he fed ham. Unfortunately, a worker accidentally punctured his pool with a Weed Eater; his experiment in the watery world lasted only one summer.

Jackson can never have too many of something he likes. He once had an enormous collection of cannas (several hundred) until his nemesis, the voles (mouse-like creatures that feast on the roots of plants), destroyed his display.

He had 600 bromeliads until a misfortune with a greenhouse covering and a spell of freezing cold weather cost him many of the plants.

He has collected orchids, water lilies, giant hostas, camellias, aspidistras and, his latest plant of the day, caladiums, of which he has about 700.

When asked about his favorite, it often depends on what plant is in front of him. He admits, however, that the camellia is truly his favorite. “With careful planning, a gardener can have camellias blooming from August through April,” he said.

Plants from around the world

Jackson enjoys pushing the envelope with tropical plants not designed for our climate, to see whether they can flourish outside their comfort zone.

His proclivity to collect has taken him far and wide, not only in the United States but to countries far away. He has traveled to Guatemala, China, India, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea.

No matter where he has traveled, he says plants are basically the same, but the species are different.

He had a license that allows him to collect and transfer his treasures to the United States.

In China, he collected peonies now growing in a bed at the Anniston Museum of Natural History.

Because of his adventures, gardeners around the county have elephant ears and ginger lilies from Vietnam.

He forgot his hand spade on the highest point in Thailand. We can hope it became a souvenir for another plant geek to discover.

A conference out west led to a return trip in a rental car packed with cacti in an assortment of containers.

National forests in China are off limits to visitors, but as a plant collector, Jackson had permission to look for ginger lilies.

In the quiet forest was an unforgettable sight of  160 to 200 deodar cedars. Along with the cedars there were tigers. The natives wore masks on the backs of their heads to ward them off.

Last summer, Jackson traveled to Chile for three weeks to celebrate his 50th birthday. The trip was not about collecting plants, but learning about another culture and its landscape and plant life.

A dream of a botanical garden

Jackson wears more than one hat. He has been an urban regional extension agent with the Calhoun County Extension office since 1995.

Community projects and encouraging grass roots community efforts remains his focus.

As a horticulturist, Jackson believes that his career is an extension of himself.

In the last year, Jackson took on a very large hat as director of Longleaf Botanical Gardens. There, he manages the grounds and oversees the development of the fledgling gardens.

Being the director of a botanical garden is the culmination of a dream he has had since he was 16 and a volunteer at the Anniston Museum of Natural History.

Thirty-six years ago, he planted a banana tree in the courtyard at the museum — where it still stands.

Jackson believes a botanical garden increases the quality of life for a community, and that for its visitors a garden is a place of peace and serenity. Beautiful and interesting plants inspire the viewers to be amazed or to ask questions.

Jackson is a much in demand speaker at botanical gardens, Master Gardener meetings and anywhere people share his love of plants.

There are very few gardeners in Alabama who have not had the benefit of his knowledge, whether he is talking about camellias or hardy citrus.

His generosity does not stop with sharing knowledge. No one leaves his garden empty-handed, but rather always with a piece of this or a clipping of that.

Plants fill him with “a sense of wonder,” he said. “In a garden, I feel like I am in another place.”

Sherry Blanton is a member of the Calhoun County Master Gardeners Association. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com.