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  • Writer's pictureCat Meholic

A Glass Ceiling Shattered: Sarada Krishnan

Sarada Krishnan, Denver Botanic Gardens

Over the last five years, I have attended the American Public Gardens Association's National Conference. At each of these meetings I noticed from a distance or a seat in a lecture hall a woman that held herself with steady confidence and spoke eloquently on both the scientific and display aspects horticulture. At each conference I wished to meet this woman that inspired me from afar. At the National meeting this June it was my luck that Sarada Krishnan sat down at my lunch table! She introduced herself to everyone at the table not currently involved in conversation, and gladly answered my many questions about her life and career. After lunch she handed me her card, and encouraged me to contact her.

As if the luck of our lunchtime seating and Sarada's open invitation to stay in touch weren't wonderful enough, she also graciously agreed to be the Featured Horticulturist for September! I hope the brief interview below highlights Sarada's persistent dedication that has lead to her successful career, and energizes others to achieve their professional and personal goals.

WinH: What is your current role in horticulture?

SKr: I am currently the Director of Horticulture and Center for Global Initiatives at Denver Botanic Gardens. In this role, I am responsible for directing the design and maintenance of the horticulture displays and collections, and for developing and leading global projects. In addition to my role at Denver Botanic Gardens, I pursue my horticultural interests through the operation of coffee farms in Jamaica, which I purchased in 2010.

Coffee Farm in Jamaica, 2015

WinH: With your background in research, how did you arrive at a public garden? Is there a connection to your research?

SKr: I have a diverse and very strong agricultural background. My family owned a coffee plantation in India as well as other parcels of land under cultivation to include paddy, coconut and other mixed cropping systems. My maternal grandparents owned a rubber plantation in Malaysia, which was eventually converted to oil palm. This strong agricultural background sparked an interest in crop cultivation in me at an early age. This strong agricultural background sparked an interest in crop cultivation in me at an early age. My undergraduate degree in Horticulture from India has given me a strong foundation in agricultural systems in tropical ecosystems in developing countries. My Master of Science degree in Horticulture is from Colorado State University, with a research focus on the propagation of native Colorado flora specializing in plant tissue culture. My doctoral research at University of Colorado, Boulder was on conservation genetics of wild coffee (Coffea spp.) in Madagascar. Working on four Malagasy Coffea spp., my research compares the genetic diversity of the existing ex situ germplasm with extant wild populations, providing solid recommendations for conservation management.

Coffee Plantation

I worked in the horticulture field for a few years, both commercial and public and then while working full-time pursued my doctoral degree. My fist two jobs after my Masters were working for a couple of local greenhouses developing their tissue culture program. I took five years off to concentrate on raising a family, during which time, I acquired horticultural knowledge specific to the Colorado region by volunteering as a Master Gardener with my local county extension. I then went back to work for a local large greenhouse as production planner. When an opportunity came up to be the Director of Horticulture at the Butterfly Pavilion, a local invertebrate education institution and zoo with a tropical conservatory with free-flying butterflies and outdoor gardens, I jumped to take this on since I had always wanted to have a career in public horticulture. I served in his position for six years and during the last year at the Butterfly Pavilion, I enrolled in the PhD program. In 2006, I got the job as Director of Horticulture at Denver Botanic Gardens. I continued my doctoral program and completed it within 6 years in 2011. In order to formalize all the global projects, the Center for Global Initiatives at the Denver Botanic Gardens was formed in 2012. Through this program, I am able to continue my research work on coffee and have been involved in several projects in collaboration with World Coffee Research and the Crop Trust.

WinH: What do you find most interesting about your current work?

SKr: The interesting things about my job are the diversity of tasks I perform, the new programs I have been able to establish and the talented and diverse staff I oversee. Since 2009, I have overseen numerous construction projects that have transformed the gardens and enable us to expand and refine our collections and establish new programs. Another thing I am passionate about is to engage and inspire the next generation of horticulturists. We are fortunate to have an endowment that provides internship funding and each year we provide internship opportunities for 5-8 students nationwide enrolled in a undergraduate (or graduate level) horticulture program. In addition, through the Center for Global Initiatives, I am engaged in several interesting global projects.

WinH: Who are you inspired by?

SKr: As a world traveler, I have seen farming systems in many countries. I have always been inspired by the small farmers, especially women in developing countries that work very hard to make a living for themselves while putting food on our plates. Through my coffee work, I am motivated to make a difference in the lives of small coffee producers. Making improvements in the coffee sector is a huge task and just one person will not be able to make a change. But, each of us working in coffee can contribute through our small portion of the work to bring about systemic global change.

WinH: What changes would you like to see in our field to help the women working in horticulture advance or find equality in the workplace?

SKr: Over the past decade, I have seen significant improvements within the public garden industry, which has been very encouraging. There are more and more women in leadership roles than ever before and I hope this trend continues and improves. The challenge in this current century is going to be in attracting our youth, including women, to the field of horticulture, which is being addressed by national and international programs such as “Seed Your Future” and “World Food Prize Global Youth Institute,” among others.

Thank you, Sarada for sharing your experiences with us!

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