Purdue Profiles: Cathy Alkire

February 26, 2015  

Cathy Alkire

Cathy Alkire, horticulture specialist (Purdue University photo/Matt Thomas)
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After Cathy Alkire attended a high school career day, she left confused as to what she wanted to pursue in her future. But a conversation with her mom that followed the event helped direct her passion for gardening onto a promising career path.

Alkire is a horticulture specialist in the Grounds Department, and she's been at Purdue professionally for 25 years. Following studying horticulture at Purdue, Alkire moved to Colorado to work in wholesale production. When she and her family decided to move back to the area, Alkire returned to what she describes as the perfect job. Now Alkire is responsible for which annual flowers and plants will be planted on campus.

How did you initially become interested in horticulture, and how has your career evolved?      

My mother and grandmother have always enjoyed plants, so it just seems to be in my blood. After sitting down at career day in high school, I didn't have any idea of what I wanted to do. My mom talked to me about how I've always been interested in plants – I had worked with flowers when I was younger – and that maybe I could work with plants. I had never heard of the word "horticulture" before.

I was a horticulture student here at Purdue. When I left Purdue, I worked in some greenhouses locally, and then I moved to Colorado. In the large greenhouses in Colorado, I worked in wholesale production, so it was a whole lot of petunias or poinsettias, just lots and lots of the same kind of plant. When I moved back here, I got this job with the Grounds Department. It's just the perfect job. Not only do we decide what kinds plants to grow, we start them in the greenhouse in the winter, plant them outside in the spring, take care of them all summer and dig them up in the fall. It's the whole season.

What do you take into consideration when deciding which flowers and plants are going to be used each year?

We keep records from year to year. I would say that we like to grow the same thing in the same place, but that's not it at all. What we try to do is change it up, especially with color. We also have to think about environmental changes. Sometimes in a place that seems sunny, trees get bigger, and it can gradually change from sunny to shady, which makes a difference in what we can plant in that location from year to year. Every year is a trial with something different and new. I love using new plants and playing with color combinations.  

We also talk to people who walk by while we're planting. We listen to what they have to say, including what kinds of plants, flowers and colors they like. I love talking to people and hearing their suggestions.

Purdue is known to have plants that are just as diverse as the community. What's the most exotic plant you've used?

Right now we're growing ornamental bananas, although they're not really bananas. The seeds come from New Zealand. Even though we start them as seeds, in their first year they can grow to 10 feet tall. We've tried a few of them experimentally here and there, including overwintering them in the greenhouse and planting them out again, and they get big. We're going to try more of them this year. They're pretty exciting. They start out as little seeds and then they grow into massive plants. They produce pink bananas, but they're inedible. 

Outside of Purdue, what do you enjoy spending your time doing?

My husband, Mark, and I like to go on hikes. We hike all over the place. Our favorite place to hike is in the desert out southwest, but we've also gone hiking in Europe. In the U.S., there's a place called Little Wild Horse Canyon that I really like. It's in the desert in southeastern Utah. I just love it down there. It's a really narrow canyon, and you're hiking over rocks that are just beautiful with the patterns they make. It's quite challenging. In Europe, my favorite place would be in Ireland, the Wicklow Mountains. It is magical there. And throughout our hiking and traveling, I always find inspiration for plants to introduce to Purdue.

Writer: Kourtney Freiburger, 49-62993, kfreibu@purdue.edu 

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