Botanist grows giant gourds in small spaces

News Herald
By Sue Suchyta

Lincoln Park native and botanist Jeffrey Boutain, Ph.D., has a growing ambition to show that great things can grow in small spaces, as demonstrated by his gigantic gourds and supersized sunflowers.

He said big things can easily happen in the small backyards of cities like Lincoln Park.

“This year, I was a gourd short of squashing the world record of 1,776.6 pounds in the 2020 150-square foot (grow space) pumpkin contest,” Boutain said. “Hopefully, growing giant plants in small garden spaces for competitions will inspire others, not only my students, to show off their green thumbs.”

Boutain, a botany and biology professor at Wayne County Community College, grew his 1,770-pound Atlantic Giant pumpkin in 96 square feet of garden space in Lincoln Park, which he entered in the Central Great Lakes weigh-off at Andy T’s Farm Market in St. Johns, Michigan.

He also won a second-place rosette at the Great Pumpkin Contest weigh off at the 2020 Virtual Michigan State Fair, with a 296-pound True Green squash.

Boutain said his focus is on ethnobotany, which is studying the past and present use of plants by people for food, fiber, medicine and rituals.

“A great way to engage and encourage students in many areas of science is to know and grow iconic species, like giant sunflowers and pumpkins,” he said. “After students make an observation, test a hypothesis and conclude from the results, they are rewarded with edible seeds and fruits from their experiments. As a result, both the students and plants win.”

For 36 years, Boutain has honed his green thumb by exploring and gardening with his family.

He said his recent experiments with growing giant plants in small spaces stems from his time spent living in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, in Hawaii, while he was in graduate school.

“With high living costs for small rental spaces in many cities, I adapted from the in-ground soil gardening that is typical of the suburbs of southeastern Michigan to above-ground, potted plants on concrete driveways and balconies in the city of Honolulu,” Boutain said.

He said the biggest hurdle for people to grow plants in small spaces is preventing normal pests, like insects, and fungal, bacterial and viral infections.

“With such a small patch to grow a pumpkin plant, I am developing new methods in my attempt to grow a record heavy fruit in 96-square feet or less,” Boutain said. “Giant sunflowers also are very easy to grow for competitions, and even a crack in the concrete (driveway) can produce tall specimens like the plant variety called Mammoth.”

Another technique he uses to grow gourds, which include pumpkins, melons and squash, is to allow the root to start from a one cubic foot pot, set on a driveway, from which the vines extend. The gourds can then be cushioned on organic material, like a hay bale, while the vine still extends to its original pot. This year, one of his pot-planted gourds weighed in at 99 pounds.

Boutain lauds all the plant people who nurtured growing gardens this past season, as the pandemic keep many people close to home.

“In this 2020 harvest season, I appreciate all the farmers, laborers and teachers for their hard work,” he said.

Sunflowers offer cheerful blooms and tasty seeds, too

Flowers conjure a variety of emotional and sensory responses as well as memories. Loving sentiments are often attached to roses. Violets are sometimes associated with youthful sweetness and a bouquet of daisies brings cheer into any room. Gladiolas often appear in funeral arrangements and the scent of lavender might stir memories of fields of flowers on a hot summer day. A sunflower’s appearance literally fills the space with sunlight.

Though the sunflower, Helianthus annus, has been widely cultivated to produce flowers with different colors, shapes and sizes, the basic structure of the inflorescence continues to be reminiscent of the sun.

Most varieties maintain an attraction to sunlight with heliotropic buds that move to follow the sun and mature flowers that face the rising sun in the east. The botanical name Helianthus is derived from the Greek words helios for sun and anthos for flower.

Sunflowers are members of the largest family of flowering plants, the Asteraceae family. Like most family members, sunflowers have composite heads consisting of hundreds of tiny flowers clustered in the center of rays of petals that can vary in size and color depending on the cultivar. The flowers on edible varieties produce delicious seeds when pollinated. Many ornamental cultivars have been bred for their long-lasting beauty as cut flowers.

The original sunflower was an oilseed plant native to temperate North America. It was transported to Europe in the 16th century and nearly 100 cultivars, including many ornamental varieties, have since been developed.

Several edible varieties are recommended for West Hawaii gardens. The most popular, and the largest, is the Russian mammoth. Russian breeding in the 1800s produced this giant with bright gold petals and heads that reach 10 to 12 inches across on 8- to 10-foot stalks. The flowers that make up the head result in gray and white seeds.

The edible snack seed hybrid is somewhat smaller, reaching about 6 feet. This variety produces deep golden petals and heads that produce plump seed kernels.