KC Gardens

Powell Gardens’ ‘rock star’ heads north, plants in hand

Alan Branhagen was director of horticulture at Powell Gardens for over 20 years and was sometimes called “Powell Gardens’ resident rock star.” He now has a new job in Minnesota.
Alan Branhagen was director of horticulture at Powell Gardens for over 20 years and was sometimes called “Powell Gardens’ resident rock star.” He now has a new job in Minnesota. Powell Gardens

Alan Branhagen packed up his house this month to move two plant zones north. His belongings included starts of woodland phlox, trillium and delphinium from his yard. He also found room for native wisteria, northern lights azaleas and pagoda dogwoods.

He had to say goodbye to his sweetbay and southern magnolias, though — they prefer our warmer climate. Branhagen also said goodbye to co-workers, fellow naturalists and well-wishers at a farewell reception March 17, when many a green drink was raised in his honor.

Sometimes dubbed “Powell Gardens’ resident rock star,” Branhagen served as director of horticulture for over 20 years at the 970-acre botanical garden located 20 miles east of Lee’s Summit. Now he is director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a role that includes horticulture, facilities and research.

When he arrived at Powell Gardens at the end of 1996, the Visitor Education Center was under construction and surrounded by a mud hole. Working with then-executive director Eric Tschanz, Branhagen designed the adjacent display beds and Dogwood Walk and oversaw the planting of prairie grasses around the parking lot as well as an evergreen garden.

Under his guidance, the collection of plants on record grew from 2,000 to 22,000, while the garden expanded to encompass a nature trail, the Island Garden, Fountain Garden, Memorial Garden and the Heartland Harvest Garden. Powell Gardens and Branhagen’s team also began managing the Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Garden in Kansas City.

Throughout the last two decades Branhagen has focused on “what’s uniquely Kansas City,” both at Powell Gardens and at his own nearby six-acre property. A garden should be an experience of place, he explains, not just an example of what he calls “canna-banana land” typical of many formal plantings.

When he moved into his home, he first killed the grass around the trees and planted big sweeps of native plants to connect them. Next he turned his shady backyard into a woodland garden full of wildflowers. “Since I had a walkout basement, some of my friends called it ‘Alan’s treehouse,’ ” he says. He kept small areas of lawn for home maintenance access and to serve as a firebreak, and he began building trails through several acres of woods.

All that came to a stop this month when he received what he describes as “the opportunity of a lifetime” to join the staff at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

“When I was 16, my folks let me drive to the Minnesota Zoo from Decorah, Iowa, and shortly after, they let me drive to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum," he says. “I remember thinking that I wanted to work there someday.”

At the arboretum he’d like to encourage a winter-themed garden as a signature attraction. Meanwhile, a Russian plant collection is already being gathered. There’s also ongoing university-level research on apples and grapes, two kinds of fruit that do well in that area.

Branhagen points out that he’s still in the Midwest — just upper as opposed to lower. Recently he published a book on the flora of our region which stretches more than a thousand miles from below North America’s evergreen northern woods to above the southern swamps and pine lands. In the introduction of “Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden,” he writes, “No place else on earth has such an extreme continental climate, yet it is a place filled with plants of every size and in every hue.”

In his book he also celebrates “the thrill of weather that defines the Midwest,” so it seems fitting that during his final weeks in the metro area temperatures swung wildly from 70 to 20 degrees with bursts of hail, tornadoes and snow. That’s one reason he believes native plants are so important: “Whatever the conditions are, they’ve got you covered. They’re going to survive.” Another reason is that these plants support the native birds, butterflies and bees he has loved since a child.

Furthering this support, Branhagen enrolled Powell Gardens as a participant in the annual North American Butterfly Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count. Described as a thought leader in the community, he was a frequent speaker on gardening, nature and sustainability. He began a legacy tree program, collecting seeds from champion trees in their twilight years so they can be propagated for new generations. He also led “sold out” tree tours of local cemeteries and natural areas where some of these champions are found, and promoted the historic significance of Kansas City’s impressive parks and boulevard system.

Westport’s Roanoke Park, designed as a wilderness area in 1912 by famous landscape architect George Kessler, was one of his last tours. Places like that have been somewhat forgotten, he says: “I was happy to introduce people to these treasures.”

And he’s happy now to fulfill a childhood dream as well as be closer to his hometown in northeastern Iowa, where his widowed father and other relatives still live.

“Many friends were made here, but I’ve been going to the Twin Cities ever since I was a kid. It’s kind of like home, like I’m coming full circle in life.”

Roll out the welcome mat, Minneapolis. From our garden to yours, let us introduce you to a treasure.