By tomorrow, Sherry Santifer will have entered close to 60 pots of forced bulbs in the Philadelphia Flower Show.
It is a quest that starts alone in a chilly greenhouse, where the bulbs are potted up, and ends under the very public spotlight of the most prestigious flower show in the land.
Santifer, who has amassed approximately 400 ribbons from the show over the past 12 years, belongs to a small circle of players in this rarefied world of horticulture who put their skills and reputations on the line each March in the expanse of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
She is quietly buoyed by wins—losses set into motion a fierce but quiet determination to do better next time. As she greets friends and rivals (often one and the same), she seems in her element. But there is a difference. Santifer, an African American, is one of the few minorities in the field of horticulture. Asked if she knows of any other black horticulturists, she looks pensively to the floor and shakes her head. “No.”
The labor force in the green industry is dominated by minorities, especially Hispanics. But for degreed horticulturists involved in the propagation and production of plants, the design and care of gardens and the supervision of crews, the landscape is still overwhelmingly white.
Jerry Williams, an associate professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech, said of about 120 horticulture majors, “right now, currently, I don’t think we have even one” who is African American. “Not one.” In 22 years at Virginia Tech, Williams said he could count the number of black students on his fingers and toes.
Steven Cohan, a professor in the University of Maryland’s department of natural resource sciences and landscape architecture, said search committees find that “the applicants coming in aren’t representative of what we would like to see, but we are at a loss.”
The reasons for this are open to conjecture. For many blacks considering a life in horticulture, perhaps soil work recalls the periods of slavery and sharecropping. “My aunts didn’t understand my going into horticulture,” said Santifer, 56. “I think it was the idea that for African Americans, at one point you had to work in the fields.”