Panayoti Kelaidis is the Senior Curator and Director of Outreach at Denver Botanic Gardens. In the 1990s, Panayoti helped to create Plant Select®, a partnership between Denver Botanic Gardens, Colorado State University, horticulturists, and participants from the landscape and nursery industries. Reading his professional profile from Denver Botanic Gardens, it’s easy to see why this gregarious gardener earned our title, Hero of Horticulture.
Panayoti has worked at Denver Botanic gardens for over 40 years, but his passion for plants has been with him for a lifetime. He grew up in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, just blocks away from Chautauqua Park at the base of the iconic Flatiron mountains. Growing up, he spent many days immersed in the unique wild landscape, as well as his family’s home garden, which he helped plant and maintain. His first endeavor in gardening was planting a rock garden with his brother-in-law when he was just 8 years old.
The landscapes of the American West have changed dramatically over time, with population growth and suburban development continuing all the time, and as a lifelong Boulder, Colorado resident, Panayoti has observed much of the change firsthand. However, he cites this as a call to action, and a reminder of the importance of our home gardens in the greater ecosystem. “It’s been the disappearance of so much that I treasure, to human development - that has inspired me. Gardening is giving back to nature – you can’t replace nature, but you can honor it.”
Panayoti is an avid rock gardener who has always been immersed in the rock gardening community. In the 1980s, he consulted on the design and creation of the first rock garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Now, under his dedicated care and cultivation, this internationally acclaimed garden has grown to include more than 2,300 plant species!
Panayoti’s passion for the art, science, and magic of plants has taken him around the world. He has said that “Rock gardeners are some of the greatest plant explorers,” and over time, proven this point to be true. His travels have taken him to South Africa, South America, Central Asia, and the Himalayas, across Europe and the Mediterranean, and even New Zealand, crisscrossing the globe to research and discover the native plants of each new landscape.
Yet, he remains dedicated to gardening in the unique climate of Colorado. “Gardening is a lot like wine - we all have our terroirs - and mine is Colorado. This is what I know - I can't imagine living anywhere else.” Throughout his travels, the common thread is exploring landscapes with similar soils or growing conditions as the arid, rocky, high elevations of the American West – and his specialty is finding alpine plants, rock garden plants, and succulent plants. During his travels, he collects plant specimens and seeds, and from these collections, he has introduced hundreds of plants to the horticultural trade.