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Panayoti Kelaidis, Senior Curator and Director of Outreach at Denver Botanic Gardens

Heroes Of Horticulture: Panayoti Kelaidis

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.

A Passion For Plants In The American West & Around The World

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.

Plant Introductions From Panayoti Kelaidis

Some of the most well-known plants that Panayoti has introduced into cultivation in North America are Delosperma, or Ice Plants. These low-growing succulents with bright, shimmering flowers are native to South Africa. Panayoti was one of the first botanists to visit the country after Apartheid ended, and he first planted Hardy Yellow Ice Plant at Denver Botanic Gardens in 1980. Over time, he and other horticulturists have been able to develop a range of unique color variations in the flowers. These Ice Plant introductions were some of the first plants offered through Plant Select® and they continue to be popular plants to this day. Many cultivars are on display in the South African Plaza at the Denver Botanic Gardens, where many of Panayoti’s plant collections grow today.

Hear Panayoti’s discussion on Ice Plants at Denver Botanic Gardens, in this video from Plant Select: South African Ice Plants with Panayoti Kelaidis

Another popular High Country Gardens plant that we attribute to Panayoti Kelaidis is Scrophularia macrantha, also called Redbirds In A Tree. Scrophularia, a very rare Penstemon relative, blooms from early summer through fall with long wands of white-lipped, cherry-red flowers. Panayoti collected seeds from a Scrophularia plant around 7,000 ft elevation in the mountains of New Mexico. He shared the seeds with friends, and our Chief Horticulturist, David Salman, was the first to grow the plant and offer it for sale to home gardeners; David also gave the plant its playful common name, based on the look of the plant’s unusual branches of pear-shaped flowers. Eventually, it was tested, approved, and promoted by Plant Select®. 

More From Panayoti Kelaidis

Follow this plant explorer and read through the archives on Panayoti’s blog, Prairiebreak.

Enjoy a tour of Panayoti Kelaidis's garden in Boulder, and listen to his philosophy on gardening in this YouTube Video, filmed and edited by Adam Taub: Colorado Home Garden Tour | Gardening an Expression of Soul

(Author's note - some of the quotes in the article are from this video tour of Panayoti's garden.)


Meet More Heroes of Horticulture

Click to learn more about Lauren Springer
Click to learn more about David Salman
Click to learn more about Sally Walker

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