David Denton’s quest to become a plant scientist started, humbly enough, with curiosity over backyard weeds: When he was 14 or 15, he started noticing small differences among flowering plants he came to know as Impatiens balsamina.
“Different colors, different heights – there was all this variation,” recalls Denton, who grew up in Franklin County. “I was like, ‘Why is it doing this?’ I had to find out why that was.”
To begin connecting his plant-related questions to science-based answers, in 2012 Denton signed up for an NC State University program designed to give high school students a chance to learn more about horticulture careers. While he came to the program unsure of what type of career he’d pursue, by the time the weeklong Horticultural Science Summer Institute was over, he was hooked.
“Yep,” he says. “I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
Now a senior in horticultural science at NC State, Denton is getting closer to his dream. Working with faculty members in the department, he’s helped breed a range of plants, from zinnias to raspberries, blackberries and cucumbers. He’s taken two study abroad trips that allowed him to explore plants in Australia and Mexico.
Meanwhile, he’s continued his work with impatiens, and the university is in the process of disclosing two of his impatiens strains, so companies interested in securing the rights to use his genetic material can contact him.
His next step? Graduate school to either deepen his knowledge of ornamentals or expand into agronomic crops.
How did you get your start in horticultural science?
My family doesn’t have any background in agriculture or horticulture or anything like that. But I spent a lot of time outdoors, and I was a bit of a plant nerd as a kid. I bugged my dad to death to get a greenhouse, and he finally let me have one. I went crazy planting all these plants and trying out different things.
What was NC State’s summer horticulture institute like?
One of the things they do is they have students stay on campus and check out all the facilities. They have them tour around different interesting horticultural things going on around Raleigh and at NC State. When I went, they took us to one place in particular that I really liked: Tony Avent’s Juniper Level Botanical Garden. He was talking about all his plant exploring and how he goes all over the world and collects plants and tests them. In 2015, when I was a sophomore I went back and was able to get an internship with him.
What has your experience as an NC State student been like?
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had professors – like Dr. Julia Kornegay, Dr. Gina Fernandez, Dr. Dennis Werner, Dr. Lis Meyer, Dr. Helen Kraus – who’ve mentored me, given me greenhouse space and helped me out. That’s the cool thing about NC State – at least in the horticulture department, you know all the professors and they really look out for you.
What is your dream goal?
The Impatiens balsamina is pretty much an overlooked annual, but I feel like it has good potential, because you can have it bloom in July. You give it adequate water (and) decent soil, it’ll bloom in the middle of the heat. I feel like there’s a niche for that somewhere in the market.
My ultimate goal would be to see this in Walmart: I’d like to walk into a Walmart or a Lowe’s and see them in there, and to see people picking them up, buying them and planting them in their yard.
Several scholarships have supported David Denton’s study at NC State: The Roy A. Larson Floricultural Scholarship, supported by the N.C. Commercial Flower Growers’ Association with help from Larson’s family colleagues and friends; N.C. Sweet Potato Inc. Scholarship, and the Georgina Malloy Werner and Dennis James Werner Horticultural Science Undergraduate Education Scholarship.