Anatomy of a horticulturist.
“Some guys go bowling,” Plant Environmental Center Director Fred Jackson, MEd, says. “I play reggae.” Once a month, the 65-year-old instructor of, among other courses, “Botanical Roots of Modern Medicine” sings and plays harmonica in Providence with the band Professor Roots for a small but dedicated crowd that often includes colleagues and students. But he doesn’t need a stage to entertain. Jackson’s conversation has the freeform flow of a ’60s jam band; salty like a sailor one moment, misting up like a sentimental grandpa the next—for he is both of those things—he strings together a life story that itself seems improvised.
A self-taught harmonica player and lifelong performer, he always wanted to be an artist, but when he didn’t get into RISD he bummed around Europe and Hawaii until the draft pushed him to go to college. Work as an estate caretaker got him interested in horticulture; he taught prisoners to grow plants, he sold seeds, and he started an interior landscaping business before taking root at Brown 23 years ago. Jackson’s job has grown with the years, from greenhouse manager to teaching-award-winning faculty member to medicinal plant researcher. In 2011, he found a greenhouse engineer to design the high-tech replacement for his old digs. “I miss my old place a lot,” he says of the vintage conservatory. But as he shows off “all the bells and whistles” in the rooftop space at 85 Waterman St., which opened last year, he adds, “We’re in a $5.5 million facility. What’s not to like?”