The Salvia Doctor has left the Greenhouse

It is with a heavy heart that we share news of the passing of our friend Richard Dufresne (pronounced Doofrane), 75, who passed away this month at his home in Candor, North Carolina.  Rich was truly a one of a kind…a 1972 graduate of Carnegie Melon with a PhD in chemistry. After graduation, Rich did the post-doc shuffle, first at Johns Hopkins, then Brandeis University, and finally UMass, before signing on with Lorillard Tobacco Company in North Carolina as a flavor chemist. There, he researched organic chemical compounds to flavor tobacco. What else could you do with three post docs and a PhD thesis, titled, Thermal cyclizations of 3-(2-arylhydrazino)-3-pyrroline derivatives: a study of the Fischer indole synthesis?

Rich was a regular at our nursery and garden, where we both benefited from the mutual exchange of plants and information. When Rich last visited us about eight weeks ago, it was obvious to us that we were seeing him for the last time. His health had deteriorated due to a cascade of medical issues and a lifetime of less than healthy eating. His XXL clothes were now tightly strapped to a frail frame that was only a shadow of the Rich we’d seen earlier in the year.

I first met Rich in the mid 1980s at a North American Rock Garden Society meeting, where he was extolling the virtues of the salvias he’d brought for show and tell. Rich would always drive the meeting organizers nuts since he had no “off switch” or ability to read social cues. Rich was ridiculously brilliant, had an unquenchable passion for salvias and their relatives, but also had a uniquely wired brain that left him only marginally functional in society. 

What Rich did so well was to connect people with plants and other plant people. He used every form of communication possible to share knowledge far and wide, including his website, WorldofSalvias.com. Rich has done more for the world of ornamental salvias worldwide than probably anyone in the last century. His early introductions like Salvia ‘Marashino’, Salvia ‘Dark Dancer’, Agastache ‘Tutti Fruitti’, and others were the first hybrid clones in both genera that started a horticultural revolution.

Rich’s chemistry job allowed him to buy a house, start a garden, and a small backyard nursery in nearby Greensboro, NC. Sadly, it in the mid-1990s, Rich was dismissed from his chemistry job, due to his remarkable inability to complete even the most basic tasks or focus on anything for a meaningful period of time. Shortly after loosing his job, Rich also lost his house, garden, and greenhouse since, despite not working, he couldn’t manage to find time to file for unemployment benefits, until he was hauled to the Unemployment office by friends. Because of his mental health issues dealing with focus, Richard would never be able to find another job, despite the best efforts of friends who tried to help.

To try and make ends meet, Rich would propagate an array of salvias and drive cross country to sell them at plant fairs, despite loosing money simply traveling to each event.  In many ways,

Despite his brilliance, Rich was like a naive child who needed protecting from both himself and others. Were it not for the kindness of a plethora of friends who kept Richard supported financially, there’s little doubt he would have been homeless, instead of living in the marginally habitable houses he inhabited during the later years of his life. 

Despite being perpetually followed by black clouds, (no rubber left on his tires when he tried to run errands, getting mistaken for a drug dealer and put in jail briefly last fall because of his license plate “Salvia”, and only recently taking a financial hit after falling prey to one of the prevalent Social Security phone scams, Rich was the eternal optimist. Even during his last visit, he was so excited about his ambitious plans for the upcoming year during his recent visit.  True to the end, he managed to bring a new salvia to share, which is now flowering in his memory.

Rich was not only incredibly kind, but passionate about sharing, and his legacy will live on through all the plants and information he shared. We will continue to keep his WorldofSalvia.com site alive as an informational archive and tribute to this great plantsman.  

Thankfully, a year ago, Rich was finally honored by the North American Rock Garden Society with the Marcel LePiniac Award at its national meeting.  It was our honor to know Rich for 30+ years, so thank you my friend for all you did…life well lived!

Here is a link to a wonderful article about Richard, written by Tovah Martin over a quarter century ago.

 

 

40 thoughts on “The Salvia Doctor has left the Greenhouse

  1. It’s a difficult society for non-neurotypical people. Yet often their gifts and ability to focus on their passions contribute so much. Hail the Traveler!

      • Richard showed me the way in the 90’s to Salvias, fortifying my own craziness to grow over 20 varieties in the Finger lakes region of Upstate NY..His web page was more than dazzling and my telephone and other interactions with him were so different but always so valuable..I so appreciate the PD obituary as it remind me and all, for the umpteenth time, how the atonal amongst us bring such meaning and value and Hope…lee adler, ithaca,ny

  2. I loved Rich: for so many years I’d get his calls on such a regular basis: I should have known something was wrong when so long had passed.

    We all owe him an enormous debt: he really invented Agastache as an ornamental (at least the showy Brittoniastrum section of the genus).

    A gentle soul, and a deeply wise man: what a wonderful tribute, Tony! I know you were a pillar in his life that sustained him.

    I will miss him dearly.

  3. I purchased a lot of Salvia from Richard in the 80’s and early 90’s. Any obscure one that no one else knew of , he grew or could find. All too often a brilliant mind is trapped in a non conventional format. Thank you for being all that you were! You are missed.

  4. Thank you for a beautiful tribute to a kind man who loved plants. Your words remind me that brilliance and character comes in different packages, and we need to look beneath the surface. He endured so much difficulty, and I hope he is at peace among many plant spirits.

  5. Will you please let us know if anything is planned to honor his memory as far as a donation or help with the funeral costs or anything like that?

    NC Unit, Herb Society of America

  6. A really great tribute and analysis of a kind person I had the pleasure of meeting once. I remember him sharing what his diagnosis meant for him, he was very aware of how he was “different”. Often with this kind of thing one can be both unfocused on many things but have razor sharp focus on other things, and salvias and their relations were evidently the targets of that focus. Combined with an amazing intellect and generous nature he brought a lot of beautiful and interesting things into cultivation and created a few of his own as you mention. I didnt realize the extent of what he had to deal with in the last few years before reading your tribute but am glad to read that folks close to him kept a protective eye on him. Even with his life challenges he does leave this world a more beautiful and better place for the rest of us, which is the most we can hope to say when our turn comes.

  7. Wow. So sad. I visited Rich several times and corresponded with him about hummingbird preferences among Salvias.

    Where have his pants gone???

    I live in Moore County— so could go rescue some if need be….

  8. I was very sorry to hear the news of Rich’s passing. He was a treasure both for the plants he willfully gave away and for the information he shared. He was certainly one of the go to people for any Lamiaceae question and he helped me out on numerous occasions when seeking information about or the correct name for a plant. Thank you Tony for spreading the word and for writing about him.
    Randy Baldwin
    San Marcos Growers

  9. How many millions of people live tidy lives in tidy houses, pay all their bills, fulfill all their tasks, and contribute not diddly squat to the enrichment of the lives of others?!
    Richard Dufresne touched millions of lives. Richard Dufresne feeds countless hummingbirds. People will buy an Agastache or Salvia in a Lowes everywhere in suburbia forever into the future because of Rich. Hummingbirds will feed on a garden plant and someone will smile, how many billions of times a year? Because of Rich.
    One small window into God’s amazingly complex and interconnected world was opened to us, the World of Salvias and their hummingbird pollinators, abundantly and for a few bucks.
    Because Rich, a brilliant man with a hole in his pocket, freely gave us gifts.
    I am one of many whose life was broadened and deepened by this giver.
    Another such window is now wide open for Rich.
    Thanks be to God for Richard Dufresne and his plants.
    Paul Dickson

  10. A long distance mentor who I never met, but who greatly influenced my life in the nursery business. Bless his soul, I feel so sad he is gone.

  11. Rich, was one of kind, always interesting to talk to, not just about salvia, but about just about anything scientific. He helped get me into collecting ornamental salvia in the early 90s, stay hooked, and was a fountain of knowledge. I am glad that I got to meet and know him at each of the salvia summits in CA. All this, plus being a very kind human…. We’ll all miss him!

  12. Not gonna lie, it brings a tear to my eyes to read so many wonderful comments about Uncle Richard. Just a small insight for those of you that never got to meet him, I fondly remember when he would visit at the holidays, he would always set up his projector and show us slides of all the beautiful places he visited that year, and he always took the time to put a smile on all of our faces(all his nephews and neices). He definitely had his own ways about him, but that was him, he would bring out the science in anything, from driving his brother in law, one of my other uncle’s, insane by arguing with him about how the science says he is making his family’s pirogi dough wrong, to driving my mom insane when I was a teenager and telling me and my friends all about how he did blow up Pepper’s garage with his chemistry set, and giving us step by step instructions, my mom could have killed him for passing along the idea. Even though the distance separated us it still is hard to believe he is gone. It is very nice to hear such wonderful things about him.

  13. I just read this on FB this morning..and found it most appropriate to place here…You can shed tears because they are gone, or you can smile because they lived. You can close your eyes and pray they will come back, or you can open your eyes and see all they have left you. Your heart can be empty because you cant see them, or you can be full of the love you shared. You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday, or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday. You can remember only that they are gone, or you can cherish their memory and let it live on. You can cry and close your mind and feel empty, or you can do what they would want. SMILE, open your heart and go on. Elizabeth Ammons … Thank you Elizabeth for these words…and thank you ALL, for all your kind words that mean so much to Richard’s family up north…and I am sure, to all his chosen family as well..

  14. Wow, I just learned of Richard’s passing today. We used to chat about salvias a lot, not just Salvia divinorum (my area of expertise). I haven’t thought about him in a while. Now memories are flooding back. Once, many years ago, he came to Los Angeles and I took him to the Huntington Gardens, his first visit there. He was like a kid in a candy store. That is a favorite memory. The last time I saw him was at the first Salvia Summit in Santa Cruz, CA. We continued to corresponded via email occasionally up until a couple of years ago. Tony’s comment about the license plate reminded me of an old email from Richard. I include it here as it is an interesting salvia-related anecdote:

    “It’s now an infraction in North Carolina to have S. divinorum in your possession. I was stopped by Biscoe, NC police on my way up to the Baltimore Herb Festival, and it took 40 minutes to explain that I did not have the plant (I let it go a couple years ago, because it was a nuisance to my business, mostly because of increasing restrictions and poor customer attitudes).

    “Biscoe is in the next town to my residence and the police had no idea what S. divinorum is. The young officer saw me with my van loaded with plants and my SALVIA license plate at 1 AM in the morning. Giving them the sagewisdom.org web site seemed to answer their question.

    “I also got stopped in Fayetteville County, WV on my way back from the Herb Society of America meeting late June last year on US 19 with a similar load because of a flickering taillight. Within less than two minutes, two more county deputies came over, the last with detector K9s to inspect my van.” (Richard F. Dufresne)

    Farewell Richard. It was a privilege to have known you.

  15. It always warms my heart ( and siblings) to read these remarks. He is missed more than we could have imagined. With a heavy heart. Denise

  16. I had hoped to see Rich at the Green Spring garden fair in May and only now found the news that Rich was gone. It was always a pleasure to see him and talk about salvias. I always went away with at least 4 plants, whether I had room for them or not. So sorry he’s left us! What an extraordinary person.

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