If you savor the sights of caladium, gerbera and other ornamental plants, you can thank Zhanao Deng for developing better varieties.
In his three-decade career, Deng beams with pride over new types of caladium and gerbera he’s bred that are more resistant to diseases. He’s also happy with his lantana varieties, which are genetically sterilized and don’t produce seeds. They’re also environmentally friendly, attract pollinators and protect native plants.
“The thing I enjoy most is exploring and creating genetic diversity in plants, developing new varieties and seeing them adopted and cultivated by growers and used by consumers,” said Deng, an environmental horticulture professor at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “I also feel very satisfied at seeing students from my lab find their dream jobs and receive awards.”
Through his extensive research, Deng has released 37 ornamental plant varieties, known to scientists as “cultivars.”
Deng’s breeding work is so prolific and profound that he was recently named as a Fellow of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS).
According to www.ashs.org, “election as a Fellow of the Society is the highest honor that ASHS can bestow on its members, in recognition of truly outstanding contributions to horticulture and the Society. More than 500 members have been accorded this honor in the years since the first Fellows were elected in 1965.”
Humble by nature, Deng said he’s honored to be selected a new Fellow of the ASHS.
“I think many of my colleagues are more qualified than I am,” he said. “Receiving this honor was beyond what I could imagine when I first joined ASHS.”
Deng thanked a long list of people for his honor.
They include his staff, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.
Also among those Deng thanked were Jack Rechcigl, director of the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, Florida, where Deng conducts his research. He expressed sincere gratitude for his department chair, Dean Kopsell, as well as UF/IFAS colleagues and collaborators from other states and the environmental industry.
One colleague, Jude Grosser, a professor of citrus breeding and genetics at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred, Florida, wrote a recommendation letter for Deng.
In part, it read: “Zhanao has a work ethic that is second to none … I consider Zhanao the perfect example of a modern plant breeder. He has the ability to match the best techniques to a particular breeding objective and design the appropriate experiments to get the job done.”
“I greatly appreciate their nominations and recommendations,” Deng said. “Being a new Fellow means that I need to catch up with other Fellows with more impactful contributions to the science and to the society and need to do more to serve the community and the society.”
Born and raised in Kaixian, Chongqing (formerly, Kaixian, Sichuan) in southwestern China, Deng earned a bachelor’s degree from Sichuan Agricultural University in China. He then earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Huazhong Agricultural University, also in China.
Deng began his scientific career at Huazhong Agricultural University. He also spent 10 years in scientific positions at the UF/IFAS CREC.
Eventually, Deng found his home of the past 16 years. In late 2002, he was appointed as an assistant professor at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center and was eventually promoted to professor in 2015.
In addition to developing new ornamental plant varieties, Deng also helps grow and breed other specialty crops, including blackberries, pomegranates and hops.
He has published nine book chapters and 90 peer-reviewed journal articles.
“As a faculty member in a land-grant university in Florida, I consider serving the people of Florida to be our mission, and my daily work and activities in plant breeding, research and Extension should be centered around this important mission.”