August 25, 2011

'Mr. Wagner' Still Racking Up Wins at Gladiolus Shows

The late Mike Wagner is pictured with friend Helen Stephens, a gold medal Olympic athlete from the games in Berlin, after whom one of Mike's prize winning gladiolus was named, "Helen's Gold".

At the time of his death during the spring of 2004 Michael Wagner was considered by his peers to be one of the top three hybridizers, judge and gladiolus show competitors in the USA. He had won many grand championships and prestigious awards but it was the subsequent actions of his wife and a friend in the show business that insured his name would live on among his beloved gladiolus.

Mike passed away May 2, 2004 while hunting in rural Scotland County, Missouri with a young friend.

During those difficult days that followed, his wife, Diana, finished planting 26 rows of bulbs at their home south of Memphis. She cared for the flowers, which included a North American Trial Gardens for All Americans, one of only 13 such accredited gardens in the United States. Ultimately Diana harvested the bulbs at the end of the flowering season.

For more than 30 years that had been the couple's routine. Shortly after graduating from the former Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville, Wagner game to Scotland County to start a 34-year teaching career in biology and science.

He wasn't in Memphis long before in 1966 he wed Diana Davidson.

Over the next nearly 40 years the Wagners grew their flower garden to more than an acre in size with more than 1800 varieties of gladiolus. They supplied multiple dozens of glads on weekly deliveries to DeRosear's shops in Memphis and Edina, and to Tieman's in Macon. The wide variety of colors and sizes were grown for exhibition and competition at the North American Gladiolus Council (NAGC) shows and state fairs. They and their glads traveled across the nation to shows in Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky in addition to the "local" shows in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois.

The couple was a team on the show circuit. Mike showed in the 1, 3 and 5 spike varieties while Diana, an art teacher, focused on basket and vase arrangement entries.

Being a science and biology teacher, Mike was interested in genetics. So working with gladiolus hybridization was a natural transition.

The NAGC describes gladiolus hybridization as a challenging and exciting way to expand the hobby.

"The hybridizing of Gladiolus in its simplest explanation is removing pollen from the male part of a flower from a variety of one plant (this plant is the pollen parent). Then the pollen is placed on the female part of another gladiolus flower from another plant (the seed parent)."

Wagner's work on hybridization led to the development and introduction of many named seedlings into the commercial flower market not to mention the success his new creations experienced on the show table.

"Requests for Mike's hybrids were received from the University of Moscow, Russia and other European countries, as well as all over the U.S." Diana stated.

One of the favorites of Mike's creations was the "Pink Elf", a ruffled 300 size pink with yellow blotch, which would self dress a perfect form on the spike and be a consistent winner. A close friend of the couple's in London won Grand Champion with it at Her Royal Majesties' Horticulture Show.

Another award winning seedling is a saturated yellow 300 size named "Helen's Gold", in honor of a friend from St. Louis, Helen Stephens, a Berlin Olympics gold medal winner in track.

It was this success that left Mike's hybrid's in high demand, even after his death in 2004.

After Diana harvested the bulbs at the end of the 2004 season, she developed a plan for the future of the special hybrids.

The next spring at the annual Illinois Gladiolus Society bulb auction, Diana offered for sale the inventory and Mike's seedlings.

The society donated the proceeds from the auction back to Diana to help fund Mike's Science Scholarship given annually at Scotland County R-I High School.

A close friend of Mike's, Al Gruber, another well-known hybridizer and showman from Davenport, IA bought most of Mike's seedlings.

"Mike and I had been showing together since the mid 60's," Gruber stated. "We had shown together in different venues in the Midwest for nearly 40 years."

Gruber's Glad Garden in Davenport, IA has continued the Wagner tradition, insuring Mike's creations continue to be available to gladiolus lovers worldwide.

"Mike's last two seedlings were quite special," Diana said. "A 400 size ruffled cream won the prized Ernie Vennard Award."

This hybrid was named "Mrs. Mike" for his wife using the "pet" name given to her by their gladiolus friends who knew Mike before they were married.

Then in 2009, Gruber introduced the other of Wagner's hybrids, a tall 320 size salmon with yellow throat, he named "Mr. Wagner" that can be seen in competition at many of the NAGC shows today.

"It only seems fitting that Mike lives on in the flowers," Gruber said.

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