I’d never seen Wayne mad – he wasn’t the kind of person who got angry – so I was really taken aback when this exceptional friend appeared frustrated with me. At the time, I had been mired in a task that any reasonable person would consider drudge work. He asked me about it, and I shrugged and said, “Oh, it’s okay, I guess. I’m kind of bored with it.”

You’ve met Wayne; I’ve written about him in this column. He was the well-beyond-Mensa genius astrophysicist who (mistakenly) believed I understood his lectures, so his response probably won’t surprise you. But it surprised me, and it changed my outlook.

“How can you be bored?” he asked. “Everything is fascinating!”

He was right.

Even so, if someone had told me a few weeks ago that I’d be interested in plant galls, I might have snorted. But take a look at the article on page 10 – “Plant Galls: Myths and Misconceptions” – and I think you’ll agree that this is a part of horticulture that’s truly compelling. As authors Joe Boggs and Jim Chatfield point out, there’s a lot of confusion about these structures, which just makes them that much more interesting.

They’re oddities; they’re unusual; their appearance means there’s something amiss. For the most part, their presence on a plant doesn’t necessarily foretell dire consequences. And some of them are strikingly beautiful, as you’ll no doubt see from Joe Boggs’ exceptional photography. Do we want to cultivate them? No, of course not. But we can study them; we can appreciate their complexity. And we just might gain some insight into, well, other fields.

I talked with Joe about his photography and about galls in general, and much of the conversation took the “what if?” direction. If some galls are the result of genes gone wild, is there a lesson here for other branches of science? If there’s a key that’s turned, if there’s a trigger that initiates this odd growth, can it be isolated? If so, can that knowledge be applied to, say, medicine?

When the general public thinks about the horticulture industry’s contributions to our lives, though, it’s easy for them to sigh and smile and say, oh, it’s so pretty. They’re right. But they’re only half right. We promote ornamental horticulture, when we need to amp it up and promote this industry as essential horticulture.

Computer geeks and tech nerds make millions, and they’re revered as the pioneers of technology. And, bless their hearts, we’d be at a loss without them. But what about the plant nerds who see well beyond the “pretty” and see the purpose? (Meet Kelly Norris, a plant nerd who does just that, on page 16!) What about those plant geeks who see the possibilities?

Their work is essential. Essential.

At the time of his passing, Wayne – long since “retired” – was working on a project that would apply sonar and a few other technologies born from his fascination with astrophysics to the early detection of breast cancer cells. Think of what he could have done if he’d had the opportunity to study plant galls.