MUBG PROFILE: Barbara Rothenberger

Curiosity and a love of horticulture led to a life learning and teaching about plants

Barbara Rothenberger

MUBG Board Member, Barbara Rothenberger

Mizzou Botanic Garden (MUBG) board member Barbara (Heins) Rothenberger’s BS AF&NR ’61, M Ed ’77, PhD Ag Ed ’95, spark of curiosity and love of plants and gardening have influenced her life from an early age. Introduced to Luther Burbank’s experiments in plant genetics as a young girl, Rothenberger proceeded to paint lima bean seeds blue, believing the effort would influence the beans to produce blue blooms.

“When I was very young, my family moved to a big house on a huge lot in Carrollton, Mo. I just loved that place. The yard was full of big ferns, old-fashioned white hydrangeas and an enormous red oak,” Rothenberger said. “My mother always had roses and like things. My parents had a Victory Garden in the deep backyard.”

A graduate of Carrollton High School, Rothenberger attended the University of Missouri, earning a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and horticulture, a master’s in education and a doctorate in vocational education.

“I have a minor in journalism,” she said. “I was going to be a garden writer and photographer.”

As a student, Rothenberger became a member of MU’s flower-judging student team and was set to attend her first intercollegiate flower-judging contest at Penn State as an alternate when her advisor, MU Horticulture Professor Marlin Rogers, pulled her aside.

“He told me there was going to be a young man at the contest who was thinking about getting his master’s degree at MU and asked me if I would help recruit him and I agreed,” Rothenberger said.

“He turned out to be so cute that even though I was dating someone else, I told my friends I wouldn’t mind going out with him,” she said laughing.

In September, that young man, Ray Rothenberger, MS AF&NR ’61, PhD AF&NR ’64, arrived on campus and he and Barbara were married the following June. Rothenberger took up typing theses and then dissertations for her husband and others, and the couple began a family. They moved to Clemson, S.C. when Ray took a position as a professor of horticulture at Clemson University. Four years later, they returned to Columbia when he joined the faculty at MU.

Rothenberger completed her master’s degree and accepted a position to teach horticulture at Hickman High School, a position she held for 16 years.

“I took a position teaching at MU and after a year, the department offered me an assistantship to teach horticulture to teachers around the state,” she said. “I got my doctorate during that time and afterwards, wrote curricula in floristry.”

And all the while, the couple shared their love of horticulture and gardening together and with others. They collaborated on the text and photographs for the Missouri Department of Conservation book Missouri Urban Trees, and operated a horticulture consulting service, Rothenberger Designs. The travel bug bit them when they began to lead RFD horticulture tours to Europe.

“Some were farm tours, and some were gardens,” Rothenberger said. “We got to see a lot of places and loved it so much we started traveling all over the world.”

Rothenberger lost Ray in 2006, after 46 years of marriage. One of their daughters, Rachael, lives with her husband — one of Ray’s former students — three children and lots of parent-donated plants near Columbia. Daughter Ronna is at home in Portland, Ore.

Rothenberger relocated to a single-level home with an even larger garden space.

“It was hard to decide what to bring,” she said. “You don’t want to completely destroy the garden. I’m still a little sad I didn’t bring some of my re-blooming iris with me. I’ve always loved iris.”

Rothenberger said she enjoys her role as a board member for MUBG very much. “I bleed black and gold and am happy to support their efforts.”

Additionally, Rothenberger serves on the board of Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri —representing MUBG — and is active in her garden club, and in the Master Gardener’s program as a volunteer at MU’s Jefferson Farm. She is a member of the Missouri Symphony League and the Daylily Society and continues her long tenure as an accredited flower show-judge.

Though she still loves to garden, Rothenberger said she is doing so a little differently these days.

“I mostly have pots of flowers on my deck,” she said. “But even now, I still think, ‘Good Lord, I can’t find space for another plant,’ but always find something new and somehow find space for it.”


Story by Jan Wiese-Fales • Photos courtesy of Barbara Rothenberger