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West Florida Research and Education Center

West Florida Research and Education Center

Dr. Mack Thetford

Associate Professor

Landscape Ornamentals and Plant Propagation

Dr. Thetford has a 60% Teaching and 40% Research appointment and is located at the West Florida Research and Education Center in Milton, FL. His position in the Environmental Horticulture Department supports the ongoing distance education degree programs of UF in partnership with Pensacola State College and provides academic support for the CALS statewide teaching program. Plant identification, plant propagation, plant production systems, and landscape plant establishment with a focus on native plants and development of establishment systems for ecological restoration are subject areas of his work. His research program broadly encompasses Landscape Management, development of Propagation Systems, development of Production Systems, and evaluating the effects of these systems on landscape establishment. In recent years he has led efforts to evaluate Pomegranate and Olive production potential in the Florida panhandle but has returned his primary focus to an interdisciplinary approach to ecological restoration for coastal dune systems of Florida.


  • Teaching

    Teaching (60%)

    • Teaching context

    Undergraduate degrees in Plant Science and Natural Resource Conservation are offered at WFREC. My teaching program in the areas of plant propagation, identification and landscape establishment and management is integrated with my research program and includes statewide and local classroom instruction and special courses (independent studies, supervised research, and practical work experience). I advise undergraduate plant science students and horticulture graduate students at WFREC. I participate in student recruitment and serve as a faculty advisor for the student club in Milton. I participate in statewide curriculum revision and development for my department and represent the perspective from statewide programs. I serve my department as a member of the curriculum committee, graduate student selection committee, and as a member of the subcommittee for distance education for the PLS-HOS merger committee. I have mentored and advised undergraduate students with development and delivery of professional association conference presentations and publication of research articles.

    • Teaching philosophy and methods

    My teaching experience spans the use of chalk, satellite, CDROM’s, Polycom and now the Canvas system for course delivery and Zoom for interactive sessions. Weekly lab classes, and weekend “field labs” continue and instruction has expanded and changed with each new software, hardware, and on-line delivery method and continues to improve with annual course revisions. Courses include a formal laboratory dedicated to practical application of information presented in lectures. Critical thinking is encouraged through experimental applications of the principles and theories addressed in lectures. Students are required to utilize information presented in formal lectures when participating in classroom discussions, exercises, and laboratory activities. Many classroom and laboratory activities are designed to encourage teamwork, so students have the experience of working with others to develop new skills, while other exercises require independent work. Students are required to organize new information, critically analyze data collected during laboratory exercises and convey this information in both a verbal report to the class and a written report to the instructor within the context of all classes taught.

    • Educational Goals

    In addition to the mechanical aspects of learning plant parts, plants, plant communities, etc., courses are designed to engage students in active learning utilizing both individual and group activities. Experiential learning introduces students to current issues and opportunities that broaden their understanding of how the topics of classroom and laboratory instruction can be applied to current opportunities in plant science and related fields. Teaching activities can be described within the following 3 goals:

    Goal 1: Create a learning environment to facilitate student knowledge and skills development in the identification, propagation, and landscape use of native and ornamental plants.

    Goal 2: Develop effective online methods and tools to enhance teaching impacts and create an inclusive learning environment for students statewide.

    Goal 3: Support and facilitate student participation in professional development opportunities by emphasizing interpersonal communication skills and utilization of knowledge and skills obtained from related courses.

    • Descriptions of Primary Courses

    All primary courses include plant identification and/or plant production components and are augmented with information derived from the research program:

    PLS3223 and PLS3222L (PLS3223C) Plant Propagation and Lab.  A fully web-based lecture is supported by coordinated on-site labs at research and education centers. All aspects of plant propagation are studied. Emphasis is placed on principles and practices of plant propagation to provide knowledge and skills applicable to agronomy, horticulture, forestry, and other disciplines of plant science. The course has been co-taught with Dr. Sandy Wilson since the first statewide online delivery using the synchronous Polycom system. Lab instruction reflects local site facilities and subjects are coordinated via a lab workbook and class lab web page.

    PLS5222C Advanced Plant Propagation with Lab. This graduate course utilizes the basic lecture and lab components of the undergraduate course with the addition of a comprehensive independent plant propagation project coordinated with the local site lab instructor. Specific examples of projects have included comparative seed germination, stem cutting, or tissue culture experiments culminating in a written or oral presentation of the results. Graduate students may utilize this opportunity to explore research opportunities within their programs.

    ORH4804 and ORH4804L Annual and Perennial Gardening with lab. This online lecture course with an on-site lab is offered statewide. Labs are taught in Gainesville, Ft. Lauderdale, Apopka and Milton (WFREC). All aspects of annual and perennial plant use in the color portions of landscapes are covered with an emphasis on the multiple growth zones of Florida. The course is organized into weekly modules and teaching methods include on-line lectures, handouts, assignments, and discussion activities. Students must recognize and compare the major annual and perennial plant categories and identify annual and perennial plants suited to diverse regional climates; evaluate retail availability of annual and perennial plants across geographic regions and growth zones; recognize the importance of plant growth characteristics in assessing the potential use of problematic (invasive) annuals and perennials; identify, describe and compare various types of specialty gardens and the key concepts, designs, and plants that are particular to each, and assess annual and perennial plant performance in existing landscapes, develop maintenance and installation design recommendations and compile lists of recommended plants based on application of basic landscape design principles related to specialty annual and perennial gardens.

    ORH5026C Advanced Annual and Perennial Gardening with Lab. This graduate course utilizes the basic lecture and lab components of the undergraduate course with the addition of a comprehensive independent review of a peer reviewed research article on a subject related to the course and the students provide a summary and synthesis of undergraduate student data collected for the Plant Availability project for presentation to the class. Lab instructors may also utilize graduate students to assist in the teaching of additional timely subjects for the special topics lecture of the course.

    FNR3131C Dendrology of Forest Plants. The course concentrates on the identification, classification, nomenclature, uses and characteristic habitats of major tree, shrub and groundcover species of the US and common understory and wetland species in the southern US. Emphasis is placed on examples found in plant communities of Florida. Students learn to use different characteristics such as leaf shape, arrangement, bark texture, and habitat to identify trees and other plant species. The course is divided into two integrated components. Lectures provide background information essential to developing identification skills and laboratory exercises provide hands-on application of identification skills and an opportunity to practice plant identification. Teaching methods include lectures, handouts, field trips, and student presentations, group activities, demonstrations, assigned readings, discussions, hands-on laboratory sessions and field study. Students learn to use identification skills to employ dichotomous plant keys to identify unknown species; describe physical and biological features associated with the major tree species and forest types in other regions of North America, and synthesize, write, and publicly present information about trees and plants.

    ORH3813L Plant Identification Lab. The lab is an introductory, upper-division laboratory course focused on the identification of commonly used landscape plants, their use and their characteristics. Materials include trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers, lawn grasses and floriculture crops with emphasis on temperate and subtropical plants. Students comprehend fundamental plant morphological characteristics and use them to identify common landscape and other plant materials; Learn plants live in laboratory along with basic terminology used to describe them, apply basic principles of botanical and horticultural taxonomy and nomenclature to describe plants; and understand the origin, use and function of plants in our environment. The course is divided into two parts, the live laboratory (ORH3513L - 1 credit) and asynchronous lecture (ORH3513 - 2 credits). Lectures originate from Gainesville and are in the form of modular asynchronous and Web-based video presentations.

    ORH4264L Greenhouse and Nursery Crop Culture Lab. This course offers students foundational information on the principles of planning, organizing, and managing greenhouse operations for ornamental and vegetable plant production. Students learn about current cultural practices and challenges faced by the industry, as well as how environmental factors are monitored and controlled in production facilities. Dr. Celina Gomez (Gainesville) offered the course at Milton beginning 2018. Students construct production systems and manage production of a poinsettia and a high-wire tomato crop. Coordination meetings are held weekly throughout the course. We obtained new equipment for the course in 2019 to synchronize lab activities statewide via a collaborative Instructional Mini grant and revised the lab activities to reflect the updated equipment. Brief laboratory reports are due weekly. 

    ALS4932 Plant Communities of Northwest Florida/ ALS5932 Advance Plant Communities of Northwest Florida. This is an asynchronous, web-based lecture course offered every semester. This course guides students through Florida's natural communities utilizing the community descriptions of the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (2010) and narrated PowerPoints in Canvas. Lectures cover structure, indicator species, soils, and hydrology as well as fire ecology and other important ecological processes of Florida natural plant communities. At the conclusion of this course, the students identify and characterize major terrestrial and associated wetland communities of the panhandle of Florida; use vegetative and floral characteristics to identify key indicator plant species of the characteristic plant communities; and identify environmental characteristics (soils, hydrology) associated with each plant community. Graduate Students complete a 100 plant herbarium collection representing plants from the communities covered. Collections are graded on accuracy, completeness, and neatness.

  • Research

    Research (40%)

    The research program broadly encompasses Landscape Management, development of Propagation Systems, development of Production Systems, and evaluating the effects of these systems on landscape establishment.

    Primary research activities focus on an interdisciplinary approach to ecological restoration using my horticultural skills and knowledge of plant identification, plant propagation, plant production systems, and landscape plant establishment to collaborate on ecosystem restoration research related to coastal dune systems restoration and resilience and development of production systems and evaluation of landscape potential for Florida native plant species. Current research collaborations seek to understand the potential to augment coastal systems to support endemic, endangered, or imperiled wildlife species and testing restoration techniques on an operational scale on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Florida and detailed studies of plant seed biology to develop practical approaches to establishment of food source plants from seeds or cutting propagation systems.

    The Interdisciplinary Coastal Dune Restoration research program is recognized as the primary resource for research-based information driving the assessment, management, and restoration of coastal dune systems on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida. My expertise in development of propagation, production, and outplanting procedures for native or endemic plants and understanding of the ecological role of these plants is recognized as key to developing management plans for addressing coastal resiliency in natural and managed coastal areas. Production and outplanting protocols for coastal plant species necessary for successful restoration of coastal dune systems result from continued collaborations and our expertise is critical to maintaining plant diversity and inclusion of rare or endemic plant species found within these landscapes.

    The identification, preservation and/or restoration of native plant populations within the coastal dune systems of Florida are tied closely to the preservation of habitat for coastal dune species such as Beech Mice and preserves the coastal dune system for the protections it provides to human infrastructure and recreation along Florida’s coast. There was little propagation, production, and outplanting information available and no local plant resources available for initiating restoration projects prior to this program. Through greenhouse and field research we have demonstrated propagation, production, and outplanting success for many native beach plants that can facilitate dune restoration processes and provide wildlife habitat and food. Results have been published in research journals, graduate student thesis, agency pamphlets and guides and have been presented at research and land management meetings. Publication is principally in horticulture and ecological journals such as The Native Plants Journal, HortTechnology, Journal of Plant Propagation, Seed Technology, Journal of Coastal Research, and Restoration Ecology. Our work on seed germination, propagation, outplanting methods, and dune building effects of our methods have been cited by other researchers in additional refereed articles. Land managers often reach out first to researchers at WFREC as additional species of concern or management questions arise and identify our UF interdisciplinary team as partners on regional projects.

    Key Findings: The dune restoration program has demonstrated propagation, production, and outplanting success for many native beach plants that can facilitate dune restoration and provide wildlife habitat and food. Results of our interdisciplinary work are the basis for the UF partnership and implementation of restoration methods to be employed for the $6.2M Florida Panhandle Dune Restoration project of the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. Our EDIS publication, Dune Restoration for the Florida Panhandle, is the key resource utilized by coastal land managers when considering coastal restoration.

    Interdisciplinary work on the biology or control of invasive plant species has focused on plant reproductive biology. Butterfly bush research demonstrated clear performance differences across Florida growth zones and for the first-time empirical data to assist plant breeders in selecting plants with a low potential for seed production while also characterizing their ornamental growth potential. Published in HortTechnology, this work is well cited and breeders now include potential invasiveness in breeding criteria. Japanese climbing fern research focused on spore development and germination in addition to control of extant mature plants. Publication of this work was targeted to regional meetings and research reports to land managers and is relevant to both the ornamental production and management industries as well as the land management and forest product industries.

    Key Finding: Butterfly bush performance differences across growth zones and empirical data to assist plant breeders in selecting species or cultivars with a low potential for seed production were quantified for north and south Florida growth zones. Potential invasiveness via seed production is now a critical breeding criterion. Results of Japanese climbing fern research is incorporated into management and control recommendations to reduce the impact of spores on recolonization of Japanese climbing fern.

    Collaborative initiatives have led to characterization of habitat needs of the Hesperapis bee relative to the occurrence of Balduina angustifolia. This unique project has expanded with current restoration questions on the potential to augment both plant and bee populations. Results have been disseminated to collaborators, presented at regional meetings, and published in Journal of Insect Conservation. This diverse interdisciplinary research team is recognized as leading specialists on both the rare bee and its sole pollen source, Balduina angustifolia.

    Key Finding: We characterized the habitat needs of the Hesperapis bee relative to the occurrence of the plant, Balduina. This unique project continues to investigate Balduina reproduction and ecology. Our interdisciplinary research team is recognized as the principal scientists to implement continued research on these species to facilitate research efforts that inform future conservation and protection efforts.

  • Extension

    Extension (0%)

    Outreach Activities Through Milton Gardens and Florida Dune Restoration Guides

    Primary extension activities focus on interaction with county extension faculty and master gardener volunteers who assist with maintenance of the Milton teaching gardens and provide education programs and support for educational events hosted in the Milton Gardens. Additionally, I interact with federal, state, and private land managers regarding plant identification or preliminary information on the development of restoration planning for specific sites. I interact on a local, regional, and national level with members of Camellia societies regarding plant identification, propagation, pruning and general landscape management for Camellia.

     My primary focus with extension activities is to 1) facilitate the use of the Milton Gardens as a teaching venue and provide presentations on plant ID, propagation, and landscape design or management, and 2) provide resources to land managers that will assist in development of a science-based restoration approach with a high likelihood of success. Interaction with these stakeholders has resulted in the development of EDIS publications to facilitate transfer of the information resulting from the research program.

Field identification of coastal dune species with Dr. Thetford


Milton Rm. 4921
UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center
5988 Hwy. 90, Bldg. 4900
Milton, FL 32583

  • Education
    • Ph.D. Horticulture Science, North Carolina State University, 1993
    • M.S. Ornamental Horticulture, Auburn University, 1989
    • B.S. Ornamental Horticulture - Landscape Design, Auburn University, 1987
  • Publications
  • Awards and Honors


    • American Society for Horticulture Science Career Award: Outstanding Undergraduate Educator – 2016
    • Association for Communication Excellence Gold Award for Educational Project. 2007-recipient. Project: Plant Propagation Website.


    • International Plant Propagators’ Society Southern Region of North America: Sidney B. Meadows Award of Merit – October 24, 2016
    • International Plant Propagators’ Society Southern Region of North America: Fellows Award – October 27, 2014