By Sally Pearsall Ericson
Director of Marketing and Public Relations
For the first time since 1999, a new captain is taking the helm at Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Dr. F. Todd Lasseigne, the former President and CEO at Tulsa Botanic Garden, will step into his new role on Sept. 1, 2020, replacing Dr. Bill Barrick, who retired in July 2019.
So, who’s the new guy, and how does he pronounce his last name? More importantly, which tailgates would he attend, if the 2020 football season were to permit him to do so? Here are a few pertinent facts about Dr. Lasseigne, gleaned during a wide-ranging Zoom interview:
His horticulture roots run deep.
Dr. Lasseigne grew up in Thibodaux, La., with parents and grandparents who loved gardening. “It was in my blood,” he said. ‘I knew in high school that I just wanted to do this.” He earned his first degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, then moved on to the University of Georgia to earn his Master of Science degree in horticulture. In the midst of his studies, a new opportunity arose: The Martin McLaren Horticultural Scholarship from the Garden Club of America, which led to a 10-month fellowship in the United Kingdom.
“I studied gardens, horticultural history, plant conservation — everything you can think of,” he remembered. He learned about plant conservation at the Kew Gardens in Richmond, took classes at Reading University and visited, by his estimate, “probably 85 gardens” during his fellowship. “I put 13,000 miles on that car in one year, which is a big deal in England,” he said. “It really cemented for me a love for the garden side, because I thought I was going to be a college professor.”
After returning to Athens and completing his degree, he headed to N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C., to earn his doctorate under the tutelage of renowned horticulturist J.C. Raulston, who was credited as a major force in introducing new plants and revitalizing the U.S. nursery industry. However, in a tragic turn of events, Raulston was killed in a car crash in 1996, at the end of Lasseigne’s first year of study. “It was a life-changing experience for a great many people, and certainly for me, because I wanted him to be my mentor,” said Lasseigne, who began taking on several of Raulston’s duties while continuing work on his Ph.D. in horticultural science. Lasseigne taught courses in plant identification and became an assistant director at the arboretum at N.C. State, which was renamed in Raulston’s memory.
He’s an international plant finder.
Raulston had been actively finding new plants and introducing them to the nursery industry and to the public, so Lasseigne took up the role of plant explorer as well. “I was kind of the head plant geek,” he said, working with nursery representatives and gardens officials across the country, particularly in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest. He also did expeditionary work in England and in the Republic of Georgia, which led to fruitful international connections.
“I was asked to present to the Japanese Nursery Association on Southeastern U.S. horticulture, and that began almost a decade-long career of me going to Japan about every other year and lecturing to these various groups, and I have developed a lot of really great relationships with these Japanese nurserymen,” he said. “ … We were able to introduce a lot of really interesting plants that had not before been introduced from Japan into the U.S. That was a lot of fun.” His international plant explorations include trips to southwestern China and Mexico.
Lasseigne’s next stop was tiny Kernersville in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where he was hired by the Ciener family in 2005 to create the Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden. As its founding executive director, he led a small staff that transformed “an abandoned Dairy Queen and seven acres of kudzu” into a botanical garden with a volunteer group, a friends group, educational partnerships in the community and a calendar of events.
In 2011, he was hired to take the reins of the fledgling Oklahoma Centennial Botanic Garden, now renamed Tulsa Botanic Garden, where he oversaw a new master plan for its 70 acres of gardens, established the site’s first “Garden of Lights” holiday exhibit, expanded fundraising efforts and raised the annual attendance from 2,000 to upwards of 35,000.
Here’s how to say it:
The last name of this Thibodaux, La., native is pronounced “Lah-SANG.” “In truth, I barely say the ‘G,’ but it’s easier to explain by just telling folks the second syllable is ‘sang’,” he explained. However, he’s fine with the simpler, familiar address of just plain “Todd.”
He’s a cat person.
He and his wife, Heather Toedt, are the proud parents of four feline fur babies. “When I moved to Tulsa in 2011, I was single but had two cats – cleverly named ‘Boy’ and ‘Girl,’” he said. “As things would go, I ended up meeting the woman of my dreams almost instantaneously through the great connected universe of horticulture and gardens.” Heather Toedt’s grandfather, Dale Toedt, was one of Tulsa’s first landscape architects in the 1950s, and she grew up working in her grandparents’ garden center. The couple married in 2013 and set up their blended family with Heather’s cats, George and Gracie.
“Heather and I share a passion for plants, connecting people through plants, gardening, gardens, and landscape architecture,” Lasseigne said. “When we travel, we look for wildflowers, cool natural areas, beautiful gardens, nurseries and garden centers, and anything horticultural.” (During their honeymoon, they visited Bellingrath Gardens, of course.)
He’s a huge football fan.
He professes a deep-rooted love of the SEC, but – “much to the chagrin of Alabama fans” – he roots for Georgia, where he earned a degree, and LSU, the flagship university of his home state. He’ll also cheer for Auburn if the situation merits it.
He’s glad to be back home.
“Having not lived in the Gulf Coast region for 30 years, I look forward to this return to my original horticultural zone,” Lasseigne said, noting that Thibodaux is only a three-hour drive away, so it will be easy to visit his mother and many members of his extended family. “Heather loves the beautiful pines and oaks of the Deep South, and so she’s excited for new gardening adventures, including visits to Alabama’s famed beaches, where she’ll be looking for seashells.”