High on Lotus, Learning, Life,
Costa Rican Approaches Lotus Research and Life with Gusto
By Jamie Creamer
Click images to enlarge
Warner Orozco-Obando makes his way through dozens of containers
holding four-foot-tall plants with velvety leaves as big as dinner
plates. He stops beside one and gently cups his hand underneath
a spectacular pink flower that rises a foot or more above the
The more I learn about lotus, the more I love lotus,
Orozco was introduced to the ancient aquatic plant in early
2006, when he arrived at Auburn University as a doctoral student
in the Department of Horticulture, working under Professor Ken
Tilt. Tilt was a couple of years into the AU Lotus Project, a
multifaceted study to determine whether the lotus could be a
viable alternative crop for Alabama farmers, especially a profitable
double crop for fish farmers in the Black Belt and across Alabama.
Tilt has been enthused about the Lotus Project since the study
was in the planning stages but says that with Orozco on the team,
all involved get a daily injection of excitement and energy.
Warners pretty amazing; he has the work ethic
of a dairy farmer, and we have a great time together working
on our research project, Tilt says. In fact, I think
hes having too much fun. Its hard for me to keep
You probably cant attribute all of Orozcos get-up-and-go
to the Lotus Project, though. He seems to take on life in general
with an intensity and vitality that, were he to bottle it up
and sell it, would make him a very wealthy man.
So what makes this Costa Rica native tick? If you asked him
that question, he might just hand you two single-spaced, 12-point-type
pages entitled The Story of My Life, by Warner Orozco-Obando.
He wrote that 1,200-word piece in 2007, as part of his application
-- his successful application, by the way -- for a Horticultural
Research Institute scholarship.
Anyone who knows Orozco, however, has got to realize theres
a bit more to his life than the facts he covers in that skeletal
outline -- enough to make for a good, long, interesting read.
From the outline, youll know he holds a bachelor in vegetable
crops from the University of California, Davis, and two masters
degrees -- environmental law from The International University
of Andalucía in Spain and one in horticulture from The
University of Georgia.
A Man of Many Talents
And, when not in school, he has earned a living in Costa Rica
as a supervisor of pineapple production research for Del Monte,
a professional beekeeper, a community college teacher, a horticulture
teacher in a high-school class for mentally and physically challenged
students and a natural history/environmental tour guide specializing
in tropical plants and crops. Just before coming to Auburn, he
worked as a horticulturalist/integrated pest management supervisor
with a tree and plant care company in Virginia.
At this point, you may be thinking, OK, just how old
is this Warner guy? Well, he was born in 1964, in Costa
Rica, and spent his early years living with his grandparents
in a suburb of San José, Costa Ricas capital. His
grandfather, whose family was in education, was born and raised
a city boy, Orozco says, and thus was perfectly content
as a suburbanite. The same could not be said, however, of the
Before they moved to the city, she was a farmer and
rancher, and after they moved, she dreamed for many years of
one day returning to the country, Orozco says, noting that
that never happened. She lived in the city, but her heart
never left the farm.
But you know what they say: You can take the girl out of the
country, but you cant take the country out of the girl.
Grandma was determined to stay connected to the land.
She always planted a garden, out in front of the house,
with all kinds of vegetables and flowers, and I remember being
four or five and helping her, and telling her how I wanted to
be a farmer, Orozco says. I think it was while I
was gardening with her that she sowed the seeds of her passion
for plants in me.
Warner on a lotus tour
of China in 2007
Photos by Pat Clifford
Orozco lived with his grandparents until he finished the sixth
grade, the last grade of primary school under Costa Ricas
educational system. At that point, students can choose between
attending a five-year academic high school or enrolling in a
six-year program at technical high school.
His High School Days
The decision was made that Orozco would move to his mothers
home in Puntarenas and attend an academic high school near her.
That didnt last long, though. Orozco detested the academic
schools program, so he moved to the Nicoya Peninsula to
live with his father, a regional school superintendent, and enrolled
in a nearby technical high school to major in agriculture.
At that school, I went from being a regular passing
student to an A-plus book lover, he says. Its
a beautiful feeling to be studying in a field that you love.
Even geometry makes sense when you use it to calculate the area
required for your cornfield.
He also had the opportunity to keep his gardening skills honed
because his dad had a small nursery behind his house and paid
his son an allowance to keep the trees and old-fashioned fruits
and vegetables growing in the nursery healthy and thriving. For
Orozco, that was a fine way to earn spending money.
Orozcos high marks in high school earned him a scholarship
to the Institute of Technology of Coast Rica, where he chose
to major in agronomy. In his freshman year, he heard about a
US Agency for International Development program through which
young Central American students would go to the United States
to learn the English language and American culture and finish
their undergraduate program. That caught his attention, so he
One day near the end of his junior year, one of the institutes
four public telephones rang and the fellow who answered it started
yelling Orozcos name and telling him he had a call from
the American Embassy. He had been accepted to the program.
Settling in the States
He took his first step on American soil in 1988, in Washington,
DC. By early winter, he was enrolled in English-as-a-second-language
classes at Georgetown University and, in his spare time, applying
to undergraduate programs at schools across the country. He got
acceptance letters from the University of Hawaii, Tennessee State
and UC Davis.
I had to reassess my future career, Orozco says.
I loved poultry, pigs, vegetables, bees -- I loved everything
about agriculture. He went with the west coast school and
vegetable crops and earned his bachelors in 1991. The USAID
program hed come to the U.S. under required that he return
to Costa Rica for two years. He stayed for 12, and it was in
those years that he worked in the aforementioned fields -- as
a pineapple researcher, a top-notch Costa Rica environmental
tour guide during the dry seasons and a teacher during the rainy,
and, of course, as a beekeeper.
I really wanted to be a pig farmer, but I didnt
have the money to get started in that, so I went with bees, even
with a lot of old-timers whose hives had been wiped out years
earlier by Africanized killer bees telling me I was
making a big mistake.
But Orozcos were Africanized hybrid honey bees, which
actually were more productive than honey bees common before the
African invasion. Soon he had built a steady business, selling
honey and wax as fast as he could harvest it. He didnt
make big bucks in the bee business -- the tour guide job was
his major source of income -- but it helped pay the bills. And,
besides, he enjoyed it. Not far into the new millennium, Orozco
left his teaching jobs and began applying for other positions.
Back to School
Every job I applied for, I was either overqualified
or not qualified enough, he says. So I decided to
go back to school. He applied to universities around the
world -- Australia, Japan, Spain, Holland (for a masters
degree in beekeeping!) -- and wound up in Spain, at the University
of Andalucía, where he earned an MS in environmental law.
Increasingly, though, Orozco was realizing that horticulture
was his field, and while in Spain, he had applied for an internship
at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. On a flight
to Sarasota to interview, Orozco spent a nights layover
in Atlanta with some friends he had gotten to know when he served
as their tour guide on their Costa Rica vacation. The Georgia
Bulldogs fans told Orozco that if he wanted to study ornamental
plants, the University of Georgia was the only university to
consider applying to.
Before his internship at Sarasota, he flew back to Atlanta
and with the help and support of his friends headed north for
a week on the Georgia campus. Then he returned to Costa Rica
to continue his research for his master thesis. In 2002, he got
accepted to the horticulture program at UGA. His research to
focus on Hortensias (Hydrangea macrophylla). When he earned
his masters in horticulture, he was determined to continue
his education in order to qualify to become a horticulture
professor, he says.
Orozco, applied to the doctoral program at Georgia and was
told he was shoo-in, but then the wheels stopped turning. My
visa was expiring and the only way to get an extension was if
I was in school, Orozco says. My professor at Georgia
kept telling me to just sit tight, to sit tight, but in the end,
the funding never came. Aware of is situation, he applied
to other universities: North Carolina State, Clemson, Florida
State and Auburn.
After graduation, Warner landed a job as a horticulturist
and IPM coordinator with a Virginia-based tree and plant care
company. The following year, Auburns Tilt talked with him
and decided the man would make a great addition to the Lotus
Project. Orozco was as good as in, if a lotus research grant
Tilt had submitted was funded.
It was. And when fall semester 2006 began, Orozco was a doctoral
student at Auburn University. He hit the ground running and hasnt
slowed down yet. Tilt says its a pleasure to have Orozco
as a student and fellow researcher. As a graduate student,
you always hope your work will contribute to society, Tilt
says. Warner's effort and dedication will definitely make
Warner admires a Thai lotus cultivar
in Chang Mai, Thailand >
Is Lotus an Ornamental Plant or a Vegetable?
in WGI ONLINE
Auburn Lotus Project: Passionate Plant
Unite with a Common Vision
in WGI ONLINE