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Rural Missouri Magazine
A 'Wild Thang' Blooms
New York City woman finds home and happiness raising and selling flowers in mid-Missouri

by Bob McEowen

Karen "Mimo" Davis walks an armload of freshly cut snapdragons to her car, which was left running to shield the delicate flowers from the winter cold. Davis raises cut flowers at her WildThang Farms near Ashland and sells to florists in St. Louis and mid-Missouri.

The temperature has barely topped freezing in three weeks. The sky is a dull grey. Ice covers the drive and more snow is predicted overnight. It’s the depths of winter in mid-Missouri but Karen “Mimo” Davis’ world is ablaze in color as life springs forth inside heated greenhouses on her WildThang Farms near Ashland.

Davis works quickly cutting snapdragon flowers, which stand chin high in neat rows topped in red and yellow blooms. She gathers several armloads and walks them out to her waiting car, its engine running to ward off the cold.

Davis is a specialty cut flower grower. While florists buy roses, carnations and other popular flowers by the box load from other states and even overseas, she fills a niche growing anemones, lupines, delphiniums, ranuculus and other uncommon flowers.

“The florists really appreciate the freshness of these flowers,” Davis says. “What I cut will be in the florist shop this afternoon.”

Indeed, Alice Spencer of River City Florist and Greenhouse in Jefferson City is clearly impressed with Davis’ fresh-cut flowers. “You can see the difference,” she says as she compares Davis’ snapdragons to one shipped from California. “The colors are more vibrant, the foliage is fuller — the size of the blossoms, the height, the straightness. They’re just beautiful.”

Since 1999 Davis has supplied flowers to florists in St. Louis, Columbia and Jefferson City. While that might not seem unusual, commercial flower growers are actually rare in Missouri. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers lists just nine members in the state, including Davis, who represents the Midwest on the group’s board of directors.

Davis shares a laugh with Alice Spencer of River City Florists in Jefferson City. Davis' outgoing personality make her a welcome visitor to the shops she supplies in St. Louis and mid-Missouri.

The Boone Electric Cooperative member’s career is especially remarkable considering her background. In 1989, Davis worked for a New York City charity helping street kids. She literally had to get out a map to find Missouri when her mother moved to Jefferson City to marry a Lincoln University professor.

Davis’ introduction to flowers was equally unlikely. It began when her new stepfather bought his bride a house with an attached greenhouse and 132 rose bushes in the back yard. When Davis traveled to Missouri to attend the wedding she found herself placed in charge of the enormous garden while the couple went on honeymoon. “I had not a clue about what I was doing,” she says.

Davis spent her visit tending the plants and scouring garden centers for advice. By the time the newlyweds returned Davis had made a decision.

“I totally fell in love with growing,” she says. “I went back to New York, packed up everything I had and said, ‘I’m going to Missouri. I have no idea what I’m going to do when I get there but I’m going.’”

Davis enrolled in the soils science program at Lincoln University and took horticulture classes at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She also landed a part-time job at a wildflower nursery.
Merv Wallace of Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Brazito encouraged Davis, sending her home with flowers to plant. Five years ago Wallace suggested she sell flowers at local farmers’ markets.

Raised in New York City, Davis first learned about flowers after moving to mid-Missouri, where she studied soil sciences at Lincoln University in Jefferson City and worked at a nearby wildflowers nursery. Today Davis is a popular presenter at agricultural conferences.

Davis took his advice and did well until it rained three Saturdays in a row. With no customers and flowers quickly turning to compost Davis took a different tack. She loaded up a bucket of her best flowers, mustered her courage and walked into a Columbia florist. The shop owner was ecstatic.

“Mimo’s flowers were just outstanding,” says Jessica LaHue, manager of My Secret Garden. “We could tell that she spent a lot of time researching what she’s growing and making sure that everything is done at the right time.”

With that initial sale WildThang Farms was born. The name dates to Davis’ experience working for the wildflower nursery.

“People used to drive down to the business and say ‘What’s that wild thang growing on the side of road?’ We got that so much that I said if I ever had my own business I was going to name it wild thang,” Davis says.

“The name has done a lot for the business,” she adds. “When you put a smile on people’s face — be it at the farmers market or the florist shop — you’re already in their pocketbook.”

Although Davis still sells at farmers’ markets, today most of her business comes from a route she drives to as many as 22 flower shops in mid-Missouri and St. Louis.

“The flowers kind of sell themselves,” she says. “I call it the ‘oooh-aaah’ factor. When I pull up to a florist and open up the door they go ‘oooh-aaah.’”

Davis explains flower cutting to Stacey Smith, a Columbia-area landscape designer who took a temporary job at Davis’ WildThang Farms over the winter.

From the beginning Davis made a decision to avoid the popular varieties that are often shipped from far off places, like Ecuador, with low labor costs. Instead she specializes in flowers that are difficult for florists to obtain otherwise.

“We grow about 300 different types of flowers here but not roses and not mums,” says Davis, who employs five workers each summer. “I grow all specialty cut flowers, basically flowers that for some reason are difficult to ship, lose their fragrance or don’t hold up well in a box.

“There are things that I grow that no florist has ever seen in the state of Missouri, like the Texas bluebonnets. They’re just not grown in Missouri.”

These unusual offerings make her a valuable resource for florists seeking something special to offer their customers.

“We’re always looking for something new, something different. And that’s where Mimo fits in so well,” says Spencer of Jefferson City’s River City Florist. “She’s not going to just have carnations and daisies and baby’s breath. She has things out there that we want to see.”

Unusual flowers and excellent quality are only part of Davis’ formula for growing her business, however. Some of the credit has to go to her outgoing personality, as well.

“You have to be really good at growing but, more importantly, you have to be really good at selling,” Davis says. “I have a pretty dynamic personality and between me and the flowers we tend to win people over pretty easily.”

Davis sorts flowers into 10-stem bundles in the kitchen of her home. Helping her is her mother, Dolores Penn-Davis.

Davis’ outgoing manner has served her well beyond relations with florists, though. She has become a popular speaker before flower industry groups and at small farmer conferences. Often her talks deal with extending the growing season, a topic Davis knows well. She bought her first greenhouse in 2001 and has added three more since.

“I started growing in these hoop houses because I was missing all of the holidays,” she says. “February through May are huge flower buying periods. You have Valentine’s Day, St. Patty’s Day, then you go into graduations and right into wedding months. I was missing all that by just growing in the field.”

Last year Davis received a grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture to demonstrate the use of unheated “low tunnel” greenhouses to fill in gaps before the summer and fall growing seasons. The grant requires Davis to share her results with others, even would-be competitors.

That’s not a problem. Davis is happy to offer advice. “I’m passionate. I just absolutely love this and really support other growers.”

Besides, she says, despite impressive growth so far, Davis and her WildThang Farms are still a tender plant. “I still feel brand new at it.”

For more information write Mimo Davis at WildThang Farms, 14150 S. Bob Veach Road, Ashland, MO 65010; or e-mail WildThangFarms@aol.com.

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