Brian Sullivan loves plants, but 15 years ago that love was confined by an office job and a tiny apartment patio.
Today Sullivan is director of horticulture at the renowned Descanso Gardens, and is preparing to serve as a judge in one of the world’s most prestigious displays of plant pageantry — Pasadena’s Rose Parade.
On Dec. 29 and 30, Sullivan will inspect 40 floats and rate them on technical and aesthetic brilliance as well as other criteria. He and his fellow judges — Shane Connolly, an Irish floral designer who works for the British Royal family, and Amy Kule, the executive producer of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — will determine the winners of 24 awards among 40 floats in the Rose Parade on Jan. 1, 2013.
Richard De Jesu, the chair of the Tournament of Roses Judging Committee, said the panel traditionally includes one judge who stages events, one who works with floral design and one from the horticultural side of the business.
Sullivan’s path to horticultural expertise started in the early 1990s, after he left a job doing promotion at a documentary film company. “I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life,” Sullivan, 45, said. “Somebody told me to come check out a place like [Descanso] because I love plants, and it was good advice.”
Sullivan was turned away at first. With persistence, he was able to start at the lowest rung of the ladder at Descanso in 1995.
“I basically got a job as a gardener, and I was lucky to get one because I didn’t have any experience,” he said. “I did all the tulips, all the display plants that we had here in the springtime [and] summertime.”
Over the next decade and a half, Sullivan worked his way up to landscape supervisor, then garden manager and finally director of horticulture and gardens, earning a landscape architecture certificate from UCLA along the way.
He oversees Descanso’s gardening and maintenance crews and equipment, manages the plant collection for the 160-acre facility and is now designing the four-acre native oak woodland habitat Descanso is planning to open in 2014.
Sullivan, De Jesu said, has had “a long and experienced career in the horticultural side of the business, and that’s why we chose him.”
Though Sullivan hasn’t yet received formal training as a judge, he said he is going to look for innovation and creativity on the finished floats.
“It’s easy to just put roses together and make it look beautiful,” he said. “What they do that I think is great is they take plants and flowers and make them look like other materials, or make me think, ‘I never would have used a plant like that.’”
In addition to creativity, De Jesu said the judges are asked to consider floral craftsmanship, color presentation, dramatic impact and how closely the float hews to the parade’s theme — which for the upcoming parade is, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
Descanso Executive Director David Brown said he is sure Sullivan is up to the task.
“Brian is what the baseball scouts call a five-tool player. He knows and loves the plants,” said Brown. “It's great to be associated with leaders, and we're all happy Brian will be contributing to the 2013 edition of an event seen and enjoyed by millions of people the world over.”