The Washington power game is played in many ways: There is political power, military power, judicial power. And then there is shrub power, which is the game Don R. Egolf plays in a field in far Northeast Washington.
Egolf is the U.S. National Arboretum's shrub specialist, a man who develops new breeds that are sold commercially.
More than that, he is the man who names names.
In fact, he is the international registrar of lagerstroemia, pyracantha and viburnum blooms. In 30 years at the arboretum, he has developed 60 new plants that have been marketed, with 20 more on the way this year and next.
The four strains of large-flowering hibiscus plants he has named for Greek gods and goddesses. But most of his plants -- he has 23 varieties of crape myrtles to his credit -- he's named after Indian tribes.
There's the Tuskegee, the Apalachee, the Comanche, Osage, Sioux and Yuma, Chippewa, Hopi, Pecos, Zuni, Natchez and Shoshone, among others.
Egolf offers no involved explanation for his choices. "I wanted something American that would be associated with the National Arboretum," he said. Another consideration is to "select names not too difficult to pronounce or spell." Occasionally, there is more to it than that: He named his first shrubs after Indian tribes native to upstate New York because he started working on them when he was a student at Cornell University.
"People stay away from working with shrubs," Egolf said. "Commercial breeders prefers annuals. You can grow a lot of petunias in a little bed."
But shrubs take years. Egolf toils over the new breeds at the arboretum before sending them to 100 others -- individuals, nurseries, researchers -- who report back annually on how the plants are doing in their respective locales. After as long as five years, Egolf sends them next to nurseries to grow for another two years before they are declared worthy of the marketplace.
"A plant has to be better than what's already grown, based on its disease-resistance, hardiness and fruitiness or it's not worth introducing," Egolf said. His current efforts include work on a lilac that he hopes is mildew-resistant and suitable for this steamy southern climate.
Crape myrtle, which has blooms in shades of pink or white through much of the summer, is in its northernmost home here, while lilacs don't fare well farther south. "In Baltimore, you lose a lot of southern species," Egolf said. "In Norfolk, you lose a lot of northern species."
His work is not without occupational hazards. In 1981, he received a tick bite while working with crab apple trees at the arboretum. The bite gave him a debilitating case of Lyme disease, which can cause loss of the use of muscles. At one point, his right arm and leg were paralyzed.
His therapy included work on lily hybridization, which he did while wearing braces in his yard at home. This involved the usual procedures: hand pollination, transplanting seedlings, evaluating plant progress. Having regained his health, Egolf returned to work full time in May 1984.
Occasionally, the man who names shrubs rubs shoulders with powerful people from other walks of life. The French ambassador, Emmanuel de Margerie, is a regular at the arboretum. About to leave for home for the month, the ambassador stopped by the other week to inspect crape myrtles in bloom.
"The French ambassador is a very good gardener," Egolf said. "He has restored a chateau in France and is creating a formal garden to go with the residence, using crape myrtle as the key. He spends many Sundays here."
Not surprisingly, Egolf is also a very good gardener. His three-acre homestead outside Upper Marlboro contains a formal garden in back and countless bushes and shrubs in front, a landscape undergoing change.
"The plants were starting to grow together, getting too large," said Egolf, whose idea of time off from work is more of the same. "I'm thinning it out. We were feeling a little too private."
He works in his garden nights and weekends and seldom travels far. His wife Sarah stays busy "canning, preserving and maintaining the household." They met outside what he calls "the plant world," and have three children, 19-year-old twins studying forestry and horticulture at Virginia Tech, and a 21-year-old son studying agronomy at the University of Maryland.
"They're all in agriculture," Egolf said. "They got it from the grass roots." So did their father. Egolf grew up on a dairy farm in Bedford County, Pa., won the Sears, Roebuck Foundation Heifer Award in 1944, and a raft of Future Farmers of America medals from 1944 to 1947. He was 1947 Poultry Boy of the Year and won an agricultural scholarship to Cornell.
He had a Fulbright fellowship in England, and holds honorary life memberships in the American Hibiscus Society, Potomac Lily Society and International Lilac Society. A quiet, self-effacing man of 59, he has published 106 articles. While making shrubs, he could make a mint.
But other than his GS-14 salary, he makes no profit from his propagation of the species. It is simply his job for the U.S. Agricultural Research Service.
"The test of any research is the end product," he said. "It's good to see the items you've produced getting into the trade, serving the consumer."