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In many respects, Harry Rissetto is the classic hard-nosed, high-powered Washington lawyer. His practice at the D.C. office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius consists largely of representing railroads, airlines, and trucking companies in all manner of labor relations, with a specialty in the Railway Labor Act. Rissetto has frequently lectured and written on employment issues and has twice argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet the 57-year-old Rissetto is also something of a flower child. And that flower is the dahlia. “I’m devoted to the flowers,” admits Rissetto, assistant manager of the labor and employment law practice group in the D.C. office of Morgan Lewis, a firm he has called home for the last 30 years. “When you watch a bud turn into a bloom, you see God.” When asked to provide a simple description of the dahlia for the uninitiated, Rissetto replies, “They look like chrysanthemums.” But speaking for the dahlia’s many devotees, which he’s entitled to do as current president of the American Dahlia Society, he adds, “We think they look much better.” Rissetto explains that the dahlia plant, before it flowers, resembles a tomato plant. The flowers, which begin to bloom in August and continue to bloom until the first frost, spring forth from stalks that can grow as high as four to five feet. Native to Mexico and Central America, the dahlia caught the attention of botanists who accompanied the Spanish conquistadors to the New World in the 16th century. “Although the early botanists noted the existence of the plant, it was not until 1789 that the dahlia arrived in Europe,” writes British dahlia expert Philip Damp in his 1987 book Dahlias. “From Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, seeds and tubers that had been gathered over that ‘lost’ 200 years by Spanish colonists and were now complete hybrids found their way back to Europe. The earliest arrivals … formed the nucleus of the dahlia family as we know it today, although it must be added that some infusions of fresh types had been made over the two centuries.” Today, about 15,000 varieties, or cultivars, of dahlias exist, according to Rissetto. Blooms can range in size from two inches in diameter to more than 10 inches. The American Dahlia Society recognizes 18 classifications of form, which are defined by various characteristics of the flower’s petals, and 15 different colors or color combinations. That Rissetto would become a champion of the dahlia and a gardener of some stature could not have been foretold by his upbringing. A native New Yorker, Rissetto spent his formative years in Greenwich Village, where, he quips, “there was little opportunity for gardening on pavement.” The basil that his mother grew for culinary purposes in a flower pot was as close as he got to having a garden. Rissetto left the city for Connecticut to attend Fairfield University, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1965. Three years later, he earned his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. After law school, he clerked, first for then-District Judge John Sirica and next for then-Chief Justice Warren Burger. In 1970, he joined Morgan Lewis and, in 1975, was elevated to partner at the firm. In the mid-’70s, Rissetto, his wife, and their children moved into a house in Falls Church, Va. “I was looking for a hobby that didn’t involve reading,” explains Rissetto. “Having no small motor skills to speak of and little patience, I decided gardening would be fun and would get me outside, but keep me around the house. I had small children. “My first interest in gardening beyond lawns and bushes was dahlias.” His introduction to the flower came at a garden club sale where he purchased a couple of dahlia tubers. One of the sellers actually came over to Rissetto’s home that summer to see how the tubers were faring. Rissetto describes what happened next: “I had just put the tuber in a hole in my lawn, and it was unacceptable to this guy. He said, ‘Look, I live nearby. Why don’t you come over to take a look at my garden to see how you should grow the things. It’s obvious you have no knowledge of dahlias.’ “So I drove over behind him and looked at this beautiful garden where he grew these championship dahlias. And I sort of got hooked. That was in 1974 or 1975, and I’ve been growing them ever since.” Today, Rissetto’s backyard is a horticulturist’s delight, sporting boxwoods, rhododendrons, dogwood, wisteria, and a single fig tree that, the former city boy declares with pride, produces fruit prolifically. His garden also boasts rhubarb, garlic, asparagus, and rosemary, as well as numerous day lilies. Yet the dahlia is what predominates or, more accurately, what will predominate in the upcoming months. Three sizable flower beds, empty now, will be planted during the next few weeks with tubers and seedlings currently nurturing in Rissetto’s greenhouse. At their peak, each of the three flower beds will contain from 90 to 100 plants, their stems bolstered by stakes, their blooms open to the sun. Rissetto explains that, like tomatoes, dahlias grow best in a sunny, well-drained area. “If you get that,” he says, “they’ll grow. They’re very forgiving.” He fertilizes his plants periodically, he says, but every year applies lime to his soil to keep the pH around 6.5. Although his dahlias won’t bloom for several months now, the display of color that makes Rissetto’s garden so beautiful in August doesn’t come without advanced preparation. In October and November, before the first hard freeze, Rissetto begins working on the next summer’s garden by harvesting the seeds and tubers from the past season’s crop of flowers. The tuber is recovered from the earth after first cutting down the flower’s stalk and leaving a four-inch to six-inch stem stub. During the winter, the tubers need not be kept at room temperature, but they must not be allowed to freeze. Rissetto stores his recovered tubers in vermiculite-filled paper bags in a cabinet in his garage. In the following spring, these tubers will yield the same cultivar as the previous year’s. Dahlia seeds, on the other hand, are harvested from the seed pods that reside at the center of the flower bloom. Rissetto stores the seeds during the winter in plastic bags in his garage cabinet. But since the seeds are the product of natural pollination, only one parent plant can be identified with certainty. The cultivar produced from a seed often differs from the cultivar that yielded the seed. “Dahlias have multiple sets of chromosomes,” says Rissetto. “If you do cross-breeding, it’s unlikely that the child will look like either parent. So it’s somewhat of a lottery.” About this time of year, in early spring, Rissetto germinates in his greenhouse the seeds he collected the previous fall from his most successful cultivars. After the last frost, he plants the seedlings in his garden and, in the unfolding weeks, monitors their progress to make certain that they meet certain aesthetic criteria. “When you’ve grown them for a long time, you can just look at them and, in most cases, quickly conclude that they’re not up to par,” he says. “I just dig them up and throw them away.” Successes, however, embodied by a particularly unusual or beautiful cultivar, go far to erase the memories of the 90 percent of the hybrids that Rissetto estimates don’t pass muster. “It’s like hitting the Irish Sweepstakes for somebody like me,” Rissetto admits. One of his hybridizations, a flower known as Amy’s Star, has achieved particular success. It has won a principal seedling award and is available commercially in the United States and abroad. Rissetto notes that he recently received a seed catalogue from New Zealand that offers the cultivar. When asked if his hybridization’s success has meant money in his coffers, Rissetto replies that he made about $100 from the cultivar and donated the cash to Washington State University for a virus study. “I don’t think I want to earn money from growing flowers,” he says sincerely. Yet the story behind Amy’s Star is about more than gardening. The flower is named for the daughter of Rissetto’s longtime friend and Morgan Lewis partner Charles O’Connor. Between the ages of 11 and 21, Amy suffered from a chronic disease that would periodically send her to Children’s Hospital for treatment. On one of his trips to the hospital early in the course of Amy’s illness, Rissetto pledged to the girl that he would name a flower after her. With Amy’s Star, he kept his promise. Amy, who recovered from her childhood malady and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband and her twin daughters, says that Rissetto’s gesture was “a unique thing, very flattering. “The flower reminds me of the nice times I had with him in the hospital, when he would come to visit and read to me and play games,” she continues. “He had kids of his own. He didn’t have to do that. “In my mind, Harry is a great man,” she adds. “He’s a good role model for someone who seeks to find the perfect balance between career and all the other things in life.”

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