A Letter from John Daniel Ambrose, BS 1965. MS 1966 (PHD 1974, Cornell)

I was in the house in the early 1960s, an interesting small group of eclectic characters!  Dale (Bjorklund ’67) the piano player was center stage at parties. For any house improvements, Howard (Gandelot ’64) was there with a well-engineered solution; he enlisted me, the botanist, to help pick out and plant new shrubs around the front of the house.  Frank (Morrey ’64) was full of ideas and ready to offer an opinion or listen. 

We had a cook then and regular meals and good meal time discussions  Sharing meals is such an important time for families as well as a group of friends.

There was the sharing of grief also, the assassination of JFK happened during this time and the feelings of hope, new directions and a more just future society were cut short by that one day in Dallas, and sadness of watching the rider-less horse follow the slow procession in Washington, on the house TV.  And then soon later his brother Robert met the same fate.

This was the time that the Beatles came into recognition and the whole era of the revolutionary music of the 1960s.  Many of those songs have survived the test of time whereas the music of the next decades is less memorable.  This music helped set the atmosphere for some interesting house parties that were well organized by some brothers, likely Roger (Premo ’65) was in there doing his part! 

As to official duties, I was “C” for some period of time, as well as the recipient of the Wedge award (the engineering and physics students will understand the significance of this special award…).

This was the era of the American War in Viet Nam and the draft was on.  Considering the lame excuse for starting the war, I could question my order of life activities, perhaps arriving in Canada later than I should have.  However, I was young and naïve, and signed up for Naval ROTC in 1961 before it all began.  Through my years at Michigan the war came into full force and I began to question its validity; with the Ann Arbor campus being alive in protest, my compromise was to ask for a non-combatant ship when my time to start active duty began.  Being a botanist (islands and their biota have always fascinated me)—and mildly prone to sea sickness—I chose the Pacific vs. the Atlantic, and landed on a hydrographic survey ship (USS Maury AGS-16) out of Pearl Harbor.  I asked for the Oceanographic research ship I knew the Navy had so this was close.  Of course you can imagine where we were headed, the first year was to survey the coast around the Mekong Delta, the second year a little further north in the clear waters and picturesque coast around Nha Trang, now a prime tourist destination.  I was boat officer for a 50 ton survey boat (the ship carried four of them).  And so much for the Pacific being pacific; on our first return to Pearl Harbor, one day going on watch I noticed that we were approaching a typhoon, thinking we would soon take evasive action and change course, but every watch we stayed steady on-course for a ‘collision’.  The navigator was a quiet thoughtful sort, and the captain a not exactly easy person to give advice to….apparently no advice was given or taken and we headed straight into it!  

At Michigan I was a Botany student and spent two summers at the Biological Station near Pellston in the northern lower peninsula.  During my undergraduate final years I was a lab assistant, and then as a graduate student, a teaching assistant and a research assistant at the botanical gardens when it was moving to its current location on Dixboro Road.  It was my first curatorial experience, recording the plants as they were moved from the old to the new location, and all the new acquisitions.

After the 2 years of active duty with the Navy I entered a PhD program at Cornell where again I was a TA and curatorial assistant at the botanical gardens.  With my botanical garden experience at Michigan and Cornell I looked for similar jobs as I was completing my degree.  In the meantime I met my future wife, Cherry Booth (1942-2007), on a trip to Toronto to look for collecting sites in a cross continent trip planned that first year.  I narrowed it down to two locations, Guelph, Ont. and Spartansburg, SC.  I’m not sure the second position ever materialized but Cherry was relieved to hear that I got the University of Guelph Arboretum job!  I was there from 1974 to 1991, then Curator of Botany and Manager of Horticulture at the Toronto Zoo until I took early retirement in 1999.  Since then I have been doing botanical consulting and more recently, a ‘retirement’ farm on Pelee Island, as far south as one can go in Canada, the same latitude as north California!

With the mild climate and “highest heat units in Canada” I put those conditions to test in the outdoors of Pelee; I have two surviving Himalayan palms, many figs, American persimmons, and several pomegranates, two of which have fruit on them this year. 

My professional career was focused on the rare woody plants of the so-called Carolinian Zone of Canada (the milder zone just north of Lake Erie, roughly from Toronto to Sarnia and south), where I did numerous studies leading to species’ federal status as ‘endangered’, ‘threatened’ or ‘special concern’, and follow up studies of their biology and recovery.   I continue to do some studies on them plus grow a number of the ones that occur on Pelee (e.g., Kentucky Coffee Tree, Blue Ash, Red Mulberry, Trumpet Creeper, Redbud).  Pelee Island is the only place in Canada where Redbud (Cercis canadensis) was once documented, in 1892.  It no longer occurs there naturally but I am doing my best to meet the demand for nursery stock of the ones I grow from Michigan, its northernmost population between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

I have one daughter, Robin, and two grandsons, Martin (18) and Daniel (14); they all live in Ottawa.  Robin is a philosopher/senior advisor with Transport Canada. Martin is well on his way to being a first responder with many qualifications and skills and a focused mindset for what university training he will need.  Daniel is a bit of a naturalist and free spirit who is headed somewhere, with gusto!

I enjoy various outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling and paddling.  I’m afraid that travelling will be restricted for some time and that may not be a bad thing, considering the environmental cost of it all.  COVID-19 is giving us reason to seriously look at the damage we are doing to the Earth, its other inhabitants, and our future on it; hopefully we make the right choices!

In the past I have served on various professional association boards as well as boards of environmental and nature-focused organizations.  Currently I am coordinating a nature events program on Pelee, the PELEE BUZZ.  Most events were postponed for this summer due to COVID-19, more details at:


And for you young Delta Chi brothers who made it this far, follow your passion and make a difference in this world!  There are more than enough problems, environmental, ecological and social; if human civilization is going forward and not back into another dark ages, your input is critical! 

If any of this sounds interesting, worth pursuing, feel welcome to contact me:


In Guelph or 

Swallow Haven Farm, Pelee Island, ON N0R 1M0


Phone/text: 519-724-2174

Email: [email protected]