Fringe Plants

Fringe Plants

Digger Magazine

By Lorene Edwards Forkner, 5/29/08

Did you ever think you’d see the day when Northwest nursery shelves were stocked with tropical bananas, cannas, elephant ears and palms, alongside hebes, grevillias, corokias, coprosmas and other woody shrubs of the southern hemisphere?!?!. Echeveria, aloes, cacti and other desert natives are the darlings of contemporary container design; I know of at least one friend who opted for an amazing agave over the customary fuchsia basket for this year’s Mother’s Day gift. These onetime rare, obscure and little known plants have entered mainstream horticulture to take their place alongside stalwart and familiar garden favorites. Whether they’re trotting the globe, scoping a growing field or playing around with container compositions, we can thank the keen eyes and an adventurous sense of possibility – let alone the enormous task of bringing these plants to market – of today’s inspired plants-men and –women who are ever vigilant in their pursuit of new plants. Who are these horticultural prophets and what is their vision?

Sometimes the stories behind new plants are as good as the plant and Burl Mostul of Rare Plant Research, the nursery that brought bananas to our borders, has a lot of stories. “It was the early 90’s and I was attending a plant conference in British Columbia when a guy told a guy…who told me about a local garden that was growing a hardy banana!” Mostul reminisces. The plant collector in Burl couldn’t let that one get away and the wholesale nursery owner in him saw a potential (as of then completely untapped) market; he went home with a piece of the fabled banana. Fast forward 15 years and today hardy banana, Musa basjoo can be found on nearly every nursery table in our region. Fervent plant collectors, sophisticated designers, weekend gardeners, even little kids – it would seem no one can resist the allure of the tropics or the eccentricity of planting this onetime strictly tropical native in our temperate backyards and containers.

Likewise, Burl had a “marketing hunch” that drought tolerant, tender and almost hardy succulents, with their graphic, bold and structural form would capture the gardening public’s imagination in the same way that the lush, steamy, sultry tropicals had – a sort of climatic yin and yang of plant collecting. Bingo! Whether you call it a horticultural sixth sense or shrewd business intuition Mostul believes the ultimate success of a plants’ introduction lies with the marketing, display and sell-through smarts of nursery people and garden designers who experiment and illustrate the role these newcomers can play in the garden; “it’s all about how you use and combine the plants. People have to be shown the possibilities.”

Lucy Hardiman has the vision and her busy garden design practice in Portland is proof. This garden designer with an artist’s flair for color and composition is also a passionate plants woman always sussing out and evaluating new plants introduced domestically and abroad. Hardiman serves on the Perennial committee for the Great Plant Picks program where her considerable experience, support for garden trials, and commitment to educating the gardening public all come together under this educational awards program dedicated to identifying outstanding plants for Pacific Northwest gardens.

Hardiman ardently asserts, “The educational component cannot be understated. We have a shared responsibility to carefully select, introduce and market responsibly not just interesting plants, but the know how to succeed.” While she relishes a broad palette of plants to work with, Hardiman bemoans what she sees as a “glut of new plants which tends to dilute and distract from the good ones. So many introductions have become quickly passing commodities which flood the market before vanishing, only to make room for even newer, ‘improved’ varieties.” And so she continues in her constant assessment of new plants garden performance, spreading the word and directing the sometimes overwhelmed nursery consumer toward the “keepers”.

Sean Hogan, owner of Cistus Nursery on Sauvie Island outside Portland, delights in plants – literally thousands and thousands of them! With a personal history working in botanical gardens and a biologist’s fascination with diversity of specie this small specialty retail nursery and its focus on plants that thrive in the Pacific Northwest has become his worldwide pulpit to preach the importance of matching plants with their proper growing conditions.

“It’s wonderful to be a part of this age of plant exploration, a great ride, but I feel a sense of responsibility to introduce and market plants along with appropriate cultural background. Too many of us (retailers) have been negatively surprised or stung when a plant fails in the garden. That’s bad for the gardener and the retailer. It’s about educating the customer – we’re really selling them success.”

When Sean is in plant hunting mode – as opposed to nursery-owner mode or writer/educator and garden designer mode – he travels in temperate regions that share a “geological history” common with our regional growing conditions. “Vegetation reflects the history of where we live with flora adapting to various limiting factors”. What that means to nursery customers is fascinating, tempting, wonderful plants and the know how to use them in garden. Hogan is always hunting for exciting new textures that that stand out from plants already on the market to capture the eye of the consumer and the imagination of designers and trend makers, or simply a better version of an existing plant with improved garden performance and hardiness. A strong proponent of developing the “regional narrative” of a landscape Hogan promotes native plants and similarly adaptive exotics to support the unique environment and special flavor of Northwest gardens.

Fresh out of college in the mid 70’s Alice Doyle and company began Log House Plants, a tiny wholesale nursery in Cottage Grove with land, a donkey and a log cabin built in 1929. When few of Oregon’s small growers grew anything more adventurous than “meat and potato” annuals and industry standard was sold out shelves by June 1st, Log House quickly tapped into and nurtured what was to become a nation-wide gardening bonanza. In all modesty, Doyle asserts, “We feel we are on one big glorious adventure with those that care about plants. Some say the Northwest is a springboard for new ideas because of our nirvana-like growing conditions. Mostly I think it is because we are brilliant people with high regard for our natural environment”.

Doyle credits sensitive nursery plant buyers who listened to the requests of their enthusiastic retail customers with pushing the market and prompting Log House to expand their offerings. Early on, Doyle mined foreign seed catalogs for interesting and “new” plants she could introduce to the American market. But the past 30 some years of travel, correspondence and no small amount of pestering and forbearance has seen the development of her most precious crop yet, her “network”. This is how Doyle describes the generous community of plants-men, seeds men, backyard breeders, colleagues, mentors and kindred plant fanatics she’s come to cherish. It is their constant and lively global discussion of new and interesting plants that fuels her passion and has resulted in many exciting introductions. Where once chocolate cosmos was merely a quirky Mexican native spied by the late Kevin Nicolay, northwest plants man extraordinaire, now this luscious smelling, mahogany flowered dahlia relative is a staple of summer. Kevin shared with Alice, Alice is good at growing and marketing and the rest is history.

Today talk of local, organic and sustainable food is on everyone’s lips and strictly ornamental borders are making room for herb gardens, berry patches and veggie beds. Growers are responding with a broad range of farm stand favorites bred for bountiful backyard plots and the phrase Ornamental Edibles has entered the horticultural lexicon. It doesn’t get more local than your own backyard and Log House Plants has long been the source of many heirloom, medicinal, and classic vegetable starts offering a vast selection to adventurous gardeners and cooks.

Doyle has a brilliant knack for marketing and education. The Log House Plants website includes a comprehensive catalog that reads like the most enticing plant catalog and features a weekly e-newsletter that goes out to anyone who subscribes, a minor miracle to pull off in the midst of the busy spring season. Innovative labeling systems on their plants provide not just good shelf material but tags chock o block full of valuable cultural information, recipes, and “backstory”. Her infectious passion and enthusiasm are irresistible.

No article on 21st century Northwest plant collectors and their contributions would be complete without hearing from Dan Hinkley, a true senior statesman of contemporary horticulture. When asked why do we grow plants? Hinkley responds, “I am motivated by an awe for the process of life. It boggles the mind when one examines a floral structure and sees the complete surrender to its environment.” On a practical level Hinkley focuses on foliage and texture, “We all like flowers, of course, however it is the foliage that is going to be the most enduring attribute.” Native or exotic, at home or abroad, the world is a fertile garden ripe for exploration in the discerning eyes of this knowledgeable gardener and the industry has countless horticultural wonders to his credit.

What’s next and who has the pulse on what the consumer wants? What will be the next horticultural HOT thing? Mostul believes in getting new plants in front of the public’s eye to gauge their reaction. To this end Rare Plant Research is always a favorite stop at public and trade garden shows where they feature their newest and most promising introductions. With talk of some interesting work with South African bulbs and cool new kniphofia hybrids it’s time to do some plant exploring of our own!