Magazine article Sunset

In Search of Growing Treasure

Magazine article Sunset

In Search of Growing Treasure

Article excerpt

HIKING IN ANKLE-DEEP MUD, shivering in rain-soaked sleeping bags, and enduring bee stings and leech bites while watching for even more dangerous creatures ... a plant explorer's life is anything but glamorous.

Why do they do it? Not for fortune or fame--few outside horticultural circles know who they are. (When's the last time you thought about where the plants you buy originated?) Whether they send their finds to commercial growers or propagate and sell the plants themselves, these three hunters agree: The real payoff is the thrill of discovery.

Greg Starr

Owner, Starr Nursery (starr-nursery.com)

THE ELUSIVE PRIZE, for Greg, is cactus and succulents, with a particular emphasis on agaves native to the Southwest and Mexico, which he helped popularize. He scouts south of the border, the best place to find plants tough enough for his challenging desert climate.

HOME BASE Tucson

TRAVELS TO Mexico, western Texas

MEMORABLE MISADVENTURE Two years ago in Mexico, he was stopped by police three times in one day--and had to pay bribes each time. "High temperatures and occasional intestinal distress you get used to. Dealing with bribes and blockades you don't. But finding a new plant that looks like it has possibilities makes it all worthwhile."

Favorite finds

PENSTEMON AMPHORELLAE This low, woody perennial from Coahuila, Mexico, has fine light green foliage that sets off large blue flowers.

NOLINA NELSONII Its magnificen 30-inch blue blades are the star of this northern Mexico find. But thousands of flowers on a 4-foot stalk are showy too.

SALVIA PENNELLII A cold-tolerant Mexican native, this late-season bloomer has blue-violet flowers, dark stems, and textured deep green leaves.

Dan Hinkley

Cofounder, Heronswood Nursery

ALONG WITH A penchant for plants from mountainous regions, Dan has a (rather inconvenient) fear of heights. You learn to live with it, he says. "I don't freeze anymore when I come to a precipice, but they're never going to be my favorite spots." His preferred haunt is China: "There's incredible diversity there because its plant palette wasn't wiped clean by the last ice age, which missed China. …

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