University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Perennial Publications : Book of the Month

The Explorer's Garden, Rare and Unusual Perennials
Daniel Hinkley. 1999. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

Some may know the author as one of the founders of Heronswood Nursery in Washington state, and speaker at many meetings. This book samples only a few plants in detail from their popular mail-order catalog of this nursery, which maintains over 9000 different plants including woody plants and conifers as well. Over the past 10 or so years the author annually explores remote regions of the world in search of new plants, and introduces many of these through his catalog and now through this book.

As the author states in his preface, "The collection of herbaceous perennials, including my observations of many of them in their native haunts as well as my understanding of their cultural needs and propagational demands, will occupy us here. Unusual and uncommon perennials native to Asia, Europe, South America, or right here in North America have been brought together at Heronswood, and subsequently into this book, with the hope of a successful introduction to cultivation and exposure to an ever-growing population of plant enthusiasts."

Currently popular is "ecological gardening", which includes the proper choice and siting of plants. The result is success with the plants, and least disruptive environmental practices in the garden. Knowing the plant native habitats is key to their proper placement and care, and is an aspect not usually covered in such texts. As another famous explorer Roy Lancaster states in his introduction, "Dan believes, as I do, that ideally a gardener... should try to visit plants in their natural environment, where they choose to grow, if he or she wants the plants to succeed in cultivation. Of course, such opportunities are not available to every gardener, which is why Dan's experiences are so valuable."

On the selection of plants covered in his book, the author states, "I have chosen to concentrate on relatively few plants, and these for a variety of reasons: obscurity in literature, poorly understood culture, or previous assessment as a poor garden plant. Mostly, these are plants that I simply admire and wish to know and cultivate better. To be sure, my treatment of many genera or families is vastly incomplete. I have avoided genera to which I would be incapable of doing justice, as well as genera that have been intelligently covered in recent monographs..."

Examples of genera he doesn't mention are Hellebore, Lilium and Trillium. Perhaps the most popular and known genus he mentions is the hardy geraniums. Lathyrus or the perennial pea is a genus I too have grown and agree shown be known and grown more widely. Other examples of chapters on genera or groups, and their catchy titles, are: "Rheums with a View: the Ornamental Rhubarbs", or "Paris in the Springtime: The Genera Paris, Trillidum and Scoliopus".

The author is not only an excellent writer, but unlike many pure writers, has a first hand mastery of his subject. "For the most part I am including plants that I have grown in my own garden, observed in the wild, and/or propagated in our nursery. I am uncertain how one can possibly know enough about a plant to discuss it in writing if one does not first tend it... I have included plants that can be found in the trade (though perhaps not always readily). "

On the other hand, unlike many pure nursery professionals, the author has a wonderful use of words in describing plants, their culture and their excitement. "I equate the excitement of the herbaceous border to that of unpacking each year the trunk in which we store our collection of antique Christmas ornaments, accumulated from friends and family over many years. The unwrapping of each is in essence its rebirth, of its heritage and intrinsic beauty."

So one might describe this book as a good and interesting read on what are new perennials to most of us, a fascinating account of their exploration and native habitats, and based on the latter their proper culture and siting in the garden for success. For the serious perennial gardener this book will be educational and inspirational.

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