by BARBARA PAUL ROBINSON
photograph by ED WHEELER
Barry Yinger had his first garden epiphany as a teenager, not far from his family’s Pennsylvania farm. He saw his first Japanese holly, so completely unlike the American hollies he knew, and learned it was one of many Asian plants that are related to native Pennsylvanians but look completely different. He says, “There was this great flash of light—I really need to know about this!” Today, Yinger lives on the same farm, and runs an extraordinary nursery named Asiatica, where he offers unusual plants he collects from the other side of the world.
Yinger first set out from his rural roots to become a lawyer (“The biggest mistake of my life,” he says), but quickly switched to studying plants, particularly those from Asia. He became convinced that most English-language sources about Asian plants were derivative and wrong. He was fortunate that, in addition to horticulture, he could study Japanese and Chinese at the University of Maryland, and thereby read original sources. Eventually, Yinger went to Long-wood Gardens, earning a master’s degree with a thesis on asarums.
In 1974, Yinger went to Japan for a semester—his first trip outside the United States. While in Tokyo, Yinger realized horticulture was a Japanese passion when he saw men in a bathhouse changing room admiring a display of bonsai forms of Prunus mume. One particularly dirty laborer was painstakingly instructing his son in the nuances of each plant. “That was the epiphany of my life,” says Yinger, describing his culture shock. After graduation, he devoted all his vacations and savings from his dayjob at a garden center to return trips to Japan. There, he often slept on park benches or on trains, and collected plants in the wild, including the treasured marble-foliaged vine Schizophragma ‘Moonlight’.
Yinger was fascinated by the Japanese horticultural tradition koten engei, in which gardeners select mutated forms (variegated, twisted, weeping, or dwarfed) of plain little plants, like wild gingers and whisk ferns—bits of green that to a westerner might seem insignificant, even unattractive. These are displayed like jewels, in special decorative pots. Over the years, the bidding wars of aficionados have created a fervor much like the European tulip craze.
Korea was Yinger’s next destination. He worked at Chollipo Garden on Korea’s west coast, lived in a remote village lacking any modern amenities, and learned Korea’s language and its plants. From a scholarly Japanese paper, Yinger became convinced that wild hardy camellias, unknown to Western science, grew on the cold northern Korean islands. He managed to smuggle his way onto an island closed to all but the military, where he found them: magnificent and flourishing, oblivious to sub-zero temperatures and Mongolian winds. The seeds Yinger collected lead to the introduction of hardier Camellia japonica. Yinger made four subsequent expeditions to Korea while working at Brook-side Gardens and as curator of Asian collections at the National Arboretum. “We introduced a lot of wonderful material,” he recalls, with lingering frustration, “but the plants were not getting into commerce. The whole point was to see these plants growing in people’s gardens.”
Determined to see his plants disseminated, Yinger came home to buy his parents’ farm and develop his nursery. The first catalog for Asiatica appeared in 1994, thanks to the hard work of Yinger and his business partner, Andy Wong, who is Chinese but grew up in Malaysia. Between them, Yinger says, “We have most of the Asian languages covered.” Continually introducing new plants, they were ahead of the curve in the growth of small specialty nurseries that have now expanded the plant palette for American gardeners.
In January of 2003, fire totally destroyed Yinger’s home, wiping out his office and his extraordinary library. After this disaster, Yinger gave up his dream of writing a book on asarums, to focus instead on his developing passion for tropical plants.
Yinger now counts Thai among the languages he speaks, and he offers tropicals at Asiatica, alongside Asian arisaemas and other unusual woodland plants. He is taken with hoyas and the aristolochea family, which includes photteas, a woodland plant not yet familiar to Western horticulture—as well as the asarums he still loves. From the koten engei tradition, Yinger has learned “to love the unloved. I tend to be most fond of those plants that don’t get much respect in the greater world of horticulture.”
Look for Asiatica at Horticulture’s Garden Fair. See page 70 for details.