BY ELLEN HORNIG / Oswego, New York, USDA Zone 5
A Naturalist in Western China
by E. H. Wilson (reprint: Theophrastus, 1977; $45)
For armchair explorers, few books equal Wilson’s A Naturalist in Western China. “Chinese” Wilson attended almost as closely to sociology, history, and economics as he did to plants in his travels; the results make for deeply satisfying reading.
The World in a Seed
The modern seed market doesn’t leave much to chance. Visit your favorite seed supplier, and you’ll find seed packets equipped with instructions for sowing and growing, and illustrated with inspiring four-color photos of the finished products. But there is a world beyond this, where adventurous souls can go, and where the unadventurous should rightly fear to tread. It is the world of wild-collected seeds.
The seed collectors, whose price lists are advertised in the North American Rock Garden Society’s Rock Garden Quarterly, include several Czechs (among them Vojtech Holubec, Mojmir Pavelka, and Josef Jurasek, who in recent years have collected in Mongolia, Nepal, China, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as eastern and western Europe), the South African duo Rod and Rachel Saunders of Silverhill Seeds, Jim and Jenny Archibald of JJ Aseeds in Wales, American Alan Bradshaw of Alplains, and others. Some seed lists are available online, some only as hard copy. Expect to see species listed by botanical name, minimal collection data, and little to no cultural information. If you want to grow wild-collected treasures, you will have to research each species’ natural habitat, have experience germinating seeds, and understand that wild-collected seed does not come pretested for viability or with a money-back guarantee.
You will also need to use common sense. An exquisite Corydalis fedtschenkoana collected at 3,500 meters (almost 12,000 feet) on a north-facing alpine limestone scree on Talaskij Ala Tau in the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan, for example, is not going to live in your New England perennial border. While many species will adapt to a wide range of conditions (some being the forbears of our garden perennials), many will not. Conduct rational experiments; don’t waste time and money on the truly impossible.
But oh, the rewards of success. When I look at Clematis gracilifolia, grown from seed collected at 3,700 meters (12,000 feet) on Daxue Shan in northwestern Yunnan, I am, for a moment, in China, traveling precipitous mountain roads, reliving vicariously the adventures of the great E. H. Wilson, whose 1913 classic A Naturalist in Western China must turn every reader into a would-be plant hunter. I am immeasurably pleased at the thought that this very plant began life as a seed on that mountain, and made its way in a little packet to me, in northern New York, where it has now made what I hope will be a home. And I am ecstatic when I contemplate the world in my garden: Arisaema amurense from Russkyi Island (near Vladivostok); Paeonia obovata from Sakhalin Island; Kniphofia hirsuta from Naude’s Nek in the Drakensberg; Helleborus multifidus subsp. hercegovinus from Montenegro; and hundreds of other species from almost as many places. I feel like a kid again, reading piles of National Geographic magazines on a rainy day and lost on the far side of the world.
Before you attempt to import any seed, visit the APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture) Web site, www.aphis.usda.gov, to find the latest regulations governing seed imports into the United States (these were under review at the time of writing). If you can handle the regulations, the research, and the growing, wonderful adventures can be had as you, too, bring the world into your garden. H
Helleborus multifidus subsp. hercegovinus
This is a fantastically slow-growing hellebore whose leaves, not its starry, yellow-green flowers, are its glory. Mature leaves may be divided into over 100 fingerlike segments, and resemble vegetable sea anemones as they unfurl in spring. Grow in well-drained soil in sun or light shade (USDA Zone 6). Sources, page 76.