Don Shadow

With just one step into the office, it’s obvious that you’re not in just any old nursery. Sure, there’s the usual clutter, the endless stacks of tags, catalogs, invoices, and a few odd flats and pots. The dirt clods on the floor, the grafting knife on the sill, and the half-eaten breakfast on the desk wouldn’t be out of place in any nursery in Mobile, Minneapolis, or Monterey. But a quick second look at that desk provides an immediate clue to the uniqueness of the surroundings. There, in the middle of the piles of paper, sits a journal with the following name: Swine Taxonomy. That’s pigs, folks, not some newly discovered family of cold-hardy begonias!

The proprietor of this Serling-inspired bit of incongruity is the legendary Don Shadow, proprietor of the wholesale Shadow Nursery, acquirer and grower of the most diverse and numerous life’s collection of horticultural holy grails, a man with a nose for rare plants, a Pachydermic memory, and a Tennessee twang so sharp it could slice the shine off the mornin’ dew.

Shadow is known around the world as one of the most connected of plantsmen and as the most active acquirer of unusual plants. The letters strewn across his desk come from across town and around the globe. People write with pictures of possible introductions.“Send cuttings, send seed,” he responds. They write for advice on what to do with a new plant that’s been discovered in some remote swamp or hollow. “Send cuttings, send seed,” he responds. They write looking for the rarest of the rare and the oddest of the odd. “I’ve got cuttings, I’ve got seed,” he responds.

Shadow’s nose for rare plants is so great that he’s been known to pluck them out of thin air. On a trip to Japan, during dinner with a few skittish Japanese nurserymen, he inquired as to the location of their weeping Acer buergerianum. The locals tossed accusatory looks at each other, and then, after a long, uncomfortable pause, one of them got up and led him to the great find, never knowing that Shadow had made up the plant. He had never seen, heard, or read of it. He just had a feeling.

The Shadow Nursery booth during trade shows never fails to draw a crowd to see what the master thinks to be his most special new acquisitions—a weeping this, a variegated that, and often a young grandson or two, to boot. At lectures, he is virtually unstumpable. At one talk by the equally unredoubtable Dr. Mike Dirr, Shadow stood in the back of the room, half listening and half talking to others. Upon Dirr’s brief description of a plant that he’d met in an English garden, without Shadow’s ever looking at the screen, that unmistakable piercing twang rose up from among the masses with the answer: Orixa japonica ‘Variegata’! There were no other guesses from the crowd.

And then there are the animals. The Damara zebras, red pandas, blue-tongued skinks, and sugar gliders at Shadow Nursery command as much, if not more, attention than do the plants. Shadow rises long before the crack of dawn to check the facilities, which rival those of many well-known zoos, and feed the tenants. His wife, Mary, would say that the only time Don sits down is to watch an occasional Sunday afternoon wild-animal show on PBS. Most of his forays across the nursery involve at least several stops to inspect a fence, check a newborn, or just sit and take in the view of one of his favorite subjects. And no tour would be considered complete without a visit to Shadow’s beloved Mr. Ed, an apparently 12 billion–pound water buffalo that, when called by name, comes crashing across the field and skids to a thunderous halt at the master’s feet—for a pat on the head and a kiss on the nose.

And so it is with this Tennessee farm boy. Be it his animals or his plants, he uses a caring touch and an appreciative eye to preserve and share the best, the rarest, and the most sublime.

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