Imagine that you are the director of Heronswood, a fifteen acre botanical garden and, when you come home at the end of the day, you are surrounded by a six and a half acre garden of your own. Both gardens, located on the Kitsap Peninsula northwest of Seattle, include hundreds of plants that you personally introduced into the nursery trade after gathering their seeds during botanical expeditions across the globe. You have even earned the distinction of seeing more than 80 of your botanical discoveries featured in a special, ever-expanding plant portfolio, bearing your own name, in the Monrovia Nursery catalogue (on display at monrovia.com).
The above serves as a thumbnail sketch of Dan Hinkley, one of the pre-eminent horticulturists in the world today. Recently, I was fortunate enough to garner a few moments of his time to chat about his work.
Did I say work? Hinkley is someone who never stops working, whether he is traveling, lecturing, or writing about the plants he discovers, overseeing the maintenance and continual refurbishing of the carefully manicured acres under his supervision, hybridizing Agapanthus (he grows more than 60 varieties), tending his own extensive vegetable garden (all the vegetables he eats are home grown), or pulling weeds (which he still loves to do). When you are intertwined non-stop with the world of plants and appreciate each new botanical find as an opportunity to learn and to teach, to say nothing of beautifying gardens everywhere with your discoveries, I would imagine that your work is transformed into something else: a higher calling.
Hinkley grew up in Evart, a tiny town in northern Michigan. His initial foray into plant exploration was scouting, as a child, for an elusive type of white cedar on an island in Lake Michigan. Where geobotanical explorations are concerned, islands are prime areas for locating distinctive plants. An island’s isolation imparts singular conditions for growth and unique opportunities for species diversification.
Hinkley has explored every major Japanese island and many smaller ones, as well as Taiwan, New Zealand, and Tasmania, climbing the mountains on each island — and seeking out mountains everywhere else he explores, for that matter — since it is in cloud forests at higher, alpine elevations, especially in the tropics, where hidden botanical gems are most likely to be found.
Hinkley does not pluck whole plants from the wild, but harvests their seeds in compliance with permits obtained from the countries he visits. His travels have included sixteen trips to the northern mountains of Vietnam, as well as excursions to six Chinese provinces, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, India, South Africa, Costa Rica, and Chile.
Nearly all of the species listed in “The Dan Hinkley Plant Collection,” available through any retail nursery that carries Monrovia plants, can grow in Los Angeles area gardens (as long as you are south of Santa Clarita) and a number of them are hardy enough to thrive in Santa Clarita, too.
I asked Hinkley if he had any close calls in the course of his travels. “In 2002, I was captured by Maoists in Nepal and held for ransom,” he recounted, “and in Myanmar (Burma), I was the victim of nematodes that burrowed under my skin, took up residence there, and were not at all easy to dislodge.” Nematodes are microscopic, worm-like creatures. Certain kinds are garden pests that live in the soil and parasitize plant roots. Other nematodes parasitize animals, including primates such as you and me. “There were also a number of intense tropical storms,” Hinkley concluded, “that I had to endure while clinging to the side of a mountain. When hunting for plants, the natural elements themselves are your biggest challenge.”
I asked Hinkley to name his favorite plant discoveries and he placed Schefflera taiwaniana ‘Yuan Shan’ at the top of the list. Although Scheffleras are usually grown as indoor plants, this is a hardier species that is eminently suitable for both indoor and outdoor use. He found it growing after a steep ascent up the tallest mountain in Taiwan. ‘Yuan Shan,’ resembling a mass of green parasols, grows to a height and width of fifteen feet and features palmate foliage with eleven long and delicate fingers comprising each leaf. Plant it in bright shade to half-day sun.
Melianthus major ‘Purple Haze’ and Acacia pravissima are personal favorites of mine from the Dan Hinkley Collection.
Tip of the Week: “What advice would you give to the novice gardener?” I asked Hinkley. “Plant ground covers and mulch to reduce weeding and save water,” he counseled. “Plant a 50 cent plant in a 5 dollar hole — not vice versa. Don’t take on too much at once; that is, get one bed established before taking on more projects. Remember that you are doing something enjoyable — it is not a competitive sport. Take the time to enjoy it.”