PBS Member in the News

Bracey Tiede tiede@pacbell.net
Wed, 10 Feb 2010 10:17:44 PST
A Growing Obsession: Rare Seeds 


Garden catalogs might top 100 pages of flower, vegetable and herb varieties.
For some gardeners-where the line between dedication and obsession can
sometimes blur-that's not enough. 

For them, there are seed exchanges. These are groups formed by garden clubs
or plant collectors whose members harvest seeds from their own plants and
donate them to the exchange. Fellow gardeners in the group can order seeds
at little or no cost. The appeal of these exchanges is that they frequently
offer unusual varieties of plants not typically found in catalogs, whether
it's a species grown by few collectors, or an "heirloom" seed variety passed
down for generations.

The coming weeks are high season for seed exchanges as many gardeners are
preparing to start seedlings indoors to be planted outside once spring
breaks. Part of the fun of surfing the seed exchanges is in recognizing
names and gardens where donations come from-and the chance to plant seeds
from famous gardens. The North American Rock Garden Society exchange lists
more than 100 seeds donated by the New York Botanical Garden from its
expeditions to the countries of Georgia and China in 2005 and 2007. 

Janet Draper, horticulturist with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington
this year donated seeds of a South African foxglove from the Smithsonian's
Mary Livingston Ripley garden to the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group
seed exchange, among other seed varieties. Ms. Draper says some of her
favorite plants in the Ripley garden came from seeds acquired on the
exchange, such as tassel flower. 

About a dozen volunteers with the Hardy Plant Society group fulfilled
requests for seeds one recent morning at the Henry Foundation for Botanical
Research in Gladwyne, Pa., for some of its more than 900 varieties from
Abelmoschus manihot (ornamental okra) to zephyranthes (rain lily). The
group's 850 members range from backyard warriors to rare-plant collectors.
And while the number of members has remained stable, they also seem to be
getting younger, perhaps a sign of new interest in gardening, says Gene
Spurgeon, chairman of the exchange.

The North American Rock Garden Society has an exchange listing more than
4,500 different types of seeds from more than 250 donors. The society
organizes its listing so that gardeners can look up a seed's donor.
"Sometimes that will tell you if it's a good plant or not because you know
the gardener. Or, how hardy it is in your area, depending on where the
gardener who donated it lives," says Joyce Fingerut, who manages the

She once ordered seed of Mibora minima, whose common name is early
sandgrass, which she had never heard of. But because it was a donation from
a well-known gardener, she gave it a try. "I figured if he's growing it,
it's got to be interesting," she says. She continues to grow it at her home
in Stonington, Conn. 

Some groups that host exchanges cater to gardeners specializing in a
particular plant, letting them delve into unusual varieties. The Species
Iris Group of North America exchange, for example, includes the snake-bane
iris, a native of China believed to repel snakes, and extremely rare in the
U.S., says James W. Waddick, the exchange's Kansas City, Mo.-based

The exchange isn't just for iris snobs, he says, adding, "there are some
people who want to have a 20-foot row and don't want to pay for plants when
you can just buy a packet of seed." 

To take part in a typical exchange, gardeners harvest most flower seeds by
allowing blooms to fade and then collect ripened seed. They mail in their
seed donations, and the organization publishes a catalog sometime in the
winter listing contributions. Members then make their pick. Depending on
availability, a packet containing anywhere from a handful to hundreds of
seeds might cost as little as 50 cents or less-a fraction of what
commercially sold seed packets can cost. Some organizations will set a limit
on the number of seeds members can order. Others offer bonus seeds for big
contributors. To become a member to take part in exchanges, annual dues can
run from as little as $5 to $40. Some gardening Web sites such as
blossomswap.com also host seed-trading forums, which don't require
membership fees.

These homemade listings will lack many of the showy hybrid varieties that
commercial catalogs offer and that appeal to many gardeners. While hybrids
can be stunning, gardeners looking to propagate them from seed will often
find that they won't develop "true," or look like the parent. On the other
hand, gardeners interested in species plants-as found in the wild and which
reproduce naturally without human interference-will find plenty of variety
in these seed-exchange listings. "Heirloom" varieties will also grow true
and can be coveted. 

Charles Cresson's donation of an African lily variety named "Kingston Blue"
is the most popular on this year's Hardy Plant exchange, receiving 36
requests (only five could be fulfilled; others got alternates). Mr.
Cresson's other popular donation: seeds from a clivia named "Sir John
Thouron," an unusual yellow variety that once fetched $2,400 at a rare-plant
auction. In Swarthmore, Pa., Mr. Cresson oversees a garden that has been in
his family since 1883. "A lot of things that interest me are not
run-of-the-mill," he says. "This seed exchange is a great way to make the
seed available and be able to say why it is so special." 

Mr. Cresson has been offering seeds on the exchange for more than 15 years,
and most of those years, he doesn't ask for seeds in return. "A good plant
should be shared, and a rare plant should be shared," he says. "Its survival
depends on it." He ordered an unusual variety of snowdrop-an early flowering
bulb-from England 20 years ago, and it recently died on him. He had
forgotten that he had shared some bulbs with another gardener, who one day
casually mentioned how much he loved the variety. When Mr. Cresson explained
that he'd lost his, the following year, "I got a nice big bunch of it back."

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D1 

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved




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