Meet the Indiana Joneses of the botanical world

Three plant hunters venture off in search of rare and unusual species

For the love of plants

Written by Sharon Cohoon

For the love of plants

Hiking in ankle-deep mud, shivering in rain-soaked sleeping bags, and enduring bee stings and leech bites while watching for even more dangerous creatures... a plant explorer's life is anything but glamorous.

Why do they do it? Not for fortune or fame--few outside horticultural circles know who they are. (When's the last time you thought about where the plants you buy originated?) Whether they send their finds to commercial growers or propagate and sell the plants themselves, these three hunters agree: The real payoff is the thrill of discovery.

Greg Starr: Succulent sleuth

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Greg Starr: Succulent sleuth

The elusive prize: For Greg, owner of Starr Nursery (starr-nursery.com), is cactus and succulents, with a particular emphasis on agaves native to the Southwest and Mexico, which he helped popularize. He scouts south of the border, the best place to find plants tough enough for his challenging desert climate.

Home base: Tucson

Travels to: Mexico, western Texas

Memorable misadventure: Two year ago in Mexico, he was stopped by police three times in one day--and had to pay bribes each time. "High temperatures and occasional intestinal distress you get used to. Dealing with bribes and blockades you don't. But finding a new plant that looks like it has possibilites makes it all worthwhile."

Greg's favorite finds

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Greg's favorite finds: Penstemon Amphorellae

This low, woody perennial from Coahuila, Mexico, has fine light green foliage that sets off large blue flowers.

Greg's favorite finds: Nolina Nelsonii

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Greg's favorite finds: Nolina Nelsonii

Its magnificent 30-inch blue blades are the star of this northern Mexico find. But thousands of flowers on a 4-foot stalk are showy too.

Greg's favorite finds: Salvia Pennellii

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Greg's favorite finds: Salvia Pennellii

A cold-tolerant Mexican native, this late-season bloomer has blue-violet flowers, dark stems, and textured deep green leaves.

Dan Hinkley: Mountain pioneer

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Dan Hinkley: Mountain pioneer

Cofounder of Heronswood Nursery, Dan has a penchant for plants from mountainous regions, but also a (rather inconvenient) fear of heights. You learn to live with it, he says. "I don't freeze anymore when I come to a precipice, but they're never going to be my favorite spots." His preferred haunt is China: "There's incredible diversity there because its plant palette wasn't wiped clean by the last ice age, which missed China."

Home base: Indianola, Washington

Travels to: Asia, including Sikkim in northeastern India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America.

Memorable misadventure: "In 2002, we were robbed by Maoist rebels and held for ransom twice on a Nepalese expedition, and the hotel next to us in Kathmandu was bombed on the same trip. Rebels and terrorists are the worst danger there."

Dan's favorite finds: Fuchsia Magellanica

Photo by Doreen Wynja / Monrovia; written by Sharon Cohoon

Dan's favorite finds: Fuchsia Magellanica

Aslo known as 'windcliff flurry,' hummingbirds can't resist this sun-loving Chilean flower. The plant grows 6 feet tall and wide; spectacular blooms for months.

Dan's favorite finds: Clematis Montana

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Dan's favorite finds: Clematis Montana

Commonly referred to as 'pink-a-boo,' this vigorous vine from China has sweetly scented blush pink flowers, deep plum foliage and grows quickly to 20 feet.

Dan's favorite finds: Beesia Deltophylia

Photo by Monrovia; written by Sharon Cohoon

Dan's favorite finds: Beesia Deltophylia

This evergreen groundcover from China, for full or partial shade, sports shiny heart-shaped leaves and spires of white flowers in spring.

Sean Hogan: West Coast adventurer

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Sean Hogan: West Coast adventurer

Owner of Cistus Design & Nursery (cistus.com), Sean's preferred quarry is West Coast-adapted architectural plants: agaves and other bold-leafed growers that look like they'd wither in cold weather but are actually quite tough.

Home base: Sauvie Island, Oregon

Travels to: Northern Mexico, South Africa, South America, and the West

Memorable misadventure: While scouting in South Africa, Sean spotted some succulents that blended in with the surrounding rocks. Completely entranced by the plants, he moved in for a closer look, not noticing a deadly four-and-a-half-foot ringhals cobra, coiled to strike. "The snake was as well camouflaged as the plants. I jumped back at the last minute!"

Sean's favorite finds: Eriophyllum Lanatum

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Sean's favorite finds: Eriophyllum Lanatum

Commonly referred to as 'Takilma Gold,' this variety of the Western native known as Oregon sunshine reaches 18 inches tall and blooms spring through fall.

Sean's favorite finds: Ribes Sanguineum

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Sean's favorite finds: Ribes Sanguineum

Also known as 'Pink Pearl,' this seedling popped up at Sean's nursery, and he propagated it for its dense flower clusters and long bloom.

Sean's favorite finds: Choisya Arizonica

Written by Sharon Cohoon

Sean's favorite finds: Choisya Arizonica

Also referred to as 'Whetstone,' this shrub was named after the Arizona mountains where it was found. It stays under 3 feet and has large flowers that smell like orange blossoms.

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