Advice from a plant hunter: ‘Have your child plant an orange seed’

Dan Hinkley, a supernova and reluctant ‘granddaddy’ of the gardening world, is coming to Ireland


Teacher, writer, lecturer, consultant, nurseryman, naturalist, gardener – even if you haven’t already heard of the American plantsman Dan Hinkley, then this month’s RHSI bicentenary celebrations, where he’s one of the key speakers, would almost inevitably have drawn him to your attention.

In the world of international horticulture, Hinkley is a sort of supernova. A rare breed, he combines horticultural erudition with the Indiana Jones-like whiff of glamour that comes from being a modern-day plant-hunter and adventurer who has collected extensively in China, Chile, Vietnam, India and South Africa. That career has not been without its risks. On one occasion – while plant-hunting in Nepal in 2002 – he was kidnapped and held for ransom by the Maoists.

Even Britain’s usually staid Telegraph newspaper has described him as “the granddaddy of plant gurus”, although it’s a description that Hinkley is not entirely comfortable with. “At 62, I guess I qualify as granddaddy,” he says, “however it makes me seem a bit more decrepit than I am or feel. If it is meant as a compliment, I will honestly tell you that I have never believed my own press.”

As a 21st-century plant-hunter who has introduced many garden-worthy plants into modern cultivation, his own list of horticultural heroes includes people like Frank Kingdon-Ward.

A celebrated British botanist, plant collector (and spy), Kingdon-Ward survived a host of physical ordeals – falling off a cliff, impalement on a bamboo, starvation, an earthquake – over the numerous botanical expeditions that he carried out in Tibet, China, Burma and India in the first half of the 20th century.

Another is the British horticulturist Roy Lancaster, whom Hinkley describes as “one of my inspirations as he seems to be as interested in the entirety of the natural world as I am – not just the plants. There is so much more to witness and marvel in.”

As probably the world’s most famous modern day plant-hunter, what, I wonder, does Hinkley think of the new EU-approved Nagoya protocol, which aims to restrict the sale/ availability of plant material collected in the wild?

“I believe that the spirit behind Nagoya was well-meaning,” he says. “However, it seems as if the concern over massive profits from potential pharmaceuticals has and will continue to cripple the inherently good things that come about from horticulturists and botanists wishing to conserve and edify our knowledge of the natural world before the natural world is gone. To read journalistic accounts about contemporary plant-collectors ‘raping and pillaging’ is simply not rooted in reality.”

Hinkley himself takes the responsibilities of plant-hunting very seriously. His maxim is “do no harm”. “We know when a plant is rare and when it should be left alone.” Similarly (and unlike most of his Victorian/Edwardian predecessors), he takes the potential risk of bio-invasion (where a plant introduction becomes aggressively invasive) deadly seriously. “I plant and I watch to make sure that the plant in question is going to stay within the garden fence. As simple living animals, humans impact the world in which we live and I like to believe that we are part of the systems and not held above it as something distinct. “

His principled approach held him in good stead when it came to his former garden and nursery near Seattle, the world-famous Heronswood. When he and his partner sold it to Burpee in 2000, there was widespread consternation, even though the American seed company vowed to preserve its unique collection of plants. When Burpee then sold the garden in 2006, there was a furious public outcry.

Happily, Heronswood is now cared for by the S’Klallam tribe of Native Americans and Hinkley is once again involved in its management, although he has also created his own new garden, Windcliff, just 11 miles away. What lessons, if any, does he take from what must have been a painful experience?

“When we sold Heronswood, we did it with the full knowledge that we [were] deliberately deciding to try something different with our lives, and if we fell on our faces in the process, so be it. There is a line from a Steven Sondheim lyric: ‘I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not’.”

While this will be his third visit to Ireland, Hinkley’s admiration for Irish gardens goes deeper than that. This is in part due to his long friendship with Dublin gardener Helen Dillon, but also his love of WJ Bean’s classic reference works, Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles. But he questions whether we fully appreciate the horticultural riches that they represent. “Great gardens in North America are so far apart, I wonder if the Irish take the amazing density of good gardens in such a relatively small country for granted?”

If he could whittle down all his years of gardening and plant-hunting to one small gem of advice, what would it be? “Have your child plant an orange seed.” The RHSI bicentenary gala celebrations take place in the RDS, Ballsbridge, on September 30th and include talks by Dan Hinkley, Roy Lancaster and Monty Don, a floral art demonstration by Jenny Murphy and specialist plant sales. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster from €25-€100, booking essential. see

Question time with Dan Hinkley: Of the plants that you’ve collected in the wild, could you please name five that you’re most proud of and explain why you’re so proud of them?

Beesia calthaefolia It was unknown to cultivation when I brought this back from Sichuan in 1998. It has done very well for itself across North America and has a lot going for it.

Litsea populifolia Still quite unknown in cultivation, this deciduous shrub is undeservedly scarce. Lovely bluish green rounded foliage. Good autumn color, late winter blossoms.

Schizophragma elliptifolium A beautiful species never successfully entered in cultivation. Just a reminder that there are many more species of familiar genera out there that need an examination in our gardens.

Clematis repens This was a re introduction of a unique Clematis that EH Wilson had collected in China over a century ago from the same vicinity. It has been successfully distributed from my collection and will hopefully not be lost again. This again reminds me that just because plants have been collected before, it does not mean they have persisted in cultivation, making recollections an important part of the process.

Xanthocyparis vietnamensis I took cuttings of this most recently described conifer in the world from a dying individual in North Vietnam, and in the process secured the genetics of one of only a handful of trees still to exist in the wild. I have shared cuttings of this clone with numerous botanical gardens and arboreta across North America and Europe.”

This week in the garden

Save tomato seeds Save seed of home-grown tomatoes for sowing next spring. To do this, squeeze the juicy innards of the fruit into a small bowl, add a little water and place somewhere dry and warm for a few days before pouring the contents into a fine sieve and gently rinsing to reveal the seeds. Spread these on to a piece of kitchen paper – with the name of the variety written on to it – leave them to dry, and then store in the fridge in a watertight box. As long as it is not a modern hybrid variety, the resulting plants should come true to type.

Order sweet pea seeds Order seed of sweet pea varieties for sowing in October. Specialist online suppliers include Owl’s Acre (, which stocks a huge range of named varieties including Spencer, heirloom, dwarf and early-flowering types. Of the 20 or so I grew this year, I heartily recommend ‘Jilly’ (cream- white), ‘Bristol’ (soft blue), ‘Oban Bay’ (silver-blue), ‘Windsor’ (claret) and ‘Mollie Rilstone’ (antique pink).

Move biennals Move early-summer sown biennials (wallflowers, sweet William, honesty, sweet rocket, foxgloves, right) into their final planting positions so that they have time to establish their root systems before the arrival of autumn proper and cooler temperatures. Always transplant into well-prepared, weed-free soil, water plants well before and immediately after transplanting, and take precautions against slugs.

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