The Explorer’s Garden: Shrubs and Vines from the Four Corners of the World

The beauty of Dan Hinkley’s writing is that it has matured as his personal aesthetic for plants has grown more defined. The wild world is no longer Dan’s metaphorical candy store. As Dan has come to understand himself, he has also come to know how to explain his particular criteria for great garden plants to the rest of us. Now, in the second volume of The Explorer’s Garden, Dan has raised horticultural storytelling to a high art, to which the rest of us garden writers can only aspire.

The Explorer’s Garden is intended to be nibbled in bits, not consumed front to back, but I would encourage those opening its covers for the first time to read the introduction immediately. In it, Dan relates how he came to be a plant explorer—more to become a better gardener than from any particular wanderlust. He also describes his continual joust with taxonomists—in his case, a more intense occupation than for the rest of us gardeners, because Dan is at the vanguard of plant discovery. I’m not going to be a spoiler here, but he makes one of the best knee-slapping puns about taxonomists I’ve ever read.

After communing with himself in the introduction, Dan then muses at length and interestingly about propagation—answering the question “how does he do it?”—and about those touchiest of subjects, invasiveness and the ethics of collecting plants from the wild. Thus, when we come to the chapters on plants, we are well armed to follow Dan wherever he leads.

Each chapter, built around a particular family, starts with a journal entry from a past expedition; it might describe how Dan found a plant, or who the plant reminds him of, or how the plant snuck into his consciousness—finding him, instead of the other way around. A case could be made for buying this book for these excerpts alone. They remind me of the brief introductions Dan used to write for the original Heronswood catalog sections—fun, heart-warming, poetic, and quite telling about the man himself.

The genera and species covered in the book are examined in depth, but this is, by Dan’s own admission, not a comprehensive survey of woody plants and vines. Great thumping genera and, indeed, families of plants, are not covered. From the subtitle one would expect to find Lonicera and Clematis and Camellia here, but they are not to be found except for mention as garden companions. Instead, we are treated to obscure species in common families, and are encouraged to take a second look at plants, long in horticulture, through the lens of their native environment—often revealing much-needed clues to their best cultivation.

The treatment of each species ends with a thorough description of hardiness, tips for cultivation, and successful methods of propagation. In the chapter on shrubby hydrangeas, all three of these topics are expanded to include such niceties as cultivation in containers, fertilizing needs, and particular light requirements. The climbing hydrangeas get a chapter of their own. “Wow,” my husband said after giving this book a long glance, “he really likes hydrangeas.” (To say the least!) But, in Dan’s eyes, we see them not as mop-headed subjects groomed for floral design and foundation plantings, but as fully realized ornamental shrubs, with extended seasonal foliage effects, elegant branching structure, and distinctly more subtle and intricate inflorescences.

As a devoted customer of the original Heronswood Nursery, I sense a gentle exorcism here, as Dan mentions plants he grew in that legendary Kingston, Washington garden. It is heartbreaking to read of his losing touch with a beloved plant to which he no longer has access—like children from whom he has been forcibly parted and knows not their fate. The first time he mentions “in our first garden,” it gave me pause as I realized what he meant. Throughout the book, however, Dan discreetly opens the door, and, eventually, the 800-pound gorilla in the room lumbers away.

If you’ve heard Dan Hinkley speak, you know that, in recent years, the people he travels with and those he meets along the way, have become as important to his experience of a plant as the characteristics of the plant itself. The people and places he associates with plants he loves seem to tell him as much about how to grow the plants as seeing the plants growing in the wild does. Here, Dan is able to convey, in his own magical way, the atmosphere and attitude in which plant explorers exist, as they hike the world in search of great new plants. Or, perhaps, they are looking for some leafy Holy Grail. Or, are they searching for themselves?

Linda Beutler, garden writer
Portland, Oregon