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A plant explorer travels the globe for rare and unusual Asian varieties

Dan Hinkley collects foreign seeds and brings them back to the United States.

By Adrian HigginsWashington Post-LA Times Syndicate / August 5, 2009

Hydrangea peruviana is one of the interesting plants introduced into the United States.

Dan Hinkley/Washington Post-LA Times Syndicate

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Some of the most familiar plants in the garden originated in Southeast Asia. Azaleas, rhododendrons, hostas, wisterias, lilies, daylilies, camellias, and viburnums, to name a few, have made us feel so much at home that our world, ironically, would feel alien without them.

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Many of these plants have cousins native to North America, but it is the trove of Asian plants that directly, or indirectly through hybridizing, have come to define our gardens: the showy flowering evergreen azaleas of April, the saucer magnolias of March, and the summer blossoms of the hydrangea and crape myrtle.

Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the southern provinces of China west to Tibet, as well as Bhutan and Nepal, drew 19th- and early-20th-century plant collectors from the West who found in these regions a horticultural Shangri-La. The ice age glaciers that erased much of the flora of Europe and North America were blocked by the Himalayas and other mountain ranges. The result?

"The number of plant species within the boundaries of China is 10 times the plant species we have in North America," says Dan Hinkley, whose five-acre garden overlooking Puget Sound in Washington state has, it is fair to say, its share of these treasures.

Mr. Hinkley has spent two decades retracing the steps of such legendary plant explorers as Robert Fortune (1812-80), Jean Marie Delavay (1834-95), Armand David (1826-1900), Ernest "Chinese" Wilson (1876-1930), and George Forrest (1873-1932).

Theirs may have been the golden age of Asian plant collection, but the spirit of the period is very much alive among a handful of 21st-century collectors such as Hinkley. His work may take decades more to flower in Western gardens, but the tradition, the impulse to brighten our lives with fantastic Asian plants, persists.

Hinkley's forerunners stayed for years in Asia, often assembling armies of local inhabitants in their quest. They faced perils and privations Hinkley hasn't, including disease and physical threat, but they had certain advantages. They could evaluate plants in spring or summer bloom. Hinkley typically goes for 12-week stints in two or three countries, but during the seed-ripening months, September through December. He only sees how they bloom back in his garden, sometimes years later.