Need a 17th-century herb? A computer plant search service can help

THE requests are unusual - everything from Canadian bog plants to French artichokes to cotton - and they come from as far away as Wales and Israel. But when your business is playing Sherlock Holmes in the plant world, with a computer as your Watson, such requests aren't exactly unexpected. ``I wanted to do something informative,'' says Sandy Olson of North Star Seed and Plant Search, ``to shake people out of planting just old-fashioned marigolds and Big Boy tomatoes - to increase the availability of plant material from around the world.

``One day it came to me. People kept asking me where to get things. There are so many lists of plant sources, but they keep going out of date.'' With the aid of a computer, Olson figured she could search for new plants and catalogs, as well as sources for long-established varieties, storing the information in the computer's memory. And now, with some 100,000 plants and seeds and their resources in her computer file, she quite literally has the plant world at her fingertips.

Olson's business is quite new. After earning a two-year degree in horticulture from temple University School of Horticulture in Ambler, Penn., she raised fresh herbs for Pennsylvania restaurants for five years. Then she and her husband decided to move away from the bustle and congestion of that area and, two years ago, moved to Burnham, Maine.

``We found the right piece of land and a house close by in Burnham,'' says Olson. The land is a mixture of open fields and woods and provides the right setting for another of Olson's aspirations - a perennial nursery.

Soon after they moved, Olson's husband established his own business making ham radio equipment, while Olson herself searched for a way to zero in on her own professional horticultural niche, something that would provide both winter and summer employment and would ``make at least some money.''

She had been interested in the Seed Savers' Exchange, a group that tracks and promotes heirloom varieties of plants - primarily vegetables - and she wanted to do something similar but broader. North Star Seed and Plant Search was what she came up with. Unlike the Seed Savers' Exchange, the data banks for her company include both commercially and privately available plant material.

By last March she had thousands of annual and perennial flowers, native plants, domestic and foreign vegetables, bulbs, tubers, corms (tree cuttings), grasses, and ferns listed, along with multiple suppliers of both plants and seeds. By June, the memory banks had grown to include fruits, nuts, and woody ornamentals as well.

Among the materials Olson can search for are ``a 17th-century herb for a colonial garden, a pear tree to replace the 150-year-old friend, a rhododendron spotted in England and long coveted, a source for French beans for a market grower.'' And once she finds the requested plant, she will import it for her customer if necessary.

It was logical for Olson to combine her interest in plants with computer technology, since her husband had purchased an IBM-XT computer for his business. But it was not easy to learn to use it.

``I learned by disaster after disaster,'' she explains. ``I read manuals and called people in desperation. One friend helped me learn, and I paid another friend to help me put things in the computer. We finally started getting things in.'' The programming was complicated, she says, because the number of plants and sources she was listing required a large memory.

The charge for her services depends on whether the order is standard - something easily found in her computer - or custom, something ``not available in the computer file and requiring a detailed search through worldwide connections.''

Finding the plants is fun, says Olson, but it can also be difficult. ``The tough part is if the species is not available from seed but only as a plant, and that plant may be in England or Germany or Japan. The process of obtaining these plants is complex. I'm hoping that I can get together enough such requests to finance a buying trip.''

Olson notes that through her research, she has found that seed catalogs are quite repetitious and that ``those that do have different varieties are mostly European.... It is amazing to me how many American native shrubs are hybridized in Europe but not here ... and how few European and Far Eastern natives are available here.''

She hopes to help reverse this trend by encouraging gardeners to ``make a place for a small native plant garden, revive that perennial bed that Aunt Sadie used to care for so tenderly, and plant some shrub whose name you cannot pronounce but may be well adapted to your climate. Patronize a nursery that carries unusual plants.''

You can contact Sandy Olson at North Star Seed and Plant Search, Box 1655A, RFD 1, Burnham, ME 04922.

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