The Search for New Plants

Inspiration / New Plants

The Search for New Plants

By David Wilson, Overdevest Nurseries


I dare say that from the time when the first gardeners put implements in the earth to cultivate the soil, they have been exploring the possibility of finding and discovering GOOD NEW PLANTS. 

Over the centuries, intrepid plant hunters have searched for hidden plant wonders in far flung corners of the world. Undertaking grueling sea journeys, traversing arduous treks through uncharted territory, braving appalling weather and the perils of disease, snakes and leeches, hostile people, and warring nations. They frequently risked life and limb to bring new-to-science plants back to the western world, plants that many of the ones we grow in our gardens today are descended from.

Learning of their exploits makes fascinating and chilling reading. In their day, these explorers were the equivalent to today’s astronauts, resolutely embarking into the unknown, in search of new commercially valuable food or medicinal species, as well as plants that were aesthetically pleasing. Warding off loneliness and isolation and sleeping “rough,” in tents or in flea ridden accommodations, they were commonly threatened, robbed and several met debilitating injuries and some gruesome, untimely deaths. 

Ernest “Chinese” Wilson (1917-1919), who literally brought us thousands of plants including the famous “Wilson’s Fifty” Kurume Azaleas was collecting Lilium regale in Southwest China when he got caught in a landslide. He survived, but his leg was broken in two places which caused him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. 

Scotsman Robert Fortune (1812-1880) also brought us many fine plants including the bleeding heart (Dicentra spectablis), and is famous for helping to break the Chinese monopoly on tea by disguising himself as a Chinese tea merchant to smuggle tea plants out to the west. David Douglas (1799-1834), another Scot, introduced over 200 new conifer species, including Douglas Fir; he collected Lupinus Polyphyllus, the parent of garden lupins, and Cornus alba of which the highly regarded Cornus Alba 'Ivory Halo®' is derived. He suffered from failing eyesight (due to ongoing ailments encountered during his trips) and he met a terrible death when he fell into a pit-trap in Hawaii and was trampled and gored by a bull!

Then there was Grigori Potanin (1835-1920), a Russian plant explorer that uniquely was accompanied by his botanist wife Alexandra Victorovna on each of his four expeditions into China and Tibet. On the last of these trips she became very ill, so he abandoned the expedition and sought the shortest route back to civilization, but it took nearly a month to trek back and she died two days from reaching their destination! Dealing with grief, he got her body transported down river to Shanghai, then by sea to the northeastern Chinese coast, then across northern China, Mongolia and the Gobi Desert to the nearest point in Russia, because he had promised she would be buried on Russian soil!

Legendary figures like George Forrest, Reginald Farrer, Frank Kingdon-Ward, “Cherry” Ingram and my childhood hero Augustine Henry, the man they nicknamed “The Scholarly Irishman,” were just a few of the intrepid plant hunters that opened up the pandora’s box of new species that formed the basis of a rich harvest that led to many of the plants we have in our Handpicked For You® listing of certified plants today. 

Thankfully, things are easier and less risky for our modern-day plant hunters, but it still demands considerable fortitude and dedication to travel to seek out new forms of plants that help our plant breeders to develop new colors and improve characteristics like increased hardiness, disease resistance, shorter compact habits, longer flowering, etc. And with today’s logistics and communications we are able to source them quicker, in greater quantities, and (as you will hear later) with the aid of modern scientific techniques push the boundaries of plant development in ways that these pioneers could never even have dreamed of. 

We are very fortunate to have some of the world’s top breeders create new plants for us, and while space does not allow me to make mention of them here, I refer you to some previous articles entitled “Captivating Coneflowers” and “Plant the Best, to Grow the Best” where we profile some of the amazing work and superb new plants that these talented people have introduced.

It should also be noted that some new plants come to us by chance discovery, observant enthusiasts who go the extra distance to bring up new and different, but better too. Take for example Syringa ‘Miss Kim.’ It was discovered in the Pouk Han Mountains in Korea by Elwyn M. Meader while he was working for the US Military shortly after World War II. Then there’s the story of the late Joe Stupka of Pulaski in northwestern Pennsylvania. He liked to hunt for “witches brooms,” those peculiar congested growths that spontaneously occur and often lead to unusual, compact growing new plants. Joe found cemeteries were particularly good places to look for them, and if they were too high in a tree, he would sometimes shoot them down with his shotgun! Thuja Mr. Bowling Ball was one that he found.

So, the search for new and improved plants goes on... and the results of our endeavors are yielding remarkable results with lots of really good new plants reaching us from far and wide. 

At the Handpicked For You® Nurseries the experts have been using their knowledge and experience to trial and evaluate potential outstanding selections, whittling down the myriad of new introductions to find and identify the best, top performing ones for our region, those that look like they could one day become worthy of the coveted Handpicked For You® certification status. 

Growing them to the highest standards and making them available through a network of independently owned retail garden centers is another part of the equation, and of course getting the message out to you is very important too. That’s where our YouTube videos are so valuable. In these, we profile a selection of the best performers, pointing out their merits, together with cultural tips and suggestions, with often a little about their background stories thrown in for good measure as extra interesting information.   

As examples, in the following section we feature just a few of the stunning new plants presented in these videos. Click on the videos and you will be able to get the scoop on some of the fabulous new plants that are going to be showing up in the garden centers right across our region.  

In recent years native plants have become very popular and one of the choicest and highly sought-after native perennials has been the Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica).

Frequently hard to get, many of us (up to this point) have had to settle for under-sized seedlings in a little quart pots, but all this changes with the introduction of Spigelia ‘Little Redhead.’ This superior selection is much more vigorous and makes nice sized specimens that helps us get off to the perfect start.


And for amazing, easy to look after, summer color how about these compact Hummingbird Mints? Click on the video and discover Agastache POQUITO™ Yellow & Agastache POQUITO™ Orange together with another selection called Agastache POQUITO™ Dark Blue that we are very fond of too.


Other valued summer flowering shrubs are of course Mophead Hydrangeas, and while there’s several good blue, pink, purple and even white selections, there is not a good reliable flowering dark red that flowers on old and new shoots! Well, at least until now… Click on this video and find out how Hydrangea Magical® Ruby Red hybridized by Kolster in the Netherlands changes all that.


Then it is reassuring to know that modern advances in science are meeting the concerns surrounding some invasive species, and here you will find two NEW exciting examples of easy to grow and highly reliable non-Invasive Maiden grasses: Miscanthus Bandwidth and Miscanthus Scout.


Then finally let’s honor the foresight of Dr. Mark Brand at the University of Connecticut by highlighting the wonderful Berberis WorryFree® Crimson Cutie® and WorryFree® Lemon Glow®.

In this video, you will be able to find out how these two varieties are the most exciting things to happen in the horticultural industry in recent years. How Dr. Brand had the vision to recognize (16 years ago) that the invasiveness of Berberis thunbergii was likely to become an issue, and how armed with his scientific background, he was able to develop these two certified sterile selections that mean now we can enjoy all the benefits of planting barberries without having to worry about them seeding into the landscape. 

So the search for new plants is active and strong, and well organized. Today we are fortunate to be enjoying the benefits of historical achievements married with developments of modern plant breeding and logistics, and with the advancements of science we can look forward to an ever exciting line up of top performing varieties. Ones that will help to make our gardening endeavors easier and more successful and our home environments a lot more pleasant to live in and appreciate.

Browse Overdevest Nurseries' YouTube Channel here.