ON THE WEBSITE of Far Reaches Farm rare plant nursery, shoppers can filter the plant listings by the usual expected things, like shrub or fern, or shade or sun, or hardiness zone. But there’s also a filter for “shop by plant origin,” as in: where in the world each of the goodies hails from. And that filter hints at the fact that the nursery’s owners are longtime plant explorers, and also preservationists.
Kelly Dodson, who’s here with me today, and Sue Milliken (that’s them in the photo below) are the proprietors of Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, Washington, and also of the nonprofit Far Reaches Botanical Conservancy, that seeks to acquire and conserve horticulturally and botanically important rare plants, many of them from Asia. (Above, Polygonatum huanum, synonym kingianum, a Solomon’s seal from China, which can reach more than 10 feet high.)
Read along as you listen to the February 22, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
unusual perennials, with kelly dodson
Margaret Roach: I’m so glad to have you join me, Kelly, and to get acquainted. Welcome.
Kelly Dodson: Oh, thank you, Margaret. I’m really very pleased to be here today.
Margaret: Yes. So, if people don’t know where Port Townsend is, it’s a wonderful place. It’s kind of a ferry ride across from Seattle, yes?
Kelly: It is, and it’s an old Victorian seaport, and it has… It’s just very charming. We’ve got some actual architecture here with old brick buildings. It’s quite beautiful.
Margaret: Yeah. I haven’t been in a long time, but I remember it fondly. So, I’ve read that you and your partner, Sue Milliken, met in 1997 on a plant-hunting expedition in Yunnan province in southwest China. When did you then start Far Reaches, the nursery? Tell us a little bit about sort of the quick history.
Kelly: Well, I’ll leave out some of the more salacious details-
Margaret: O.K., good. Good, good, good. [Laughter.]
Kelly: … which is really quite interesting, but we found an immediate connection and bonded over this dry, spiny mound of Arenaria up Zheduo mountain pass in Yunnan, and who else would love that plant? But we each did, so we knew we were meant for each other.
It was a little bit of time later, about 2003, we acquired this current property here within the city limits of Port Townsend, our 6 acres, and started building the nursery up a couple years later from that.
Margaret: Now, is it true that although you have this remarkable, extensive collection, largely of shade plants, that you purchased 6 acres with just one tree on it and cut that tree down? Is that a true story?
Kelly: It’s a sad but true story, yes. [Laughter.] It was a huge cottonwood, which isn’t the most stable or durable long-term tree, so we had to take that down, and with our interest in shade gardens, we had to build this kind of massive lath-house structure [above, in part] to house our shade garden, and it’s actually worked out really quite well. We don’t have root competition from shade trees.
Margaret: So, about how many kinds of plants… Confess, Kelly: How serious is this issue of yours? [Laughter.] How many taxa do you have in the collection, do you think, and how many are for sale at any one given moment in the catalog, in the nursery?
Kelly: Well, it’s kind of difficult to really say. I mean, it’s, I guess, how you define taxa. If you get into… We do some breeding, and so then you have hundreds of seedlings you evaluate. I guess each of those could be a taxa. But not counting those, we’ve got, oh, I don’t know, 7,000 or 8,000 anyway.
Margaret: O.K., different kinds of plants.
Kelly: Yes. Oh, yeah. Yeah, different species.
Margaret: In any given year, you propagate more of some to have them for sale? It sort of varies? I mean, I don’t think you have 7,000 or 8,000 things for sale in the catalog, do you, at any one season?
Kelly: No, we’ll do a few hundred usually, and it’s plants that come on… We don’t put everything on the catalog at once. It’s just as plants grow and propagate and get of size, then we add them on. We don’t do anything in really large numbers. We have kind of an attention deficit issue, so we get beyond a couple flats, then we move on to something else.
A lot of these plants are rare because they’re difficult to propagate or take longer to finish in a pot to be saleable, but we work on those anyway. So, it’s a bit of a challenge, but we find it very rewarding.
Margaret: So, I know that you two are focused next on the nonprofit, the Far Reaches Botanical Conservancy, and I want to talk about that a little later in our discussion, the effort to sort of morph the nursery into that. But first, I want to talk about some plants, some specific plants. And as I said in the introduction, someone can shop by the usual filters, but they can also shop by Vietnam, Tasmania, Russia—these places, and I think that hints at the fact that you two have had a lot of adventure travel stamped in your old passports; we’d see evidence of that.
But you don’t go, to do this plant exploring, plant collecting, you don’t go like a tourist who goes to see, oh, the bulbs blooming in South Africa or whatever at peak bloom. You go when everything’s past bloom, to collect seed. Right?
Kelly: Yeah, that’s true. We’ve only done one trip in the spring to China to see plants in flower, and that was mind-blowing. But yeah, we tend to go in the autumn when the majority of seed is available, whether it’s in Asia, or this past spring we went down to South America, which would’ve been their fall then. So, yeah, seed is what we’re after generally.
Margaret: So, I’m kind of overwhelmed at the possibilities that you have in your list. But I did see one sort of theme-ish thing that really caught my eye, and recently, my friend Ken Druse and I were talking on the show about some favorite of our early native spring perennials—we’re both Eastern gardeners—and we both love things with sort of these arching stems like Solomon’s seal and such. And you have a lot of things like that, I think, and I don’t know if that’s intentional or if you’re obsessed with that too, but can we talk about some of them, like the Polygonatum and Maianthemum and Uvularia and Disporum and whatever? I saw a lot of these things. Tell me about plants that look like that [laughter], if that makes sense. [Above: Uvularia perfoliata ‘Jingle Bells’.]
Kelly: Oh, I’d love to talk about that. Yeah.
All of those, that whole kind of group, like the Disporum now have been separated out into a different family than Polygonatum or Solomon’s seals, but we kind of regard them as sort of fulfilling the same function in the garden. They have the same visual impact and appeal, really, and we are just smitten by them, and for darn good reason. There’s few other things that offer that in the shade garden.
Solomon’s seals in particular have… There’s over 80 species of Solomon’s seals, and variations within each species, and their diversity is incredible. I mean, it goes from the Arctic circle down to tropical rainforest in Vietnam, and they can be… Well, we’ve actually pitched our tent on Polygonatum hookeri at 13,000 feet in Eastern Bhutan, and that only gets an inch or 2 high in that really short alpine turf. Whereas we’ve got Polygonatum vietnamicum [below] in our shade garden, and it’s not done reaching its full mature size, and it’s been as tall as 15 feet. So, that’s pretty awesome.
Margaret: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. I searched for them, and it said you have 31 different Polygonatum, and I was like, oh, my goodness. And then you had an article on the website, I’ll give a link with the transcript to it, about one that I think its synonym is… The species is kingianum or huanum or something [top of page; more on it at this link]. It’s a 12-footer with orange flowers. That was surprising.
Kelly: Yeah. That’s really a nice thing. It’s one that had been regarded as a Polygonatum kingianum.
Kelly: It’s distinct in that it has leaves that are different than what we would see on the East Coast, for example, where the leaves are kind of following the stem, and they’re little alternate sort of things, like every other step up the stem. But in kingianum, huanum, vietnamicum, they’re what’s called a verticillate arrangement of leaves. They’re a little like spokes on a wheel in whorls ranked up the stem, and it’s very distinctive.
Kingianum, it’s like, gosh, if it gets 10, 12, or even in the vietnamicum, 15 feet, how do you keep those upright? They’ve got a clever little adaptation. At the end of each leaf tip, it hooks into a little hook, and it will actually hold onto surrounding branchlets of shrubs, and so we have them going up through really thin-twigged, shrubby dogwoods, and they can kind of self-trellis themselves that way.
Margaret: Oh, good idea. Oh, that’s a good idea.
Kelly: Yeah. We’re kind of lazy, too, in a lot of ways, and so if we can make the plants do our work for us, that’s great.
Margaret: So, I think they’re now in the asparagus family, I think, the Solomon’s seals. Is that right? Is that what I mean to say? I think that’s where they are now.
Kelly: Yeah, that’s correct, in the Asparagaceae. And just to go on a little bit more about the diversity of them, there’s been some new species been describes recently by Dr. Aaron Floden at Missouri Botanical Garden, who has provided us with a number of the species that we have, and is actually a taxonomic advisor to our conservancy, just a great guy. And he’s really the world expert on Polygonatum, and is just amazing. But also, in addition to the alternate-leafed forms, which you’re familiar with, there is an evergreen species, too. [Below, Polygonatum odoratum ‘Flore Pleno’.]
Kelly: Yeah. It’s kind of crazy, and I would think… Generally, these are all grow in trees, as epiphytes, down in Southern Asia-
Margaret: Oh, wow.
Kelly: … and would think that something that’s living in a tree with orchids in Northern Vietnam would not be hardy here, but we’ve had them in the ground, out in the garden to 10 degrees, and that evergreen foliage is not damaged in the slightest.
Kelly: Yeah, really remarkable.
Margaret: Crazy, yeah. So, they have cousins, Maianthemum, and I guess before I go on, the Polygonatum that’s, I think, here in the east, it’s biflorum is the native one. And I have a Maianthemum up in my backyard by the fence line, by the edge of the woods. I think it’s canadense, a Maianthemum. But you have some from Guatemala and so forth. These are cousins of the Solomon’s seals, yes?
Kelly: That’s correct, yeah. Again, it kind of stretches your mind a little bit to imagine what we think of as a very northern cold-loving plant to find that there are relatives high up on the old volcanoes in Central America where there’s epiphytes growing in trees again, and some of these are just incredibly beautiful species, and they’ve proven hardy enough, at least here in the Seattle area f the Pacific Northwest, and we haven’t really trialed them in colder temperatures, but yeah, it’s quite interesting.
Some of the Asian ones are just incredible; a pink form of oleraceum, Maianthemum oleraceum [above] from the Himalayas is just truly a most amazing plant with huge panicles of pinkish-lavender flowers. It’s just awesome.
Margaret: Oh. My native one is almost a groundcover. It’s a little thing with inconspicuous white flowers and lovely leaves.
Kelly: Oh, sure. That’s with the rounded leaf and a vigorous spreader. Yeah, it’s a little bit scary sometimes [laughter].
Margaret: Well, again, it was there when I got here, and it’s kind of intertwined with moss and moss-like things. It’s just kind of what there is at the edge where there’s a little bit of light, where the big, tall trees and the sort of shrub layer meet, and it’s just always been there and minds its own business in the outer reaches here of my property.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s a nice thing, for sure, and I might point out one quick difference, maybe the largest difference between Maianthemum, false Solomon’s seal, and true Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum), is that in Polygonatum, the flowers are held in the leaf axils, the base of the leaf as it’s ranked up the stem. And then in Maianthemum, they’re terminal—they’re right at the end of the stem, and it’s just a big poof of showy flowers, usually.
Margaret: So that’s how we can figure it out even if otherwise, they might evoke the same kind of general look, and maybe even be the same kind of mood in the garden, so to speak?
Kelly: Right, right. I think both of these genera offer… If you’re not only as from just a standard sort of gardening approach, they offer a lot to the garden, but for the really obsessed plant collector, you can dive very, very deeply into both of these [laughter], and it’s really good.
Then when you get that mastered, you can jump over to an allied genus called Heteropolygonatum, which is not well-known at all, but it’s one that we’re extremely excited about. These are smaller, almost exclusively Chinese, although there’s one or two species that get into Vietnam and Myanmar, but they’re usually epiphytic, and they differ in the flower structure and chromosome count. But we’re super-excited right now because currently, Aaron Floden at Missouri Botanic is describing a new species that we found and introduced. So, that’s about as good as it gets in our world [laughter].
Margaret: Exactly. To be forever in the record books, so to speak, you know?
Kelly: Yeah, and it’s really, really fun to watch a botanist who specializes in such a thing as this get so excited to run the DNA and see how it fits into the whole group of known species, and it’s like, “Wow, this is an outlier. This is very good.” It feels very good to just be able to contribute to sort of the sum of human knowledge in a small way. Yeah.
Margaret: I want to shout out the Disporum a little bit because that’s one that, again, it has that same look, or the structural thing, but it’s different. I think it’s in the Colchicum family, actually, isn’t it? [Above, Disporum cf. brachystemon.]
Kelly: Yeah, that’s true, and that’s kind of odd, to look at the fall crocus, the Colchicum, and how does that fit in with this, but it’s how it works. But yeah, they’re really beautiful plants, and usually with flowers individually that are larger than the Polygonatum, and individually larger than Maianthemum, but yeah, they’re very showy plants.
Margaret: I don’t think we have native ones in… Do we have native ones in the United States? I’m trying to think. I don’t think so.
Kelly: Yeah, Margaret, we used to [laughter].
Margaret: Uh-oh. We lost them.
Kelly: We used to have several species of Disporum, and they’re really prominent in Asia, but a few years back, molecular research indicated that these needed to be separated from one another, and so our native Disporum are now Prosartes, and-
Margaret: Oh, O.K. That’s what happened. See, I was confused [laughter].
Kelly: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kelly: That’s what happened initially, and I always hate it when a major name change comes like that, because just like I have to get the old brain to catch up to it and have it be part of the lexicon, but mostly, we have to make all these database changes.
But it makes sense in a way because just from a purely nursery standpoint, Disporum, the Asian Disporum, you can propagate those by rooting them from stem cuttings. And Prosartes, the North American what used to be Disporum, just will not do that.
Margaret: I see.
Kelly: So, that’s kind of a major difference, which might not have botanical relevance, but from a cultural standpoint, it’s like, well, I can separate these two out [laughter].
Margaret: Right, right, right. So, before we talk about the conservation efforts and the nonprofit, I wanted to just ask, are there other sort of… Is there another thread or another group of plants that you’re deep into, that you’re particularly excited about, that you want to shout out to us so that when we’re digging through this extensive list, we make sure to read about it?
Kelly: Oh, sure. Gosh. That’s a bit of a problem for us because we are such a… I don’t know, how do you say this? Focused generalists, I guess.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kelly: Yeah. There’s so many things that interest us. Currently, we’re fairly intrigued by the African violet family, gesneriads. And we have been collecting and growing those. I think, for a large part for colder areas than us they’re going to be restricted to be indoor houseplants, but we’ve been getting some that have been quite hardy for us outside here in a good Zone 8, so that’s rather encouraging. [A flower detail of an unnamed Gesneriad, above. Kelly doing a video of the new plant on Instagram.]
Margaret: Oh, interesting.
Kelly: Another group that we like a lot are… Honestly, we’ve been getting into ferns, too, and we’ve tried to avoid ferns for a long time, because there’s just so darn many of them.
Margaret: It’s a slippery slope, Kelly, the ferns.
Kelly: [Laughter.] Oh, man. Tell me.
Kelly: We kind of focus more on ferns that don’t look like classic ferns, so we’re really mad about the entire-leafed ferns like Pyrrosia, the felt ferns, and things of that sort of ilk, I guess.
Margaret: Less ferny ferns, in other words.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah.
Margaret: In laypeople terms.
Margaret: Yeah. So, I want to hear about the conservancy and kind of what the Far Reaches Botanical Conservancy… It says on the website the mission is sort of “conservation through cultivation of botanically important plants.” So, tell us what that means.
Kelly: Well, that means that a lot of plants in the wild are severely threatened by climate change or just human resource exploitation, whether it’s timber harvest or agriculture, grazing, that sort of thing.
Many of these things have just a tenuous foothold, and climate change is no joke. It’s going to be… I hardly ever hear anybody say that it’s going to be catastrophic, but it is, which is a horror, really.
But most of these plants, it’s just going to take a minor change in climate and their growing conditions are gone, and we have to be able to preserve the unique genetics of these plants in cultivation, whether it’s in botanic gardens or home gardens.
And a large part of our conservancy function is acquiring these vulnerable species, propagating them, and then trying to get them distributed as widely as possible to ensure their survival, while maintaining a core representative collection ourselves as sort of the ultimate backup, I guess.
Margaret: The thing about preserving those, even if… I mean, we don’t know what the roles a lot of them play are. They could have great uses and be really critical to other creatures on the planet. We just don’t even understand some of them, probably, and where they fit into the bigger picture. So, to lose things whose roles we don’t even fully understand could be even more costly than we grasp right now.
Kelly: That’s absolutely true, and we also feel like there is sort of almost a moral imperative to save these plants, because we’re the ones causing them to be lost. We should be responsible for saving them.
And you’re absolutely right, Margaret. We don’t have any idea what these plants might offer in the future. But you can look at any ecosystem, and the more diversity you have, the more resilient that ecosystem is, and we don’t have any idea of what human needs are going to be or what bird needs or animal needs, and just the more we can provide, the better it’s going to be.
Margaret: Well, Kelly Dodson from Far Reaches Farm and from the conservancy related to Far Reaches Farm, I’m glad to speak to you, and I’m glad I kind of met by phone you and Sue Milliken, your partner in this endeavor, and I hope we’re going to speak again. So, thank you so much for making time today.
Kelly: You’re welcome, and I hope we get to meet in person as soon as the travel gets going again.
Margaret: You never know [laughter].
Kelly: You don’t, do you?
Margaret: You never know. I might be there with my U-Haul to buy a few plants and drive back across the country. Kidding, but yes, thank you so much.
Kelly: Thank you, Margaret.
(All photos from Far Reaches Farm.)
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