In the current garden era, the money is in branded plants and patented cultivars, genetically identical clones protected as intellectual property. That makes smaller, labor-of-love nurseries like Issima all the more valuable.

The name may sound Japanese, but it is derived from the Latinate suffix attached to certain plant names to denote a superlative, or something remarkable. And it hints at Issima’s mission as one of a lamentably shrinking number of specialty nurseries that don’t produce plants on a big-box-store scale — but oh, the distinctive plants they do produce.

A collaboration between Ed Bowen and Taylor Johnston that started almost five years ago in Little Compton, Rhode Island, the nursery focuses on unusual, hardy plants that its founders describe as “the under-cultivated and garden-worthy.”

“I’ve often said I specialize in plants that don’t sell very well,” said Bowen, who previously owned the one-man Opus Nursery, where he began developing his reputation as the beloved mad propagator of one irresistible, little-known thing after another. “I prefer to look for difference, like in a generation of seedlings. That’s where the fun is, in being free to play with diversity.”

Johnston puts it another way: “I’ve always said about Ed that he’s too far ahead.”

But how to finance years of tinkering with crosses, waiting expectantly to see if the most promising individuals that arise among years of seedlings actually lead anywhere? Answering that was part of the catalyst for Issima, drawing on an insight gleaned from an internship Johnston did at a cut-flower farm in California.

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“It was sad to see plants only valued for their flowers,” she recalled. “But I kept the idea in my back pocket.”

Out it came years later, when she and Bowen began talking about how they might collaborate, while she was working at the New York Botanical Garden, following six years of managing the gardens and greenhouse at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Catering not just to gardeners, but to high-end florists craving something different — like $4-apiece cut stems of the Bessera elegans bulb — helps Issima nursery underwrite the decade or more of work required to develop a new plant. (Phil van Huynh for Issima)
Catering not just to gardeners, but to high-end florists craving something different — like $4-apiece cut stems of the Bessera elegans bulb — helps Issima nursery underwrite the decade or more of work required to develop a new plant. (Phil van Huynh for Issima)

Their way of underwriting a decade of work on the likes of Cardiandra, an obscure Hydrangea relative? Don’t cater just to obsessed gardeners but also to high-end florists craving something different. Grow $4-apiece cut stems of the Bessera elegans bulb, or $25 multibranched Angelica gigas, an unearthly wine-colored Korean biennial.

And so that’s what they do, selling to Emily Thompson Flowers in Manhattan and others.

The second pivotal moment that brought Issima to life: the opportunity to design and plant a garden for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, beginning in 2017.

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“That, to me, was the real start of the nursery,” Johnston said. “Our first official project together.”

Gardeners first

Longtime customers of Bowen’s recognize some themes, like the iterations of Sanguisorba, or burnet, perennials with catkin-like inflorescences he described as “a bobble, a burr or a brush in some color.”

In what he calls “facilitating, not breeding,” Bowen strives for more substantive, longer-lasting blooms that float well above the foliage.

“They’re like Calder sculptures catching the wind,” Johnston said. “And remarkably drought-tolerant, even in last year’s record dry.”

She described a cultivar that writer Dominique Browning christened Drama Queen as one of Bowen’s best introductions, “a feather boa whipping in your face.”

Another genus they’ve dug deeply into: Thalictrum, or meadow rue. When one recent seedling topped out at almost 15 feet, they jokingly called it Super Tall. Although probably not a good prospect for the garden, it underscored the genetic extremes that can reveal themselves among seedlings — if only you exercise patience, paying careful attention.

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The goal, always, is better garden plants — plants that work in the landscape.

“We think of ourselves as gardeners, not nursery people,” Johnston said.

“We are both unrepentant ornamentalists,” Bowen concurred. “It’s hard to talk about plants as abstractions, as they are always located somewhere. For us, it’s in a garden.”

Left: A collectible foliage star of recent years is Syneilesis, or umbrella plant, a favorite for dry shade. Right: When it comes to of-the-moment plants like Podophyllum, or mayapple, Issima’s owners prefer to work with those like P. versipelle from China. They’ve dubbed this one the Giant, for its big leaves on 40-inch stems. (Photos courtesy of Issima)
Left: A collectible foliage star of recent years is Syneilesis, or umbrella plant, a favorite for dry shade. Right: When it comes to of-the-moment plants like Podophyllum, or mayapple, Issima’s owners prefer to work with those like P. versipelle from China. They’ve dubbed this one the Giant, for its big leaves on 40-inch stems. (Photos courtesy of Issima)

Foliage, too, captures the couple’s attention, including a collectible of recent years, Syneilesis, or umbrella plant, a favorite for dry shade. Maybe a decade has passed since Bowen crossed two Asian species — Syneilesis aconitifolia and palmata — “so long ago that I don’t even recall what my motivation was.” Now, from among the resulting seedling generations, ever more refined versions grace Issima’s online catalog, including the new Tilt a Whirl.

Another favorite is the Asian species Podophyllum, the mayapples, which Bowen described as “very much a zeitgeist plant.” His particular fascination, always pursuing the difference: to work with those like Podophyllum versipelle from China, which, unlike our native P. peltatum, doesn’t go dormant in summer.

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Other specialty nurseries

Plants from specialty nurseries have a kind of treasured, hand-me-down quality: You are unlikely to forget where you bought them.

Bowen, too, has a fondness for plants swapped with other nursery owners. Like Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken of Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, who are “of special affection, not just for their generosity, but also an inspiration for how much better a nursery can be when it’s run by a couple,” he said. “It’s arguably the best nursery in the country for cool-climate perennials.”

He calls himself “a fanboy” of Sean Hogan’s Cistus Nursery in Portland, “one of my first shopping-junket destinations,” with its depth of Mediterranean-climate, Southern-Hemisphere and hardy tropicals.

These nursery owners are not competitors but rather like-minded gardeners.

“Ultimately, it is collegial,” Bowen said. Even if they tinker with very different plants, they share an affinity for the rare and underappreciated.

That includes the selections that Ted Stephens of Nurseries Caroliniana, in South Caroline, discovered at Japanese nurseries, brought back and coaxed into production, and the “woodland treasures” at Arlen Hill’s Keeping It Green Nursery, in Stanwood, Washington, that have Bowen “wishing I wasn’t on the coast and had more shade, so I could do more shopping.”

Some “specialty nurseries” do specialize, delving into a genus or plant family — like Karen Perkins’ Garden Vision Epimediums in Massachusetts, and, in California, Robin Parer’s Geraniaceae (geranium relatives) and Flowers by the Sea (where salvias are the focus).

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“You can call it specializing,” Bowen said. “But it doesn’t stem from a business perspective — it’s more an obsession.”

Others have wider palettes, including Joy Creek Nursery and Edelweiss Perennials, both in Oregon, and Digging Dog Nursery in California.

The diverse obsessions at Sequim Rare Plants, on the Olympic Peninsula, range from fragrant violets and rare primroses to red hot pokers and unusual succulents. Windcliff, in Indianola, Washington, doesn’t do mail order, but is just 20 minutes south of the Kingston Ferry Terminal and offers plant pickup or shopping by appointment.

Woodlanders nursery, in South Carolina, has long emphasized plants for warm climates, including many natives.

“I love that each of us has our biases out on display,” Bowen said.

One caveat: These are not mass-production places. Inventory ebbs and flows are part of their DNA. What’s ready gets added to the website in its time. Keep checking, or better yet: Get on their email lists.

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There are always projects underway in the Issima greenhouse — generation after generation of seeds to be cleaned and eventually sown, in hopes of finding the next great thing. (Phil van Huynh for Issima)
There are always projects underway in the Issima greenhouse — generation after generation of seeds to be cleaned and eventually sown, in hopes of finding the next great thing. (Phil van Huynh for Issima)

The plants to come

At the moment, the Issima team is “chasing an orange thistle,” Johnston said, referring to their work with the genus Centaurea, and Bowen admits to “fooling around with Epimedium for cut flowers.”

Among the odder of oddballs, the current offerings include Taraxacum pseudoroseum, a sunset-colored dandelion from Asia, pink with a yellow center.

“Increasingly,” Bowen said, “if a plant gives me an opportunity, I’m going to take it. Worst case: They hit the compost pile.”

Sometimes a larger nursery might pick up on Bowen’s successful but unpatented crosses and selections, ramp up production and capitalize. But that’s all right, he said. He is content to be part of the legacy of each plant.

“Posterity is often easier to realize in horticulture,” he said, “than prosperity.”

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So about that name, again: Where are the -issima plants at Issima — as in something that is tenuissima (for the slenderest), like Nassella tenuissima, the Mexican feathergrass?

It isn’t there. I did find one foetidissima (for the smelliest), in a couple of selections of Iris foetidissima, the stinking iris.

But whether the epithets say so or not, to the gardener craving the distinctive, they all look pretty remarkable — just as they did to Bowen and Johnston when Issima took them on.