Editor’s note: Due to the production schedule for Pacific NW magazine, this story was written before the state’s “shelter in place” orders, intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, were enacted.
IT HAS BEEN A wet winter, but this is a story about a botanical ark.
Far Reaches Farm is a plant collector’s paradise. The Port Townsend nursery is owned and operated by Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken, kindred botanical partners who met in 1997 on a plant-hunting expedition in Yunnan, a province in southwest China. They’ve been botanizing and raising cool plants together since.
In addition to tending one of the country’s leading rare-plant nurseries, in 2018, Dodson and Milliken formed Far Reaches Botanical Conservancy (FRBC), a nonprofit conservation nursery dedicated to documenting and preserving endangered flora and sharing plants and information with botanical gardens, working horticulturists and home gardeners around the world.
So what does the life of a contemporary plant hunter look like?
By the time Dodson and Milliken head to the airport, they’ve already logged months of preparation researching their destination and its native flora and targeted plants.
A trusted guide is hired to help them navigate language, lodging and access to a collection site. Typically, the plant collectors and their guide camp at lower elevations (think heat and humidity) but climb chilly peaks in search of plants that will be hardy in temperate gardens. This includes hiking steep trails, bushwhacking overgrown paths, slogging through the mud and scrambling over rocks. Sometimes bones get broken; there are leeches … and snakes. “I laugh when people tell us to have a good vacation,” says Milliken.
Excitedly, the intrepid collectors tell me about coming across an expansive stand of big leaf rhododendron after climbing a mountain that straddles the border of Vietnam and China. If you’re picturing a bower of pink and red blossoms, think again. This was last fall — nothing was in bloom. They were there to collect seed. Last fall’s trip to Asia was the seventh expedition that Dodson and Milliken undertook in collaboration with the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden, a 22-acre woodland garden in Federal Way that is home to the largest collection of rhododendron species in the world.
Milliken and Dodson work as a team. “Two sets of eyes see more,” says Dodson. “And more hands help out when it comes to processing collections.” In addition to scrupulously cleaning seed, the collectors diligently record collection data, detailed plant notes and provenance information. Their collecting is permitted under the Small Lots of Seed program administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Once the plant hunters return home, the second half of the journey begins. “Then we wait,” says Dodson. “It can be years before a plant blooms and we find out what we’ve really got.”
Far Reaches greenhouses are filled with germinating seed and developing plants. When John Anderson, keeper of the Queen’s gardens (yes, that Queen), says: “This has got to be the most interesting poly tunnel in the world!” you know botanical wonder is afoot.
Dodson and Milliken have described FRBC as an “external botanical backup” for rare plants and significant botanical collections. Propagation and distribution are cornerstones of FRBC conservation. As the most recent FRBC annual report states, “Placing these rare plants in permanent collections while encouraging gardeners to grow them is [our] principal strategy.”
It’s March. As rhododendrons ramp up their seasonal display, think about the body of knowledge, place and story contained within the tissues of those showy blossoms. Dodson and Milliken are well into the swing of the busy spring season. Between offering choice finds at local plant sales throughout the Northwest and managing mail orders, the two are making time for a quick collecting trip to Argentina, where autumn seeds are ripening.
Deep credible research, ambitious travel, documentation, skilled growing, patience and thoughtful sharing with others in the horticultural community — this is how one small but mighty botanical nonprofit is working to preserve plants.