Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants


Hello plant people!

The days are slowly but surely getting longer, and if I blur my eyes I can almost pretend it’s spring. The daffodils are in full force, the sun is shining outdoors and I must admit I’m in much better spirits then a couple weeks ago. The gentle harmony that is my house is back in sync and I can once again smile at the end of a long day. I’ve been a bit fatigued this week, I’m in the midst of acclimatizing my body to the “ravenges” of nurserywork. It happens every year, the slow progress of shedding one’s Christmas weight and building back the necessary muscle that was lost in the winter. It’s a good burn.

Anyhow onto the topic at hand. Yesterday the boss’s took me on a little field trip to the mainland to check out some greenhouses that supply us with our plugs. Having worked here for five seasons now it was interesting to see the other side of the process. We skip the majority of propagation at our nursery and order in plugs to save time. It’s interesting how many hands touch a plant before it makes it’s way to your garden. A poor little petunia seed has a long way to go before it’s that amazing sprawling monster you see in every hanging basket in town. Some greenhouse’s hold agreements with the big plant producers (IE Proven Winners) and have the rights to produce these patented hybrids. Cuttings are flown in from Costa Rica, Italy, and even Ethiopia. At one nursery we traveled to they said they get their geranium cuttings from Ethiopia in less then 52 hours. From a plant in Africa to a rooting station in Vancouver in less then 3 days, that’s an incredible feat of today’s global economy.

Over a million seedlings, growing on to be shipped to wholesale growers all over.

Impatiens seedlings 

Having visited 4 different industrial greenhouses throughout the course of the day, you really got to see a broad view of what other businesses are up to. For the most part the vibe was pleasant enough, everyone seemed to have a different view on how to do things. It was interesting to see the contrast between one operation and the next, it real put it in perspective for me. While our greenhouse is certainly not the largest operation in British Columbia it’s still got a lot of soul. A lot of these business’s focused on monoculture and produced only a handful of different plants and/or planters. While supplying a chain of big box stores with geraniums might seem like a decent way to make a buck, I don’t think it would be overly stimulating. As they say variety is the spice of life.

More then a football field’s worth of geranium, verbena & petunias….

One greenhouse in particular had more “toys” then you’d ever know existed. Planting machines, wrapping machines, cranes and bob cats, and sprayers, it was intense. A whole army of labourers can be replaced by a 500,000 dollar machine, it was fascinating to watch but also put my brain in a loop. I work with 35 people at the most, a lot of these businesses had staff in the 100’s.

Semi-automated planting machine.

An absolutely giant boiler for running hot water under the floors of a giant greenhouse.

Industrial crop sprayer

I woke up at 5:00am to get onto the 7:00am ferry and didn’t return home for another 12 hours after that.  The day was surprisingly busy and we utilized almost every moment we had. In time each greenhouse blurred into the next as essentially they all do the same thing. I suppose the main thing I took away from this experience is that there is a 100 different ways to do something. What separates you from the rest of the pack is the quality of what you produce (IE. beautiful plants) , the pride you take in your facility (IE tidiness and maintenance) and the happiness of the staff you choose to keep around. Like it or not you’ll be spending a lot of time with these people so you’d hope they’re happy and fun to be around. Aside from that, I would say growing your business slowly as opposed to expanding rapidly would probably be in your best interest.  You can have all the toys in the world but are you turning a profit? Sometimes the biggest isn’t always the best. “Mom & Pop” operations are on the decline, but there is something quite beautiful about a smaller enterprise. People know each other, they aren’t scared to talk to the boss, and you serve a noticeable role in the business. I’ve never enjoyed the idea of being one ant in a million.

An interesting day to say the least.

After potting up my new palm trees yesterday I found myself in a fury of greenhouse rearranging. This winter we were in such a hurry to get the greenhouse done that when we actually did move in, everything was haphazardly placed this way and that. Yesterday I made the time to organize things properly, it was nice to clear out the junk and keep things tidy. Plants are certainly a demanding hobby, overwintered tropicals need a quick inspection once in a while. Dead leaves, minor rot, and impractical placement all need to be considered. Bugs are more likely than not, and a quick spray of trounce is good even as a precaution. If you’re even a bit OCD about cleaning, this practice will most likely be pleasant and it’s a good meditation for a Sunday afternoon. As the hours went on, nature forgot I was even there, and a murder of crows landed nearby. The valley still supports an amazing amount of wildlife, their songs could be heard carried in the wind. I love silence, it gives me space to think, it’s my favorite kind of music.  A dying tread in a humming world of technology, moments spent in the garden have made me much more aware of this fact.

In a blink of an eye a couple hours had passed. I’m often amazed by the work that can be achieved in only a couple hours. From disaster to masterpiece the place had certainly taken on a new look. I grouped the succulents and dormant dry pots in one area, actively growing tropicals in another, and utilitarian nurserystock adjacent. I love organizing and consolidating, and oddly this is what I do for a living. The greenhouses must have brainwashed me…

Abutilon ‘Souvenir de Bonn’ flowering in January.

Just as I was considering leaving, the lighting seemed just right and out came my camera and tripod. This was the first real photo-shoot I’ve had at our new greenhouse, and I was mesmerized by all of the points of interest. A flowering Senacio cristobalensis, an unusually early Iris reticulata, and a tropical Buddleia macrostachya in bud and bloom. A big smile rested on my face as I stood there in the pre twilight of the hour before nightfall. Tis the best time of day to photograph plants and flowers, and very well anything and everything at all.  The shadows are forgiving, the lighting honest and true. What a dream it is to have a heated greenhouse in the winter. I hadn’t realized what a gift it really was, this will surely help me get further with my plant studies.

Up close and personal with a Senacio cristobalensis

You’ve gotta love the whimsical leaves of the Senecio cristobalensis. Straight out of a Dr. Suess book, this border-line hardy perennial will add a touch of magic to your garden with little effort on your part.

An emerging node, it’s leaves are even cuter when they first appear. These amazing purple tinted fuzzy trees grow up to 8-10 feet in one season. I’ve read that if they’re properly mulched they’ll grow back in spring after frost. Of course all rumor aside I couldn’t dare sacrifice this one to the elements, as I wanted to see it’s winter flowers.

Right on schedule this plant put out multiple plumes of these strange senacio flowers. While Senacio’s come in pretty much every shape and size, they’re flowers are all remarkably similar. Old granddad Senacio from a million years before must be proud.

As expected the flowers are identical to other senacios I’ve witnessed bloom. The only difference being the color in which they’re tinted. Senecio cristobalensis is the most remarkable shade of vibrant yellow. The flowers coated with enough pollen for an army of bees. Too bad none seem to be buzzing about this early in the season.

A slightly fuzzy close up. A boring flower from affar, interesting upon a closer look.

Off topic, topic specific plant science breakdown!?

A plant that looks nothing like Senacio cristobalensis but is most definetly a relative, Senecio articulatus in bloom mid summer 2011.

Significantly different from either of them, Senecio rowleyanus otherwise known as string of pearls is also a strange distant relative. How about that for wierd plant science!?

Back to the topic at hand!

Buddleia macrostachya began flowering this week. I’ve watched the blooms form since I first recieved it mid November. The horticultural mastermind Lynda from Happy Valley Lavender Farm gifted it to me when we first built our greenhouse. The tag says Royal Roads 2007, it seems this one has been around for a while now. A quick look online has very little information about it, but sources say it’s from China. The hardiness is subject to opinion and it seems to enjoy the shelter of the greenhouse. Any info someone might have on it would be much appreciated, an exotic addition to collection none the less.

Eccremocarpus scaber seedlings amongst plectranthus cuttings.

A lineup of agaves, echeverias and aloes.

I have no idea how these bulbs found their way into my agave pot. Tis the simple pleasure of working at a nursery, sometimes the compost you take home has extra goodies in it. My garden at home has anemone blanda all over the place for this very reason. While I tend to get tired of these iris reticulatas, it’s always a tell tale sign that spring is just around the corner.

My Agave geminiflora is certainly enjoying it’s winter home in the greenhouse. It hasn’t stopped growing since I got it, I love it aquatic appearance.

There seems to be no shortage of brugmansia’s this year. A friend and I have been growing quite a collection. Inquire if you’d be interested in trying one this summer, we have lovely 5 ft tall year and a half specimens.

Flowering mid summer Puya mirabilis’s seed pods are still developing. I intend on trying to grow a small army of these from seed, and after nearly six months I still wait patiently for them to mature.

Here we come to the end of my greenhouse tour. Think warm thoughts, spring is only a couple months away. Counting the days, minutes, and seconds! 🙂 For those that made it this far through the post, an extra gift to you today. Check out this site, it seems like an interesting enough idea. Free Plants by Mail

Mr Nat. Gardener, Plant Nerd
Tips and tales about gardening in one of the most mild climates in Canada. Specializing in rare and strange plants from far out destinations, this is the story of an obsessed young gardener in Victoria B.C. Let's create more tropical gardens in the garden city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.