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Sue Milliken and Kelly Dodson’s passion for plants has taken them around the world and back. At their Port Townsend, Washington, nursery, far reaches farm, they offer an impressive collection of rare species, including the colorful, shade-loving plants showcased on these pages.
Native to the mountains of Japan, this extremely rare plant is beloved for its large, showy white flowers, which emerge above umbrella-like foliage in late spring and summer. The trillium relative is of great interest to scientists, as it has one of the largest genomes ever found, containing 50 times more DNA than the human genome. Although it’s a challenge to propagate the plant, Dodson and Milliken hope to be able to offer it for sale in the near future.
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The color of the Himalayan blue poppy is as clear and blue as the sky on a cloudless day. This uncommon specimen, which blooms in May and June, can grow in the northern reaches of the U.S.; it doesn’t like summer heat or high evening temperatures and requires a good winter chilling. Dodson and Milliken plant Meconopsis in raised beds that are mulched with composted manure in dappled shade. “We don’t let them dry out,” says Milliken.
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This relative of the lily can take up to seven years before producing a flower, but it’s well worth the wait. Large white blooms, on stems that can reach 12 feet in height, are tinged with burgundy in the center, and are so fragrant in the evening that they can perfume an entire garden. Hardy to Zone 6A, this gorgeous plant, native to the Himalayas and western China, does best in rich, moist soil in part shade.
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Paris polyphylla var. yunnanensis
“The green filamentous flowers are curiously lovely and remain so from May to fall, when the large central ‘berry’ splits open to reveal the very showy orange-red seeds,” says Milliken. A mature plant of this vigorous variety can produce dozens or more four-foot-tall flowering stems each year.
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Dodson and Milliken collected the seeds for these plants when they were trekking halfway up China’s Cangshan Mountains. “You could look down and see the famous three pagodas of Dali,” Dodson recalls. The fringed flowers emerge pink before maturing to purple-flecked white. They prefer a cool location in part shade or with morning sun.
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Primula prolifera and P. wilsonii var. anisidora
Primroses such as these two grow best in rich, boggy areas. Primula prolifera produces rings of yellow blooms in May and June, and self-sowing Primula wilsonii var. anisidora features deep-magenta flowers.
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This unusual variety of Solomon’s seal can reach five to six feet in height. In late spring, large bell-like white flowers appear on arching stems, followed by blue-black fruits “dangling like pearls,” Dodson says.
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The distinctly lobed large foliage looks like it’s been splattered with purple and red paint. “It’s really just one of the most dramatic foliage plants you can have—a kaleidoscope of color,” says Dodson. Hardy to Zone 6, this shade-loving, deer-resistant perennial can reach two feet in height when mature. In late spring, it produces bright-red blossoms beneath the foliage. “A lot of times you don’t notice the flower until you part those great big leaves and see, hiding underneath, these amazing red flowers,” he says. Established plants will send out shallow stoloniferous roots that, when cut, will form a bud and create a new plant.
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First introduced commercially in the early 1900s, Nomocharis aperta is still surprisingly uncommon in the nursery trade. “Just because something is rare doesn’t mean it’s difficult to grow,” Milliken points out. “It could just mean that it takes longer to propagate.” These plants derive from seeds the pair collected while on an expedition in China in the late 1990s. They were unaware of exactly what lily relative they had when they picked it up, but they were thrilled a few years later, when it flowered, to discover it was a Nomocharis. Grown in a cool, shady spot, this lovely bloom will produce several pink flowers on each three-foot-tall stem and is hardy to Zone 5.