Return to Paradise: Take a Tour of Heronswood, a Botanical Garden Filled with Rare and Exotic Plants
After six years of total neglect, the famed Pacific Northwest garden Heronswood has come soaring back to life under its new owners, the local Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe. Dan Hinkley, the haven's founder and current director (and a world-class plant explorer), walks us through its exciting second act—and shares some of the rare and exotic plants he's collected on expeditions that now draw visitors from around the globe.
On a rare dry March day in 2015, I watched the elders of the Pacific Northwest's Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe offer their blessings to a traditional welcome pole. Carved from Alaskan cedar by tribal artist Brian Perry, the totem marks the entrance to Heronswood, the first internationally recognized botanical garden in North America to be owned and operated by a tribal entity. My husband and business partner, architect Robert L. Jones, and I had created the garden some 30 years earlier, and the S'Klallam had acquired it just a few years ago. It was an occasion for celebration, and a moment to reflect on the circular journey the garden and I had made.
In 1987, Robert and I purchased our first home, a modest 1970s rambler surrounded by derelict horse paddocks on the northern end of the Kitsap Peninsula, in Washington State. It was my dream to open a small nursery where we could introduce rare, hardy plants, and this was an ideal spot. We named the property Heronswood on our first night there, after watching a great blue heron take flight from a small pond when we opened the gate.
Over the next 20 years, the garden and nursery grew to 15 acres. During that time, I made more than 45 legally permitted plant-hunting trips to Southeast Asia, Japan, India, South America, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. I collected seeds from the base of a volcano in Chile and made cuttings in the cloud-shrouded mountains of Vietnam to propagate, evaluate, and ultimately distribute back home. We became a destination for thousands of fellow fanatics from around the world.
In 2000, when the business became too big for us to handle on our own, we sold it and moved to a new home nearby, but continued to run it until 2006, when its new owner abruptly shuttered it. For the next six years, the original grounds were nearly forgotten. That is, until the local S'Klallam tribe reached out to us about resurrecting the place. We were thrilled. They successfully bid on the property at auction, and soon a loyal band of former staff and volunteers began unearthing plants and revitalizing weed-choked beds.
Today, nearly 35 years after we first broke ground, Heronswood is open to the public again, home to about 9,000 trees, shrubs, vines, and ferns from every continent outside Antarctica. Under the stewardship of the S'Klallam tribe, the garden will begin hosting events and workshops. Next spring, we'll dedicate a stumpery—an artful display of tree stumps—that recounts the S'Klallam's history with the local timber industry and evokes a logging camp reclaimed by nature, and add species used in traditional dyeing and weaving for tribal artists to access. Just as we hoped, Heronswood is alive and well, and joining people together to commune at the altar of the natural world.
The highly textured, tropical-feeling perimeter plantings of the potager include hardy large-leaf banana (Musa basjoo); giant chartreuse pineapple lilies (Eucomis pole-evansii); and orange 'Forncett Furnace' dahlias (brought from England by Hinkley in the early 1990s). Gardener Duane West designed and cared for this area for nearly 30 years.
The welcome pole by S'Klallam artist Brian Perry depicts the heron and frog, a reference to the former nursery's logo; it's the first of multiple planned installations of tribal art that will showcase the rich legacy of the Salish tribes in the western Puget Sound region.
Epiphytic bromeliad Fascicularia pitcairnifolia often grows in tall trees in the rainforests of southern Chile, but here it thrives on the ground and on fallen tree stumps.
South African E. bicolor produces clusters of long-lasting lime-green leaflike bracts each summer.
Heronswood is a fertile testing ground for new and unusual annuals, like this tender Cuphea micropetala, which impresses with its extremely long blooming time.
Every May, Davidia involucrata 'Sonoma' greets visitors with ghostly-white bracts that dangle like handkerchiefs from its tall branches; the tree is underplanted with pink Primula sieboldii and purple Hyacinthoides hispanica. The two rounded dwarf boxwoods in the background are part of a double border that was redesigned in 2015 by the famed horticulturalist Fergus Garrett, of England's Great Dixter.
Petals and Sepals
Hinkley collected the seed of Paris rugosa, a trillium relative, in China's Yunnan Province in 1996. Its curiously beautiful flowers have four broad green sepals and four fine, thread-like petals.
The beguiling Himalayan blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia, which Hinkley collected from eastern Nepal in 1995, flourishes in the cool climate of the Pacific Northwest. While it must be replanted every other year, its electrifying color, rarely seen in flowers, is more than worth the effort.
Tasmanian tree ferns—Dicksonia antarctica—give the woodland a prehistoric feel; Hinkley brought them back from Tasmania in the early 1990s.
Hinkley first planted this sculptural scalloped hornbeam (Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata') in 1993. To train it into arches, he tied the young trees together and regularly pruned them into a billowing wall as they grew over the years. The geometric beds within are framed by dwarf boxwood and hold an ever-changing blend of annuals and grasses.