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How To Obtain Rare Species Of Plants

Updated on May 11, 2012
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Are you after a plant that is unique and stunning that no-one else has?

Do you just want plants that grow well in your local conditions?

Can't find what you're after at your local garden nursery?

Chances are good that you'll have to search a little deeper to find the plant you seek. With a little knowledge of where to look, this task isn't as daunting as it first seems. Here are some ideas to help you find rare or unusual plant species or varieties.


Buying rare plants and unusual varieties

If you're after something unique and different you're unlikely to find it in general garden centres or retail nurseries. Unless the owner grows some of their own plants, these stores normally only stock popular plants that are likely to sell. The plants in these stores are normally obtained from large wholesale nurseries that grow hundreds of the same plant to sell to retail nurseries and garden centers. By their very nature, wholesale nurseries operate on the economics of scale and won't grow anything that they are unable to easily grow and sell lots of.

A good way to find unique varieties is to look for a specialist nursery that grows many varieties of only one or a few different species. Specialist nurseries can often be found by searching online business directories for your local area, however you may have look further afield to find a nursery that stocks the exact specimen you're after.

There are also many societies dedicated to growing different types of plants, most of which have a website with contact information in this day and age. These societies are a bit like clubs and hold meetings and events and publish regular newsletters. Some of these societies will have an annual show open to the public often held at a botanical garden or community center. Sometimes interesting varieties and cultivars can be sold during these annual shows so it is well worth attending even if there is a small entrance fee. If you're really into the particular type of plants covered by a society it may be worthwhile joining the society. It will be a great source of information and you can form friendships with like-minded people, some of which may give or sell to you rarer species or varieties of the type of plants you're interesting in growing.

If you want to grow species native to your local area there are also native plant nurseries that stock a wide variety of lesser known native species. These are often run by enthusiastic volunteers who are very knowledgeable and can give you ideas on what to plant where. The quality of stock can be variable compared to the mass-produced plants in commercial nurseries, but they are often far cheaper and being native they are likely to grow well in your area. Some native species have become rare and endangered due to displacement from weeds or clearing so by growing endangered species you'll be doing you're part to ensure they'll still be around into the future.


Growing from seeds or cuttings

Seeds take up little space compared with nursery stock, last longer before they become unsaleable and are easier and cheaper to send via mail. Because of this, if you want really unique plants (especially straight species and unusual heirloom vegetable varieties) growing from seed will be your best option in terms of variety and price-tag. Cuttings are another cost effective way of obtaining an unusual plant and will result in a plant with the same characteristics as the parent.

Some species however are notoriously difficult to grow from seed, others are downright impossible using our current germination methods. Therefore it's best to do a little research on how to grow the seed of the plant you're after before you purchase the seed. Likewise some species of plants strike better from cuttings than others. Some plants are grafted onto a more vigorous rootstock and may not grow in your conditions if planted directly without being grafted first.

Seedlings grown from the seed of specific rare or unusual varieties won't have the same characteristics as the parent plant unless it has been bred to grow true to type (which is the case for heirloom vegetable seed) and these will have to be propagated by purchasing cuttings from a grower or brought as young cutting propagated plants in pots.

Although often the target of criticism, Ebay is a great source of seed. The selection on Ebay is huge as there are many individual sellers in the same marketplace, a lot of whom will offer seed of species or heirloom varieties that no-one else will stock. Although quality varies from seller to seller, I've generally found that most of the seed I've purchased on Ebay is good, viable seed. The germination rates are often just as good as what you'd get from shop brought seed although they are sold at a much cheaper price. Don't expect fancy packaging from Ebay seed as the vast majority of sellers operate from home with limited equipment, a lot of sellers package their seed in small resealable plastic zip-lock bags. Ebay is also a good place to buy cuttings from rare or unusual varieties that are easily propagated in this way.

It is also worth searching the internet for seed catalogs and gardening societies that sell seed of the types of plants you're after as many of these have an extensive range available. For example, if you were after rare Begonia seed, you could try typing "Begonia seed catalog" or "Begonia society seed" into Google. Organisations that sell cuttings of desirable species can also be found in a similar way.

Another good source of seed (especially heirloom vegetable varieties) is local seed saving groups and exchanges. You can join these and trade locally grown seed with other members. The benefit of using locally grown vegetable seed is that they will often grow better as they have been bred under local conditions with the seed of only the best individuals being saved, enhancing the ability of the next generation to grow under those same conditions.


Clandestine methods

There are quite a few more dubious methods of obtaining rare plant varieties or species.

I have on occasion nicked a cutting from unusual Pelargonium geraniums that protrude through peoples front fences. While I'm sure this is something many people occasional do, it's far more courteous to ask the owner if you can take it and offer one of your own plants in return. You may form a new friendship by taking the effort to ask first and who knows, they may have an even better plant in the backyard out of the way of prying eyes.

Botanic gardens are also a good source of cuttings or collecting seed, although you should check their individual policies to see if this is allowed first. If it isn't you could try contacting the authority in charge of the gardens, there may be some way to get permission.

Generally you are not allowed to collect from wild plants, unless they are on land you own or you have a collecting permit. It may be worth contacting the authorities to obtain the required permits to collect form wild plants, the fines may be quite substantial otherwise if you are caught. Although it varies from location to location and the rarity of a plant, as a general rule of thumb you should never collect more than 20% of the seed on a wild plant to ensure that the plant sets enough seed for the next generation.

In all cases, it is important to only collect what you need and avoid damaging the plant or others nearby. Use clean secateurs when collecting seed heads or cuttings to avoid tearing the stem and creating an entry point for disease.


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