Are you drawn to rare or unusual plants? Have you seen something in a book or magazine that has become your must have plant? Are you looking for something a bit different for your garden?
This article tells you all you need to know about how to find the rare plants of your dreams – responsibly.
Put simply, rare plants are those that are not grown in high volume by garden centres.
Garden centres need to sell in large numbers, so they stock a large number, but limited variety, of garden worthy plants.
While you may occasionally stumble across a wish list plant at a garden centre, more often you’ll need to seek your treasures elsewhere.
Here are my top 5 tips on how to become a modern day plant hunter and find the rare plants of your dreams.
Growing plants from seed immediately expands the range of plants open to you.
Even a garden centre seed stand will carry a much wider range than they sell as potted plants.
But if you really want the rarest plants – plants that you won’t find readily in the shops – then joining a specialist seed exchange widens your choice even further.
These exchanges enable gardeners to share unusual seed with one another, often for a fraction of the cost of seeds from a large supplier.
The AGS is just one of many specialist garden societies to run a seed exchange. If you’re interested in a certain group of plants, the key is to seek out a society that celebrates those plants and see if they run an exchange!
The Hardy Plant Society celebrates all things perennial and runs a seed distribution programme, sharing seeds with members. Their conservation scheme aims to keep older but well-loved and garden-worthy varieties in circulation.
Plant Heritage is another plant conservation charity worth seeking out. It organises national collections of plants. These collection are looked after by individuals or institutions with the aim of ensuring that they are not lost to cultivation. Each year they run a popular plant swap scheme.
Other plant societies also offer seed exchanges. Check out the Scottish Rock Garden Club, the Cyclamen Society, the Nerine and Amaryllid Society and the Southern African Bulb Group exchanges as marvellous examples!
The Plant Finder is a book by the Royal Horticultural Society that’s published annually. It’s available to buy from the AGS shop (and members get a 20% discount!).
The 2020 version lists 81,000 plants and where to find them, including 3,300 new plant introductions.
If you want to find a specific plant, you can look it up in the book to find nurseries that stock what you’re looking for.
There is also an online version of the RHS Plant Finder.
When I first started gardening seriously in my early twenties I found the book invaluable.
Before I discovered the Plant Finder, I would often stumble across a rare plant in a book, magazine or garden, which I wanted for my own garden but coudn’t find at my local garden centre.
Using the RHS Plant Finder, I successfully sourced some great plants.
To use the RHS Plant Finder, you start by looking up a plant in the index.
Next to it, you’ll find a codified list of nurseries stocking that variety. You then have to look up each nursery in the suppliers index and contact them to check if they have that plant in stock.
The book costs £10-15 and the jacket advises never to use an old edition as stockists change so regularly. So this needs to be an annual purchase to ensure it is up to date.
These days, I personally find the book clunky compared to the online version, which is quicker and often links directly to nursery websites so you can check stock online.
It’s worth noting that stock levels vary, particularly in small nurseries, so they may not always have your chosen rare plant. It’s definitely worth contacting them to check if the plant may be available again in future.
Sometimes they even have a spare plant languishing at the back of a polytunnel just waiting for you to get in touch!
Social media is a rewarding way to connect with specialist nurseries and discover rare plants you didn’t know existsed!
An increasing number of nurseries are using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to promote their wares.
Not only does seeing an unusual plant post cheer your day, you can often ask questions about it direct to the grower. If you’re tempted, you can usually go directly to the website to buy the plant in question.
I bought a starter collector’s pack of auriculas from a Scottish supplier I saw on Twitter this year. One day I’d like to visit the nursery in person, but in the meantime, I have a bonny line-up of pretty auriculas just waiting for spring!
Social media also enables informal seed and plant swapping as well as sales.
There are closed groups you can join on Facebook for seed, bulb, cutting and rhizome swaps. Some sell on ebay too.
Remember these are usually amateur gardeners (although some small nurseries also sell via ebay). While most sellers are genuine, they’re not subject to the same standards as commercial growers.
It’s also near impossible to know whether the seller sourced their material responsibly, so be careful – and if in doubt about a seller, don’t buy.
If you’re interested in a particular type of plant, specialist plant society flower shows are the best place to go.
They feature beautiful displays of rare plants and offer the chance to buy unusual varieties from specialist nurseries and plant society members in the sales area.
A huge benefit is that nurseries from all over the country can be visited under one roof, saving a lot of long drives to get rare and beautiful plants!
Talking to growers at shows is fun and can land you some pretty special plants, too. My special snowdrop collection started when I chatted to a specialist nursery and added my name to their mailing list.
This nursery remembered me and sent me a starter pack of dormant snowdrops that first year, and now I order from them every year.
Chat to people, sign up to mailing lists and don’t be shy. You’re amongst friends.
Some of my best plant purchases have been at shows and plant fairs.
Plant sales are minimal at Chelsea, but I’ve still connected with specialist suppliers in the pavilion. Their magical displays augment my garden wish list.
Chelsea isn’t the only show in town though and it’s worth looking out for plant fairs in your area. Large houses often combine open garden events with plant fairs.
Rare Plant Fairs usually have a busy schedule of such fairs each year.
As with seed exchanges, if you’re interested in a specific genre of plant, then seeking out and joining a national plant society that celebrates that plant is a great place to start.
The Alpine Garden Society and Scottish Rock Garden Club are your first port of call if you’re interested in alpines.
Membership of these societies will increase your knowledge of rare plants and open up opportunities to source seeds, cutting and plants. The cost is often minimal – for the AGS, single membership costs just £36 per year.
If it’s cyclamens you like then join the Cyclamen Society. Are cacti your thing? Why not join the British Cactus and Succulent Society?
Members of these societies are repositories of knowledge and their expertise is shared freely with other members. Joining will link you to these people, helping you to develop your own knowledge and give you access to rare plants through their seed exchanges and plant fairs.
Swapping seeds, bulbs, cuttings and potted plants is meat and drink to passionate gardeners. Many of the rare plants gracing my garden were gifts or plant swaps from members of my local Alpine Garden Society group.
Being a member of a local group is different from being a member of a national plant society. It puts you in touch with other plant enthusiasts in your local area and often gives you the chance to meet up with them in person for garden visits and rare plant swaps.
Members often open up their gardens for tours and many will use this as an opportunity to sell excess plants or snip off a cutting for you to take home.
My local AGS group often has a sales table where members bring along rare plants and cuttings to sell. At the moment, many are also offering virtual events for their members!
Group members are also generous with their knowledge – they’ll tell you more about a plant, how they grow it, what’s gone wrong and what has worked for them.
They will tell you where they bought something, when a garden sale or plant fair is coming up and may even keep an eye out for a rare plant you’re looking for and pick one up at a sale you’re unable to attend.
Banish your shyness and join your local group. You will find people from all different backgrounds who share something with you – a passion for plants.
Of course, some plants are so rare that they’re only grown by a handful of collectors or institutions concerned with conservation.
These may be protected in the wild with only small amounts of responsibly-sourced plant material in circulation. Some may be so tricky that only a few talented growers have learned how to keep them going.
I call these “rarer than hen’s teeth” varieties and most of us will not – and should not – be in the market for them.
The need to possess can be unacceptably strong amongst some people. Plant thefts, illegal cutting taking and seed collection have become a sad reality.
RHS Wisley has had to install a locked cabinet in the alpine house behind which they display rarer specimens. It is up to everyone to think carefully about what they’re growing and where they’re getting their plants from.
For good reasons, I leave the hen’s teeth varieties in the hands of the experts but I still find more unusual plants to grow than I can ever have room for.
Use these five top tips to find the rare plants of your dreams and give your garden the ‘wow’ factor.