A passion for plants

Monday, April 23, 2001 at 1:00am

At this time of year, you're out in the garden more and more, but did you know that you're taking your chances? You could become a plant collector. And once you start, it's hard to stop. In fact, it's impossible.

I've consulted with the original plant collector, Missouri gardener Smith Smith, to enlighten us. My magazine featured Smith in 1997, when her main beat was irises. But since then, she has also turned into a fritillary fan, boxwood buff, and dwarf conifer connoisseur.

"It's hard to pull the reins when there are so many exciting things calling out to come to our garden," Smith said.

Her obsession began innocently enough: 15 years ago, her husband gave her a crystal rock for Christmas, vowing to construct a garden around it. That garden soon became Smith's pet project, and it didn't take long for her to fill it with irises by the hundreds.

Her secret for quick learning? Join a plant society.

Through societies, Smith has hooked up with "many unselfish mentors who are always ready to share their wisdom, a piece of an admired plant, and information about other good gardens and plant sources nearby."

In fact, not long after joining the American Iris Society, she became a judge.

Once you become a plant collector, be prepared for others to show you their photo albums like proud grandparents. "In our local iris society, many members have slides of the new varieties that fill cabinets, drawers, closets. At every iris convention, devotees hover around each plant in bloom to photograph it for slide shows to take to their clubs back home."

Smith has also come down with "yellow fever" - in the form of daffodils. She extends their blooming season by keeping her favorites in the refrigerator for six weeks or more in bud vases. And they're not just yellow. Some of the more unusual varieties you'll find alongside last night's leftovers are "Fragrant Rose," "Hanley Swan," "Emerald Empire," "Lavender Lass," "Pink Silk," "Lalique" and "Seafoam."

"I believe I'm up to about 340 different varieties of specialty daffodils. I've purchased them from growers in Oregon, California, Ohio, as well as several specialty daffodil growers in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Tasmania," Smith said.

If it sounds like this could get expensive, you're right: "In the financial world of plant collectors, they typically are down to the last pennies and are still hoping to spend them on that 400th variety of double-flowered, extra-long blooming, and more sumptuously scented and hued, hyacinth," Smith said.

That's why penniless plant collectors make the best amateur hybridizers. With a basic grasp of botany, Smith said, you can start creating your own plant varieties, making you less dependent on expensive catalogs.

"Ordinary people in backyard plots all over the world are producing some of the best daffodils, irises and dahlias," she said.

Might you become one of them?

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