Dan Heims, horticulture specialist at Terra Nova Nurseries

Updated: 2013-02-07T00:03:41Z


The Kansas City Star

Dan Heims is an award-winning horticulturist who has traveled the world discovering new plants and breeding new varieties at his Terra Nova Nurseries in Canby, Ore. At 7 p.m. on Friday he will be at Johnson County Community College to give a free presentation, “Perennials from Around the World: How New Plants Are Found,” in Hudson Auditorium at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Refreshments in the atrium begin at 6:30 p.m.

Q. Q. How did you end up in horticulture? Did you have a garden as a child?

A. A. I’m a lifetime naturalist. As a kid I lived in a valley in Portland, Oregon, and it had two streams at the bottom. I had a friend with a microscope and a chemistry set, and we would just explore. I would take up an interest in ants. I’d go to the library and get 11 books on ants and have ant farms and ant colonies and drive my mother crazy. Then I really got into tropical fish and started breeding fish. By the time I hit high school I had 25 aquariums strung across the bedroom.

Q. How did the move to plants come about?

A. My freshman year in college, I went to a drug store and bought a purple velvet plant for 29 cents and it bloomed. I found a book all about houseplants and it opened my eyes. By the end of term my window sill was filled with houseplants. By the end of college I had 1,200 different houseplants. When I graduated I opened a plant company with exotic plants.

Q. And now?

A. My new position is to locate people and plants and use my knowledge to locate plants new to horticulture — species that will create the next hybrid.

Q. When did all the traveling begin?

A. It started when I had my indoor plant business. I would travel through Hawaii with a backpack and pair of pruners and go to abandoned army facilities, which had been consumed by tropical foliage. I would take cuttings, fill boxes and send them home. The climate is so beautiful that things will root in the air.

Q. You’re going to talk about your visits to Japan, China, Germany, Tasmania, Australia, Holland, England, Ireland and New Zealand.

A. There was always something that inspired me to pursue an interest later in life. As a kid, I used to do origami and I fell in love with the amazing papers. That led to a lifelong love of Japanese art and culture.

I have a Japanese friend who is single-handedly responsible for all of the wave-type petunias. He was in Brazil walking through the rain forest and looking on the ground and saw this tiny plant with bright magenta flowers. Like me, he thought, “Here’s a seed I could use in breeding.” From that one species came all of those petunias, billions of them.

I’ve made six visits to Japan that have led my biggest collection — 505 plants. Germany was a regular stop, Holland, I’ve spoken in Denmark. I’ve been to Malmo and Gothenburg in Sweden. The director of the botanic garden there met me with a trowel and pair of pruners and said, “Hey, Dan. What do you want?”

Q. Did you have any notable adventures?

A. Costa Rica. One of my dreams was to head off into the woods and go into wild areas and meet some wild animals. I saw an entire troupe of coatimundis — they look like raccoons. They were moving through the forest. I was still in my car and they saw me. I thought they’d run away, but they surrounded the car in a perfect circle and they all got up on their hind legs and begged. They saw I had a bag of potato chips.

Q. I see you are going to talk about temperennials. What is that? A. That was coined by Pierre Bennerup, from Sunny Border Nurseries in Kensington, Conn. It’s a nonhardy perennial, not really an annual, but a temporary perennial. It will live as long it doesn’t go below 27 degrees, but you can take a cutting and bring it in.

Q. What are some of your most exciting discoveries?

A. Syneilesis palmata, Kikko (commonly known as the palmate umbrella plant). It’s very small, but it’s a stunning plant. It comes up like little gray umbrellas and develops this yellow netting. The Podophyllums I brought back from Japan have been amazing. It looks like an open umbrella. The color is mottled purples and greens.

Q. And can you name a few favorites?

A. Some of new echinaceas. The Supreme Cantaloupe is to die for. It has a double bloom with a cantaloupe color. I recommend the Heucheras and then the Red Hot Pokers, or Kniphofias. Another plant I really love is the 2013 perennial plant of the year, Polygonatum (a variegated Solomon’s Seal) in the lily family. We have one called Double Stuff that does great all over the U.S.

Q. What’s the perennial you are most proud of?

A. It’s got to be Heuchera (also known as Coral Bells). Heucheras grow in many different areas, and our breeders have done amazing things. Plum Pudding has a purple leaf that’s metallic. It used to be if you had great flowers you had crummy foliage, or great foliage and crummy flowers. We were able to bring them all together. Our City series, all with big-city names like Milan and Paris, will not stop blooming.

| Alice Thorson, The Star

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to

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