Home & Garden

Specialty retailers make it their business to offer exotic plants

Wild, weird and wonderful, exotic plants from faraway places hold the promise of delicate beauty, sensuality and mystery.

Imagine plants that have a taste for flesh, flowers that evoke eroticism just by their appearance, and unique violets that require their own vocabulary.

Want to take a peek at a few? If you're looking to discover these pleasures, there are plenty of retail specialty greenhouses and nurseries that offer select specimens for sale, as well as glimpses into the travels and passions the horticulturalists have experienced in establishing their collections. Without leaving the comfort of your home, you can explore and even make some of these plants your own, sent directly to your door.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses, Lyndonlyon.com: African violets are the focus of this family-owned greenhouse in Dolgeville, N.Y., a village just south of The Adirondack Park. Lyndon Lyon founded the business in 1954; now this internationally known greenhouse is managed by grandson Paul Sorano.

Lyon worked to cross-pollinate and hybridize more than 800 varieties of African violets, initially developing many of the characteristics we recognize today: petals of equal size, red colorations and double-petal blooms.

Although African violets are common indoor plants, they are native to Africa, mainly Tanzania, and were not brought into cultivations in Europe and subsequently the United States until the late 1800s.

"We now lead the field in creating new hybrids," Sorano says.

Some of the companies that mass-produce violets for retail outlets visit Lyndon Lyon for its breeding stock. But beyond the standard violets that you might find at the grocery or a garden center, Lyndon Lyon hybridizers have developed hundreds of new violets with spectacular attributes. Large, multicolored double and triple blooms, frilled petals, and variegated and textured foliage can be seen in the online catalogue.

The markings require their own vocabulary. A chimera, for instance, has a stripe down the center of each petal, creating a pinwheel effect. "Fantasy" markings are spatters of contrasting petal shade, and "geneva" indicates a thin, outlining edge color.

Photographs of each plant, showing leaves and flowers, and accompanying text are clear and easy to understand. From the dazzling neon combinations in Live Wire to the subtle and sweet Pink Feathers, it is difficult to choose among all the offerings.

You also might want to watch a few YouTube videos of Sorano explaining techniques for growing African violets, including a clip of his appearance on Martha Stewart's television show last February.

Leilani-Hapu'u Nepenthes Nursery, Leilaninepenthes.com: Carnivorous plants have some fascinating structures that lure, entrap and digest insects and even small rodents.

Nepenthes, or tropical pitcher plants, are just one variety. Marked by variously colored and lidded tubular cup structures, nepenthes hybrids like Evening Light and Bongbong seem to glow pink and red, and are filled with liquid in which they drown and devour their prey.

A surprising diversity of these plants may be found at Leilani-Hapu'u Nepenthes Nursery's website.

Hybridizer and founder Samuel Estes has developed more than 500 hybrids in Hawaii; his partner, Jeremiah Harris, travels to places including Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan in search of new species, and handles the retail part of the business from Colorado. Shipments are sent out year-round.

"My interest in carnivorous plants began when I was 4 or 5 years old," Harris says.

Almost Eden, Almostedenplants.com: Almost Eden, owned by the McMillan family of Merryville, La., offers a long list of garden plants. It's rated one of the top 30 vendors at Davesgarden.com, a well-known community for gardeners.

One favorite item is the passion flower, or passiflora, a climbing vine that attracts bees and butterflies. Among the many varieties, Incense and Maypop are cold-hardy in Kentucky. Striking fragrant purple flowers grow to about 3 inches in diameter.

The crimson-eyed rosemallow, a native hibiscus, is another bee magnet that looks like a tropical denizen but is cold hardy.

Plant Delights Nursery, Plantdelights.com: For 25 years, Plant Delights Nursery, under the direction of founder Tony Avent, has offered an eclectic, constantly expanding selection of interesting native and worldwide finds.

Not to be missed in the new listings are the many Voodoo lilies, well-named Amorphophallus varieties. With these erotic exotics collected in steamy tropics like Laos, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, the interest is not only about the unusual inflorescences with spadix and spathe structures, but on the spotted leaf stalks of various colors. In Kentucky, they must be kept indoors in colder months but do well as container plants.

Photos and a list of unique features and cultivation suggestions accompany each offering. Also of interest for perennial plant lovers at Plant Delights are the new red Valentine bleeding hearts and native Indian Pink, with its striking red and yellow blooms.

Ordering plants

Tips and cautions

■ Check shipping policies, procedures and prices beforehand. Delivery might be delayed during periods of cold weather, and additional rates might apply for heat packs and expedited shipping.

■ When your new specimens arrive, quarantine them for a couple weeks. You never know when insects or diseases will hitchhike along and hop aboard your established plants. Examine leaves, including undersides, as well as any soil, for tiny invaders, and treat accordingly.

■ Use online resources such as Gardenweb.com and Davesgarden.org to study customer comments and feedback forums about greenhouses and nurseries before ordering. Many sellers now have Facebook pages and online videos, as well as organizational affiliations to clubs and professional groups with additional support information.

■ Be sure to check USDA cold hardiness zones and habitat requirements to ensure you will be willing and able to keep your plants alive. Alternatively, many tropical plants may be grown as indoor or movable container plants in Kentucky.