Scott McMahan can see China from Grant Park. And Vietnam, and a few other countries halfway around the world.
Rare plants from the rugged mountains and dense jungles of Asia come into focus each time McMahan walks among the benches at GardenHood, a retail garden center he owns in the historic intown neighborhood. The most unusual have been grown from seed McMahan and several fellow adventurous plantsmen collected in areas so remote they are accessible only with local guides. Even they, McMahan says, sometimes get lost.
McMahan, an Atlanta native, set his heart on opening a garden center specializing in rare plants when he was a nursery manager at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Visitors would ask him where they could buy plants like the ones they saw at the garden. There wasn’t such a place, so McMahan decided to build one, opening McMahan’s Nursery in Clermont, Georgia, twelve years ago and then GardenHood in 2009.
But don’t call him a plant collector.
“We collect seed,” McMahan emphasizes. “We don’t pillage the land or exploit the plants like plant collectors of 100 years ago.”
Annual trips are timed for the fall, when pollinated flowers have formed seedpods. Botanists by day, the plant hunters number and name their seeds by flashlight and firelight at night. The names of the mother plants are familiar: camellias, clematis, lilies, hydrangeas, ferns, magnolias. Flowers and foliage, though, are much different from varieties Atlanta gardeners typically see.
The sweet spot for these treasures is elevations between 7,000 and 12,000 feet, because habitats below 6,000 feet are subtropical or tropical. Plants there would not survive Atlanta’s winters.
But many of these Asian specimens can adapt to Atlanta’s climate. “Every seed-collected GardenHood plant is trial-tested for Atlanta growing conditions,” McMahan says. “When I put it on my bench, I know it will grow here.”
Tests can take years. But speed to market is not the objective.
“Our primary goal is to preserve the germplasm of species that may never be seen outside of their habitats if the seed is not collected,” he says. GardenHood’s secondary aim is to educate the public. Both goals provide Atlanta gardeners with plants they can’t find anywhere else.
Scott McMahan’s favorite rare plants from his travels, available at GardenHood. All are seed-grown, except the fern, which is grown from plantlets.
Schefflera delavayi (left)
Evergreen shade tree, produces showy white flowers in fall. China, 2008, 2010
Woodwardia unigemmata (middle)
Fronds can reach four feet, each producing a plantlet on the end. China, 2011
Lilium poilanei (right)
Lily that grows to five feet and produces large, fragrant maroon flowers. Vietnam, 2007
This article originally appeared in our July 2014 issue under the headline "Seed Scout."