Hortlandia in Portland: passionate plantaholics and crazy crowds

This spring I finally had the opportunity to experience an event my Pacific Northwest gardening friends have been raving about forever: Hortlandia, the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon's (HPSO) annual spring plant sale.

This is how the HPSO describes Hortlandia on their web site:
In April of every year, HPSO sponsors an event that is one of the largest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. Vendors from far and wide – from nearly the Canadian border to the California border – come to Portland to offer the latest plant introductions as well as the time-tested (and hardiness-tested!) plants. Complementing the plant vendors are specialty garden art vendors bringing one-of-a-kind pieces made from metal, wood, glass, ceramic, fabric, and stone
You get the idea: Hortlandia isn't "just" another plant sale, it's the Coachella of plant sales! It's such a massive event that it's held at the Portland EXPO Center. You do need plenty of space when you have 50+ plant vendors and 30+ garden art vendors—not to mention 6,000+ visitors!

These stats blew my mind. There's nothing like that in California, certainly not in Northern California. Unlike the usual home and garden shows, which seem to be about anything but plants, Hortlandia is all about plants—plants you can buy and take home!

Cistus booth

Of course each vendor can only bring a limited selection of their actual inventory so you can't count on finding a specific plant (unless you've made prior arrangements with a vendor). For me, this element of chance is actually what makes things exciting. Sure, I always have a mental list of plants I  want at any given point in time, but not knowing precisely what there will be forces me to slow down, look closely, and read the labels. This often leads to serendipitous finds—plants I had forgotten about, or plants I hadn't ever heard of before. It's a lot like browsing in a bookstore. Sticking with a Portland theme, you could call Hortlandia the Powell's of plant sales (Powell's Books in Portland is said to be the largest independent bookstore in the world).

Sean Hogan of Cistus in his element

As you can imagine, an event the size of Hortlandia requires hundreds of volunteers—before, during and afterwards. I've been a member of the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon for a year now, and since I can't go to any of their monthly events, I decided to at least help out at Hortlandia. I flew to Portland on Thursday evening so I could work a shift on Friday. Loree of danger garden and I spent four hours helping vendors move plants from their vehicles to their table inside the EXPO Center. Basically, we loaded trays of plants onto carts, hauled the carts inside, and then unloaded them. Some loads were heavier than others, depending on the kind of soil the vendor was using and how much they'd watered the plants, but it was great fun getting a peek at the plants as they were arriving and chatting with the vendors. I plan on volunteering again next year for that reason alone.

Scodoxis puniceus at the Rare Plant Research booth

But there's a more selfish reason, too: Volunteers get early admission to the EXPO Center on Saturday morning. For 90 minutes we were able to take a close look at the vendor tables and shop in peace and quiet without having to elbow your way through throngs of people to get to the plant you're interested in.

Never having been to Hortlandia before, I had no idea what would happen when the doors opened to the public at 10:00. A scene from the movie Dances With Wolves came to mind: John Dunbar (Kevin Costner's character) going on his first buffalo hunt with the Sioux tribe he'd befriended. It begins with an almost imperceptible sound, a low rumble that keeps getting louder and louder. Then you see a cloud of dust, getting bigger and bigger. And finally there's an explosion of buffaloes, hundreds of them, thousands. Not that I'm comparing the good folks who came to Hortlandia to buffaloes, but you get my drift. Within 30 minutes, the spacious EXPO Center hall was full of people.

I spent another hour walking around, focusing on vendors I'd passed over earlier in the morning and chatting with Portland friends I ran into. Eventually, though, Loree and I decided to bite the bullet and stand in line to pay.

Plant holding area

But let me back up a little at this point. At Hortlandia, you don't pay each plant vendor individually for your purchases. Instead, you gather all your plants in a box, no matter from how many different vendors they came from, and then pay for everything at the same time at one of the checkouts. This makes buying much simpler.

If you fill your box but aren't done shopping yet, or it simply gets too heavy to lug around, you can drop it off at the plant holding area conveniently located between the vendor tables and the checkout. When I saw the empty holding area on Friday, I thought, “Why are they wasting so much space on this? There's no way they'll fill such a large holding area.” Of course I was an idiot for thinking that. By now, Hortlandia's organizers have a pretty good understanding of what's needed. By 11:00 on Saturday morning, the plant holding area was chock full of boxes, with over a dozen volunteers dashing to and fro.

Plant holding area in the very back, checkout lines in the foreground

This year Hortlandia had 12 (twelve!) checkouts. Try to visualize 12 lines leading to 12 cash registers (some technically were tablets equipped with Square credit card readers). That's more than most supermarkets have. And in spite of this superb setup, it still took Loree and me almost 45 minutes to pay for our plants. That tells you how many people were at Hortlandia on Saturday morning. In fact, from what I gathered later, attendance records were broken this year!

Standing in line to check out

That's my brain after 30 minutes in line. All the blood in my body had gone to my arms holding a very heavy box of plants.

We did hear people grumbling about the long checkout lines, with one visibly annoyed woman stating categorically that she would never come back. From my perspective, the wait was simply a fact of life, given the crowds. I saw nothing that the organizers could have done better or differently. Heck, if I were to organize a similar event, I'd be thrilled if so many people showed up. And the buyers should be excited, too, that there's so much interest in plants and gardening. A thriving community of like-minded people is good for everybody and gives nurseries the economic reward they need to keep bringing us cool plants.

Still in line

Getting closer

By the time you got to the tables where you could set down your box, you were only 10 minutes from paying.

With some pushing and shoving, I managed to fit all my Hortlandia plants into one box. It was an idiosyncratic mix of plants that could justifiably be called bonkers. Despite appearances to the contrary, I was being selective, but there are just too many different types of plants I like. It's a problem I don't mind having.

My plants stuffed into the backseat of my Chevy Silverado

As I'd mentioned earlier, I'd flown to Portland, but I rented a car to haul myself and my plants back to Davis. In one of those inexplicable twists of circumstance, the cheapest vehicle category for a one-way rental that weekend was a premium pickup truck. Yep, a premium truck was cheaper than an economy car. One-way rentals seem to follow their own set of logic so I accepted this as a gift from the cosmic dispensary of humor. (While I fit all my plants inside the massive cab of my Chevy Silverado, the truck bed did came in handy to bring home a pile of rocks I picked up on the way.)

To be honest, I could get used to having a pickup truck. All the things I could haul!

Here's what I brought home from Portland. Sorry for the bad photos; I should have taken more care in staging the plants better.

Plants from Xera (except the Aloe dorotheae on the left, which came from Rare Plant Research)

Hortlandia plants

Hortlandia plants for my mother-in-law's place in Mount Shasta

Plants for the backyard

My favorite plant from Portland: Epimedium wushanense 'Spiny Form'. After seeing Loree's specimen, I decided to try one in my own backyard. Apparently, many epimediums handle dry shade well.

Yes, a bunch of bromeliads, too. Most of them came from Dick's greenhouse (see Loree's post).

Complete list of plants:
Adenanthos sericeus   ↪    (danger garden)
Agave havardiana    ↪    (Xera Plants)
Aloe dorotheae    ↪    (Hortlandia/Rare Plant Research)
Arctostaphylos ‘Greensphere’   ↪    (Garden Fever)
Arctostaphylos hookeri ‘Ken Taylor’   ↪    (Garden Fever)
Arctostaphylos hookeri ‘White Lanterns’   ↪    (Garden Fever)
Arctostaphylos auriculata ‘Diablo's Blush’   ↪    (Xera Plants)
Astelia ‘Red Devil’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Begonia aff. hemsleyana ‘Chandler's Hardy’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Begonia ‘Jurassic Green Streak’   ↪    (Portland Nursery)
Begonia ‘Harmony's Red Robin’   ↪    (Hortlandia)
Begonia ‘Jurassic Pink Shades’   ↪    (Portland Nursery)
Berberis replicata   ↪    (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Billbergia nutans ‘Variegata’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Secret Garden Growers)
Brachyglotti monroi   ↪    (Xera Plants)
Callistemon pityoides ‘Kosciuszko Princess’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Carex phyllocephala ‘Sparkler’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Choysia ‘Bluestone’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Cryptanthus bivittatus ‘Crimson Star’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Secret Garden Growers)
Danae racemosa ↪ (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Epidemium wushanense ‘Spiny Form’   ↪    (Garden Fever)
Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweet Georgia Bullfrog’   ↪    (Fred Meyer)
Juniperus communis ‘Hood View’   ↪    (Xera Plants)
Lavandula allardii ‘Meerlo’   ↪    (Hortlandia/N&N)
Muehlenbeckia ephedroides   ↪    (Xera Plants)
Oppuntia humifusa   ↪    (Hortlandia/Alpine Gardens)
Pittosporum divaricatum   ↪    (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Salvia nipponica ‘Fuji Snow’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Cistus)
Sempervivum arachnoideum ‘Forest Frost’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Alpine Gardens)
Sempervivum arachnoideum ‘Red Cobweb’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Alpine Gardens)
Sempervivum ‘Jade Rose’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Alpine Gardens)
Trachelospermum asiaticum ‘Shirofu Chirimen’   ↪    (Xera Plants)
Tulipa clusiana ‘Tubergen’s Gem’   ↪    (Hortlandia/Wild Orchid)
Yucca ‘Bright Star’   ↪    (Hortlandia/N&N)

So there you go. Another crazy plant adventure, and more additions to my crazy garden!

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  1. Did you have any issues getting the plants into California? Did they have any kind of certification? Always wondered for myself. Thanks ��

  2. Damn but you bought a lot of plants! When do we get to see the (not pictured) garden art in situ?

  3. It's nice to know that HPSO will accept crazy plant people from across the border. I may join up one day myself. There's certainly nothing like Hortlandia in SoCal either, although I vaguely remember a time when the LA Arboretum hosted Spring plant sales that brought in lots of independent sellers but, even then, it wasn't anything on the order of Hortlandia. Your haul is impressive, not that I would have expected anything else. You'll have to report back on the performance of the Epimedium. I love the plants in that genus and even planted one mail order specimen in my former garden. It didn't outright die on me but it didn't thrive either. Nonetheless, despite my Sunset Garden Book's assertion that there isn't a chance in hell I can grow anything in this genus in my area, I'm tempted to try again...

  4. That all you got? With that big truck? ;^) Nice selections.

    The line at the Inter-City C&S show used to be horrible like that.

    The club was able to access more cash registers/card readers, which dropped the wait time dramatically.

  5. You really needed a truck for that haul! (Thank goodness Marty's computer lets me comment...)

  6. I might have to put this on the agenda for 2020. And I like the early entry for the volunteers aspect too. And like Laura above I am always interested in the border experience. I was on 101 in Sept and they asked who I bought the plants from-dropping names like Cistus and Dancing Oaks sailed me through.

  7. Wow. I would volunteer too if it meant shopping before the rush! At only 1.3 minutes per plant, your wait to checkout wasn't too bad.

    Also, the truck goes well with the beard I must say. :)


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