Indian tribe buys famed rare plant garden, ancestral land
Heronswood's new owners plan to preserve the Washington state property, which has been closed since 2006 when then-owner Burpee had financial problems.
Thu, Oct 18 2012 at 11:04 AM
For the first time in a long time, everyone connected with Heronswood is happy.
Heronswood was founded as a rare plant nursery in 1987 by famed Indiana Jones-style international plant explorer Dan Hinkley and his partner, Robert Jones. Located in Kingston, Wash., on the Kitsap Peninsula across Puget Sound from Seattle, the nursery grew, literally, into a garden. Both the nursery and the garden gained worldwide recognition because many of the plants for sale and in the display beds had not been previously cultivated in North America.
In June 2000, Hinkley and Jones unexpectedly sold Heronswood to W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in Warminster, Pa. The sale sent shock waves, from academia — where researchers had helped Hinkley and Jones eliminate invasive plants from the collection — throughout global gardening circles, where many considered the Heronswood catalog a collector’s item. Hinkley said recently that he did not anticipate the intensity of dismay and disappointment the sale caused.
In July of this year, Burpee — never popular as an East Coast, corporate owner of the private Pacific Northwest nursery and garden — sold Heronswood and an adjoining property that it had purchased in December 2000 to an area Indian tribe, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.
Now, Hinkley says he couldn’t be happier that the garden is back in the hands of people in the area who know the Pacific Northwest.
Noel Higa, a Japanese-American who has a background in land-use planning and was hired by the tribe as its economic development director, says the tribe is happy to be custodians of Heronswood, which sits on ancestral land.
The local gardening community is thrilled, says Lee Neff, chairman of the board of the Pacific Northwest Horticultural Conservancy. The conversancy is a nonprofit set up to purchase Heronswood from Burpee but didn’t do so because it couldn’t meet the asking price.
And even George Ball, chairman and CEO of Burpee, who invested millions in the venture, lost money in the deal and came to be viewed as a villainous suitor by many local gardeners, says he is happy. In fact, he said recently from company headquarters, “I am as happy as Snoopy on a good day.”
What’s the cause of so much happiness from such disparate groups? The Indian tribe’s plans for the garden allay a lot of fears, especially because the group understands the Pacific Northwest region.
The Port Gamble S’Klallam are descendants of the Coastal Salish-S’Klallam people, whose earliest ancestors began inhabiting and shaping the Olympic Peninsula, which includes the Kitsap Peninsula, 14,000 years ago, says Josh Wisniewski, the tribe’s historic preservation officer. Their influence on the land began changing in 1775 when Spanish explorers seeking the Northwest Passage made landfall in what is now Washington state. Their arrival marked the beginning of a period of massive disruption and adjustment for regional native peoples.
The S’Klallam essentially became landless following an 1855 treaty, Wisniewski says. Eventually, the tribe obtained federal recognition as an organized tribal government and in 1938 acquired 1,340 acres of traditional land as the Port Gamble Reservation at Port Gamble Bay on the Kitsap Peninsula.
Both properties that the tribe bought from Burpee in July border the reservation. The purchase price was $859,000, says Dan Lieseke, an appraiser with the Kitsap County Assessor’s Office. Shortly afterward, the tribal council celebrated the acquisition with a ceremony at the garden in which S’Klallam singers sang traditional songs of welcome and, with some members of the local community looking on, a tribal elder gave a blessing.
Heronswood went through a dark time to get to such a happy place
That time started in June 2000 with the sale of Heronswood to Ball and Burpee. The purchase price for the land and on-site residences was $465,000, according to Lieseke. Six months later, in December 2000, Burpee purchased another parcel of land that abutted the Heronswood property from Larry and Betty Donnelly for $760,000, according to Lieseke. Both properties are of about equal size and total 15.17 acres, Lieseke says.
Burpee paid a total of $4.5 million to Hinkley and Jones for the Heronswood property and business, according to Hinkley.
“The plant collection in the garden was my original interest in Heronswood,” Ball says. “It probably has the widest range of taxa [species] in the world that that can be found in a private garden.” Ball added that he was particularly interested in the germplasm, or seeds, that could be obtained from this diversity of plant material.
Burpee purchased the Donnelly property because it gets full sun, whereas Heronswood is almost entirely a perennial shade garden, Ball says. “The main purpose in purchasing the Donnelly property was to develop meadow plants there,” he added.
For a few years the plan seemed to work. Hinkley and Jones continued to run Heronswood for Burpee, the garden and nursery remained open, and there were six to 12 special event days a year that featured infomational sessions on plant groups such as spring-blooming ephemerals, hellebores and hydrangeas.
Then in 2006, fortunes turned. Ball says Burpee got hit hard by the fallout when the dot-com bubble burst. “We were not going bankrupt, like some in the media reported,” he says. However, he decided to close the garden to visitors and move the nursery stock closer to the home office.
“Heronswood, the nursery, never closed,” Ball contends, noting that Burpee preserved Internet and mail order catalog sales.
Nevertheless, it was during this time that Heronswood experienced one of its darkest days. “One day three semi-trailers showed up and loaded them with things to go back East,” Neff says. “The perception here was that plants were being removed from the garden.”
Ball, on the other hand, says Burpee merely thinned the garden as part of routine maintenance. Regardless, there was an avalanche of criticism. “I didn’t anticipate the level of animosity,” Ball says. “They went ‘medieval’ on me. It took me completely by surprise.”
In 2007, he began trying to sell the garden. Unable to find a buyer he thought was suitable, he asked real estate auction firm Sheldon Good to sell it. Five years later, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe closed the deal and bought Heronswood.
The S’Klallam Singers perform at a celebration of the tribe's purchase of Heronswood. (Photo: Ginger Vaughan)
What exactly did the tribe buy?
“Basically, they bought the name,” Higa says.
While the tribe has the right to operate the gardens as a business, “there is no thought at this time of running Heronswood as a commercial nursery business,” he said. “Most of the nursery infrastructure has been removed and there are no plants here to sell.”
Concepts for the future of Heronswood are still coming together, Higa says.
“The tribe's goal,” he says, “is to improve and preserve the garden and to add native art and imagery to convey the history, and culture of the tribe. Through all of what we will do at Heronswood, we will try to involve the youth so they will better understand their heritage and the environment in which they live. The Tribal Council has made it clear that their highest priority is education."
One of the ways the tribe will do that will be to research plants in the garden and determine if any are significant to the tribe’s heritage. While the plant collection was not a consideration in the purchase, the findings will be coordinated with the Northwest Indian College and conveyed to the youth of the community, Higa says.
The tribe is also setting up a nonprofit garden foundation to manage the garden as a public garden. Its first task will be to assess the state of the garden and restore it as may be needed to the condition it was when Burpee bought it, Higa says. To help get an accurate assessment, Higa says the tribe has invited Hinkley and Jones to join the foundation's board.
Hinkley says he recently visited the garden, and it’s “very fair to say the collection now is not remotely on a par with what it was in 2006. Our first task is to do no harm.” (Higa estimates that the greenhouse framework at right hasn't been used in at least six years.)
The plan, he says, is to watch it for a year and see what collected plants come up through the aggressive native plants that have moved in and salvage what they can. If Hinkley and Jones discover any missing plant material, Higa says the foundation will ask local gardeners to donate plants they purchased from Heronswood.
Another goal will be to reopen the garden to the public. It’s not clear at this time how the tribe will use the sunny Donnelly property that was part of the July purchase, Higa says. If it makes sense, the tribe might pursue a demonstration garden featuring native food plants, though he emphasized that the tribe’s ancestors did not practice European or Western style farming.
One thing the land will not be used for is tribal housing or to build new housing or casinos, Higa says. While some of the existing houses on the property may be rented, none of the land on Heronswood or the Donnelly property will be broken up into individual ownership.
“All of the land on the Port Gamble Bay reservation is owned by the tribe,” Higa says. “Heronswood will follow this standard for the foreseeable future. It is one of the few reservations I know of where all of the land is still owned by the tribe.”
In some cases with reservations, he explained, the government gave each member of the tribe some land. Then, individual members would sell their parcels to non-tribal members. The result was a checkerboard of land ownership within the reservation.
“In contradiction to popular misconceptions and stereotypes of North American native peoples, S'Klallam and coastal Salish peoples had a complex cultural system of land tenure and resource management," says Wisniewski. “That system,” he said, “included inherited rights to harvest and settlement locations as well as responsibilities for the sustainable management of natural resources for the broader community.”
Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest are anxiously waiting to see how the S’Klallam apply their heritage to 21st century management of Heronswood. Optimism is high. “I can’t tell you what the last six years have been like,” says Hinkley. “I wasn’t anticipating such a happy ending to this story.”
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Click for photo credits
Flowers, greenhouse framework at Heronswood: chuck b./Flickr