LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It is through Allen Bush, the seedsman and raconteur, that I lay claim to the 400-year-old legacy of the Dutch engraver and floriculturist Emanuel Sweert. On a cloudless Saturday morning not long ago, Bush rummaged in his backyard and cut me a clump of a purplish iris. It was an ordinary looking plant, not yet in bloom - hardly noticeable in his oversize city lot.
"It's very small compared to the German bearded irises," said Bush, 63. "You'll look at it and say, 'Really?' But it's got a charm because it's so old. And because of Ellen."
That would be Ellen Hornig, the proprietor of Seneca Hill Perennials, in Oswego, New York. The nursery is gone now: she closed it to care for her ailing husband. But 20 years ago, Bush ordered the cultivar called Iris Swertii from Hornig. "She had a story about where she got all this stuff," Bush said.
This description was high praise. Though Bush is a gardener of unusual knowledge and influence, he is, first, a cultivator of stories and relationships.
Over his long career in horticulture, he has gone herb shopping in the Smoky Mountains with the legendary British gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd. He has been received at the Bavarian garden of Countess Helen von Stein-Zeppelin. ("Her uncle was the Zeppelin of dirigible fame," Bush said.) And Bush has wandered 10 countries and three continents on collecting trips with the grass king Kurt Bluemel.
Never heard of Kurt Bluemel, who died last month at 81? Here's a yarn: Bluemel sourced 4 million savanna plants for the safari ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida. As Bush tells it, the ride designers failed to anticipate that wildebeest would graze.
You could see Bluemel's little bluestem mix on a 2-acre hillside at Bush's country house near Salvisa, Ky., an hour east of Louisville. "He sent us a box of at least 100 pounds, which we scattered - kind of the meadow-in-a-can approach," Bush said.
It seems that Bush knows everyone in the garden world, and everyone knows him. As the former director of North American operations for Jelitto, a giant in the perennial seed market, Bush spent a dozen years calling on nurseries and garden centers.
"Sometimes I felt like Willy Loman," he said. "I'd do that nice-to-see-you kind of thing."
Bush estimates that he has visited more than 400 public and private gardens and another 400 nurseries and greenhouses. And while he insists that number is nothing extraordinary, he is hard pressed to name anyone who has seen more.
For some 15 years, Bush operated his own quirky perennial nursery and catalog, called Holbrook Farm, near Asheville, N.C. The very idea of retailing perennials was quirky back in 1980, when Bush first developed the business plan.
"Perennial plants are outdoor plants which may die back at the end of the growing season and then reappear the following year," he wrote in his prospectus. He listed his (rather thin) qualifications as a plantsman: a year of intensive study at Kew Gardens, in London. Of his potential customers, Bush wrote, "my market will be drawn from magazine advertising in the horticultural magazines."
Bush keeps the original proposal in a scrapbook, and looking at it today seems to fill him with amusement. "This business plan looks bulletproof," he said. "How could it go wrong?"
You could start with the readers of horticulture magazines. "They were serious gardeners," Bush said. "There just weren't that many of them."
Holbrook Farm ultimately taught Bush the difference between having a life in horticulture and making a living. In 1995, he liquidated the nursery and moved back home to Louisville. Soon after, he bought a house with his soon-to-be second wife, Rose Cooper.
"When we go to conventions, my wife is happy to introduce herself as Rose Bush," Bush said - one of those gifts that help a marriage endure.
Cooper, a 60-year-old retired public defender, gardens in the front of their 1936 Federal-style brick house. After his years at the nursery, gardening in public, Bush now favors the solitude of the backyard.
He has a tradesman's knowledge of the right way to cultivate plants. And that's mostly what he does not do in his home garden. The propagation greenhouse is the junked-up garage. The irrigation system is a hose and a Haws watering can.
One of the few things Bush salvaged from the old operation is the sign for Holbrook Farm: a groovy blue hand holding a leaf. It now hangs in a place of honor, at the gate of the compost heap.
The terraced garden at the Louisville house is totally Simple. The design itself is rather complicated: It resembles a ziggurat, with grass in the center and scree planting beds on the sides. The site includes a dry gulch for stormwater management, and a pond and fountain surrounded by a stone patio.
Simple, to be clear, is an outsider artist and a longtime friend. "His name is 'Simple,' " Bush said. "Not Bill or Bob."
Bush had imagined a naturalistic plan, inspired by the Potsdam-Bornim garden of the plantsman Karl Foerster. But you don't hire Simple to do what you want to do; you hire Simple to do what he wants to do. This explains how Bush ended up with a colorful pergola that looks as if it escaped from a wine bar in Key West. ("He prevailed," Bush said. "And I was glad he did.")
Along the stone stairs lie a couple of small concrete planters. Bush stopped here to point at a daisylike flower, Erigeron compositus. "This little thing is a fleabane," he said. "I got this from Harlan Hamernik, a legendary nurseryman in Nebraska. His motto was, 'If they'll grow in Nebraska, they'll grow anywhere.'"
Bush continued: "He died two years ago, lighting his furnace, and the house blew up. It was really sad." And yet the fleabane remains behind. "Now I pass by and see it," Bush said, "and I think of Harlan."
Bush does not have a naturally morbid disposition. Yet a gregarious plant collector who stays at it long enough ends up accumulating a kind of memorial garden.
The potted hollies came from Josh Brands, a Trappist monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani, once home to the author Thomas Merton. "It was always said, if you're going out to visit Merton, bring a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey," Bush said. The same rule applied to Brands, who "had the reputation as the party monk."
Bush recounts the story at Garden Rant, the popular group blog, where he writes every month. He had helped Brands install a garden at his private hermitage. The weather was bleak, and before long, Brands suggested a detour to a Mexican restaurant: "Let's go to town on the abbey's credit card!"
Bush's friend died last year, having left his vocation. He was survived by the hollies (Ilex colchica and Ilex ciliospinosa), which Bush was attempting to propagate by cutting and seed. "He was a good monk," Bush said.
A few years ago, an ice storm arrested Louisville. "We had no power for days," Bush said. The house turned into a meat locker. "I was going to stay here in the ice cave to protect the fort. And Rose said, 'I'm leaving.'"
When they returned, the house appeared the same. And yet something had happened. "It was like I had no attachment to the place," Bush said.
You could surmise that the new property is, in fact, an excuse to amass more plants. That's what I originally thought when Bush asked me to mail him a couple of the sunflower seeds I had gathered in a jar last fall. I'd been gassing on about how the flowers were the size of basketball hoops, and how the stalks had eclipsed the garage.
But this heirloom variety, Mammoth Grey Stripe, was actually quite common. You could order a packet for $1.30 from Fedco Seeds. Only when I dropped the gray-and-white seeds in an envelope did it occur to me that Bush was offering me a seat in his grand fellowship of gardeners.
The sunflower seed was a token. What he wanted from me was a story.