A Gardening Life: Barry Yinger

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By Barbara Paul Robinson

Barry Yinger had his first garden epiphany not far from the Pennsylvania farm where he grew up and still lives and gardens. As a teenager, he first learned that a plant called Japanese Holly, so completely unlike the American hollies he knew, was but one of many Asian plants related to native Pennsylvanians but looking completely different. He says, “There was this great flash of light – I really need to know about this!” Years later, his extraordinary nursery is named Asiatica, offering unusual plants he collects from the other side of the globe.

With rural German-American roots, Barry started out to become a lawyer — “The biggest mistake of my life” — but quickly switched to studying plants, particularly plants from Japan and Asia. Because Barry became convinced that most English-language sources about Asian plants were derivative and wrong, he was fortunate that, in addition to horticulture, the University of Maryland allowed him to master Japanese and Chinese so he could read original sources. Eventually, Barry went to Longwood Gardens, earning his Masters Degree with a thesis on asarums, a genus Barry still loves and offers at Asiatica

In 1974, Barry went to Japan for a semester, his first trip outside the United States. While in Tokyo, Barry realized horticulture was a Japanese passion when he saw men in a bathhouse changing room admiring a display of bonsai forms of prunus mume, including one particularly dirty laborer painstakingly instructing his son in the nuances of each plant. “That was the epiphany of my life,” says Barry, describing his culture shock. After graduation, he devoted all his vacations and savings from his day job at a garden center on trips on many return trips to Japan. Often sleeping on park benches or on trains, he collected plants in the wild, including the treasured marble-foliaged vine, Schizophragma Moonlight.

Barry was fascinated by the Japanese horticultural tradition called koten engei, which selects mutated forms (variegated, twisted, weeping or dwarfed) of plain little plants, like wild gingers and whisk ferns, bits of green that to a westerner seem insignificant, even unattractive. These are displayed in special decorative pots like jewels. Over the years, the bidding wars of aficionados have created mini-bubbles, much like the European tulip craze.

Korea was his next Asian destination. He worked at Chollipo Garden on Korea’s west coast, lived in a remote village lacking any modern amenities, and learned Korea’s language and its plants. From a scholarly Japanese paper, Barry became convinced that wild camellias, unknown to western science, grew on the cold northern Korean islands. He managed to smuggle his way onto an island closed to all but the military, where, contrary to academics certain there couldn’t be any undiscovered hardy camellias, Barry found them, magnificent and flourishing, oblivious to sub-zero temperatures and Mongolian winds. The seeds Barry brought back lead to the introduction of hardier camellias japonica. Barry mounted four subsequent expeditions to Korea while working at Brookside Gardens and then as curator of Asian collections at the National Arboretum. In frustration, Barry recounts, “We introduced a lot of wonderful material … but the plants were not getting into commerce. The whole point was to see these plants growing in people’s gardens.”

Determined to see his plants disseminated, Barry came home to buy his parents’ farm and develop his nursery. The first catalogue for Asiatica came out in 1994, thanks to Barry and the hard work of his business partner, Andy Wong, a Chinese man raised in Malaysia. Between them, Barry says, “We have most of the Asian languages covered.” They continue to introduce new plants and were ahead of the curve in the growth of small, specialty nurseries that have expanded the plant palette for American gardeners.

Disaster struck in January of 2003 when fire totally destroyed Barry’s home, wiping out his office and his extraordinary library. After this life-altering devastation, Barry gave up his dream of writing a book on asarums, turning to Thailand and his developing passion for tropical plants. Now speaking Thai, Barry is taken with hoyas and the aristelochea family, which includes his beloved asarums as well photteas, a woodland plant not yet familiar to western horticulture.

Barry still loves asarums; Asiatica offers them and many other unusual woodland plants, including Asian arisaemas and now, tropicals. From the konten engei tradition, Barry has learned “to love the unloved. I tend to be most fond of those plants that don’t get much respect in the greater world of horticulture.”