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Plant geeks turn exotic into everyday

The drive alone is enough to make your heart sing. You've got a stunning view of Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier as you travel north along Sauvie Island on your way to Cistus Design Nursery.

About five miles down Gillihan Road, you find Cistus on your left. This is a nursery that's ahead of the curve in plant culture and acumen, which is why Bob Hackney of Southeast Portland keeps coming back.

'In a nutshell, I can find plants here that I can't find anywhere else. I love the drive, plus there's a wealth of knowledge,' Hackney says.

The ambience might seem rather overwhelming to a newcomer, but Hackney advises shopping at this nursery methodically. 'The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time,' he says. And that's the strategy needed for the huge plant collection at Cistus.

As you walk in the big front entry, remember, the rare plants for sale are not new. They're just new to us. Oh, and it certainly doesn't hurt that the digs are new and improved. Upward of $200,000 worth of site renovations have recently been completed.

Cistus grows most of its own and has 'road tested' the plants for years by the time it sells them. The nursery's mission is to 'make rare but beautiful plants common.'

Owners Parker Sanderson and Sean Hogan say you shouldn't be overwhelmed by the words 'rare plants.' Many of these plants are a lot simpler than you think.

Sanderson and Hogan travel the world to find unusual plants that grow in climates similar to ours. The difference is, instead of keeping the plants for themselves or a couple of clients in the design business, they sell to the public.

Sanderson is hot on trees this year: olives, figs and pomegranates. Hogan is harder to pin down; he's been plant collecting forever. Heck, he had his own cactus collection at 3 years old!

Cistus is a niche market, and yes, it definitely has snob appeal, but Hogan says there's nothing more rewarding than helping new gardeners get hooked.

'I walk into the auto shop and feel totally overwhelmed, so I know what some people must think,' he says. 'But we steer people to plants they'll be successful with.'

How do they do it? With a knowledge of plants that goes light-years beyond anything we'll learn here in a few minutes. Sanderson and Hogan call themselves 'plant geeks.'

Sanderson explains it this way: 'We both come from university backgrounds where it's commonplace to openly share information. This is a way to earn a living at it.'

Granted, their backgrounds make them pretty well-connected. Hogan was curator of the University of California at Berkeley Botanical Garden, while Sanderson was at the University of California at Davis Arboretum.

Together they have popularized some of the funniest phrases known in local gardening circles. For instance, they have a name for the insecurity some of us have about wishing we knew more than we do about a particular plant family: 'genus envy.'

There are a couple of things you should look for while you're there. Take a gander at my favorite selection of flowering maples (Abutilon), which aren't really maples at all but do have great flowers. I've got one that bloomed all winter. Then, search out all the different varieties of eucalyptus trees that will survive our winters.

'Anne Jaeger's Gardening Tips' airs at 9:56 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on KGW (8). Jaeger's Web site is at www.gardengal.tv.

AnneJaeger's

Clippings

'Little Toby'

Pacific Coast iris

Why I love this plant:

• The flower is a dark burgundy with white in the center and a gold mark down the throat.

• It is native to Oregon and won't grow very well outside the Northwest.

• It is vigorous and tough.

• You'll have green leaves all year.

• It is very disease free.

Planting tips:

• Choose a sunny site that drains easily.

• Loosen soil 6-8 inches down.

• Mix in compost.

• Rhizome (roots) needs to touch the soil, but leave the top exposed.

• Dig, divide or plant iris about a month after it blooms.

• Add fertilizer now and then again a month after bloom. (Use bone meal, superphosphate or good general fertilizer with 6-10-10 on the label.)