Dan Heims brightens homes and gardens with revolutionary plants

At 58, the president of Terra Nova Nurseries in Canby is still in love with the science and serendipity of plants. Terra Nova (www.terranovanurseries.com) is one of the most prolific plant-breeding operations in the world and has introduced more than 700 plant varieties since 1990.

Dan started his scientific journey early, participating in OMSI programs, then loading his curriculum in communications at the University of Oregon with chemistry, biology and botany. By the time he left school, he had a business selling houseplants.

“It all started my freshman year,” he said. “I bought a 29-cent velvet plant and when it grew and flowered, I got a book by Montague Free called All About Houseplants and learned about so many other plants that in three years I had 1,200 houseplants growing under fluorescent lights. I had 300 different begonias, and I started selling retail and wholesale.”

Dan was a regular at Saturday Market, but by the mid-1980s, the demand for houseplants had ebbed, so he started Terra Green Landscape.

“I did that for 20 years, but it was so physically demanding I knew I had to come up with something else,” he said.

The something else was a partnership with fellow scientist and plant nerd Ken Brown to create new garden plants. For three years, they kept their day jobs, until Terra Nova Nurseries became a going concern.

The plant that launched their success was the heuchera.

Heucheras, called coral bells in their earlier incarnation as modest, green-leaved plants with tiny pink flowers, are hardy perennials but are rather boring. Yet, sometimes sports (mutations) would appear, with surprising colorations. They could be used to breed plants with varied leaf patterns and new colors.

In the late 1980s, Brian Halliwell of Kew Gardens in England introduced H. “Palace Purple,” while almost simultaneously, Dan introduced H. sanguinea “Snow Storm,” with variegated green and white leaves. Since then, heucheras have morphed into a world of color for shady – and sunny – gardens. Terra Nova has introduced more than 100.

Tissue culture, which revolutionized propagation, requires exact formulations of fertilizer, sugars and hormones that will cause a plant to increase.

“That’s the science,” Dan said. “It has nothing to do with the breeding, which comes first: crossing plants and creating 150,000 seedlings to get the traits you want. There’s no gene-splicing or anything like that going on. It takes us about seven years to come up with something revolutionary.”

So what does a plant breeder do in his spare time?

Well, he gardens, of course. He plays the blues, blowing blues harp for The Bloozers, who perform at community events. And he and his wife, Lynne Bartenstein, belong to Congregation Beth Israel, where they donate a large number of plants to the Sisterhood Plant Sale. Remaining plants go to the Robison Jewish Health Center or to CBI’s cemetery grounds.

In demand as a horticultural speaker worldwide, Dan also engages local school kids during Tu B’Shvat by emphasizing the importance of plants.

“There’s a Talmudic story about a man planting trees. He was old and frail and some Roman soldiers asked him why he was planting trees he would never see. He says, ‘Yes, but my children and grandchildren will see them.’ I like that story.”

Portland freelance writer Jan Behrs specializes in stories about gardeners, gardens, homes and real estate. She moved to Oregon from Wisconsin in 1980 to trade tornadoes for volcanoes and tends 2/3 of an acre in Southwest Portland. Her work appears in The Oregonian, Better Homes and Gardens and online.

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