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Originally published Saturday, April 28, 2012 at 7:01 PM

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Rare plants gather in gracious Shoreline garden

Jeanette Kunnen's garden is a global gallery of plants. She likes the challenge of growing plants that don't grow in the Northwest naturally.

PLANT COLLECTORS often amass plant zoos rather than make gardens. The fun is more in the hunt than in actually planting the swag. The coolness factor of each plant supersedes garden-making; collectors tend to enthuse over bits of flora and overlook the larger picture.

So I wasn't expecting much besides a bunch of plants I didn't recognize when I visited Jeanette Kunnen's Shoreline garden. Instructors from Edmonds Community College bring their horticulture classes to Kunnen's garden for a veritable tour of global flora. Her Chilean fire bush is rumored to be the largest in the Seattle area. It's no small feat to cultivate this hummingbird magnet with its exotic bottlebrush flowers.

Despite Kunnen's decades-long pursuit of rare plants, she's never lost sight of creating a gracious garden. The place is a marvel of integration, with plants from a variety of continents growing comfortably together on a suburban half-acre. Even though Kunnen has gardened here for 40 years, there's plenty of room to wander the paths, and sunlight penetrates the canopy of trees from eucryphia to magnolias. Kunnen has put as much thought into the views out her windows as she has into reproducing distinctive habitats for her treasures.

A semiretired financial adviser, Kunnen grew up in South Africa and made her way to the Northwest via England (too wet) and Canada (too cold). She credits her three sons with building the garden's infrastructure, which features copper lights and trellises. They also wrestled a mossy stone fountain into place; now as many as 30 bushtits at a time splash and sing outside Kunnen's kitchen window. Kunnen welcomes feathered visitors as well as human ones to the garden, attracting and sheltering birds with shallow and running water, hollow logs and native plants.

This arboretum of a property was blank, flat and sterile when Kunnen moved in. She got rid of the red azaleas, junipers and diseased cherry trees. "I'm kind of a plant snob," she admits. "I want species, not hybrids."

Her quest for the unusual has led Kunnen to paddle a kayak across Patagonia and travel China with a group of fellow fern fanciers. "I've been lucky, people give me so many plants . . . maybe because I'm so passionate about them," she says.

Raised troughs by the back door hold tiny astilbe and trillium. Conifers, epimedium and ferns grow along the driveway. Cardiocrinum, a strikingly tall kind of lily from the Himalayas, grow beneath June-blooming stewartia. Little bulbs are a Kunnen specialty, and their colorful flowers carpet the ground in early spring.

Kunnen has created specific eco-geographic zones or habitats to nurture her plants along. There's an Eastern Washington patch of garden for dry-land plants like saxifrages and native peonies. Under the front window are raised alpine beds and plants from southern-hemisphere countries like New Zealand and Tasmania. The path to the back garden is lined with Chilean plants.

How has Kunnen created a garden of great serenity using such a wide variety of plant species? "I pay lots of attention to scale, and do we ever prune," she says. Kunnen remains inspired by the six-acre garden in Johannesburg where she grew up, all the while tending her geographically diverse garden in Shoreline.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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