Plants Without Borders: Modern-Day Plant Hunters 

by Bobby J. Ward 

      As gardeners, we take pleasure in visiting arboreta and public parks, as well as private gardens, where we value the splendor and variety of plants. But how many of us think about how these plants came to these gardens, or how they got to a neighborhood garden center, a mail order catalog, or the Scottish Rock Garden Club’s seed exchange?

      The way we garden in the United Kingdom and North America has been heavily influenced by the introduction of foreign plants. Since the 1600s, intrepid plant hunters have introduced numerous additions to our gardens. Bulbous plants from the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey, alpines from the high Himalaya, shrubs and trees from eastern Asia, South African bulbs, and ferns and bright tropical annuals from South America—all have taken root far from their native lands and have enriched Anglo-American gardens.

      Modern-day plant hunters have enjoyed relative ease of travel and welcome comforts unimagined by their predecessors. However, even with modern conveniences, much of the twentieth century held difficulties for these explorers. International political and ideological differences, often resulting in war, thwarted and frustrated explorer’s opportunities for collecting in many areas. However, in the last few decades of the twentieth century, diplomatic relationships in such areas were rekindled. Now we are enjoying a new wave of horticultural introductions in the Post-Cold War collecting era. Since the closing decades of the twentieth century, a modern plant-hunting renaissance has existed, meeting the demands of a public with considerable leisure time for gardening.

      During this period, we have seen the rise of entrepreneurial, private nurserymen who stock their nurseries and catalog listings with plants and seeds obtained on collecting trips to the countries whose doors were formerly shut to plant exploration. These modern-day plant hunters have several common traits. They have a nursery, a business, or a “green industry” affiliation. Only a few are university-degreed horticulturists or botanists, while most have acquired their considerable skills and knowledge about plants, botany, and horticulture through non-traditional paths. Most important, they are all highly motivated by their obsessions, making them effective and efficient in introducing plants to their customers.

      These enterprising plant hunters are part of a continuing tradition of discovery. Their stories are just as compelling as those of the pioneer explorers in earlier times and their collections are just as valid. They have reintroduced plants lost to cultivation, found hardier forms and geographical variants from higher elevations, recognized “new” plants with garden potential, and even found species new to science as well as additional source material for breeding and hybridizing new varieties. Some focus on one family or a single genus, others on a specific geographic region or on new forms and variants.

      Their enthusiasm and passion rarely translate into financial gain or public recognition. Except for their own plant catalogs, seed lists, and occasional magazine or society journal articles, these plants-people rarely publish anything about their horticultural efforts. For most, when they retire or pass on, their considerable specialized knowledge will be lost.

      My interest in these contemporary plant explorers came from attending study weekends and annual meetings of the North American Rock Garden Society where I heard some of these explorers, including some from the Alpine Garden Society and the Scottish Rock Garden Club, tell of wondrous new plants they were finding and growing. I was smitten when I attended the Alpines 2001 Conference in Edinburgh and had a mind-boggling midsummer’s eve stroll through the Royal Botanic Garden’s alpine house and rock garden, displaying plants from all corners of the globe.

      I have spent the last five years gathering information on several dozen contemporary plant hunters, talking to them in person, on the phone, by email, fax, and by post. I have traveled with them in the Andes, in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental, and in the urban gardens of Prague. I have followed their footsteps in the floral richness of Cape Town and in the amazingly diverse rooftop nurseries in downtown Tokyo. Even with this limited shared experience, I have come to understand the importance of these rare individuals. I am pleased to preserve some of their horticultural contributions and a bit about their lives in my new book, The Plant Hunter’s Garden. The following short overviews are a sampling of the unique personalities and the marvelous finds I cover in the book.

      Chris Chadwell’s passion is the Himalaya, having spent twenty or more seasons there, earning him recognition as an authority on the plants in the “abode of snow.” Chadwell’s interest in traditional medicinal plants led him to be an advisor for a time to the Royal Government of Bhutan, as herbal formulations remain a primary health care feature of the region. His garden in Slough (Berkshire) is crammed full of plants from his trips, including Geranium himalayense, the seed of which he collected beside a glacial lake in Zanskar (Tibet) with his bride Dorothy on their honeymoon.. His photographs of Meconopsis aculeata and Androsace muscoidea quicken the heartbeat. Many of his introductions are now firmly in cultivation, and his seed subscription service remains popular with alpine enthusiasts in the U.K. and abroad.

      Jim and Jenny Archibald say that seeds are dreams in packets, and they bring an intellectual approach to the business of contemporary plant hunting. Their trips have taken them to Uzbekistan in central Asia, the Mediterranean and Middle East, South America, South Africa, New Zealand, and the American West. Seed lists include Muscari mcbeathianum discovered by them in Turkey in 1985 at a site now lost to livestock grazing. Re-introductions to cultivation include Iris urmiensis and I. paradoxa. There are also seed from clonal forms of Helleborus x hybridus made by plantsman Eric Smith, who at one time ran a nursery (The Plantsmen) with Jim. They include ‘Ariel’, ‘Electra’, ‘Miranda’ and ‘Pluto’, the latter blooming for me in my North Carolina garden each February, annually reminding me of the Archibalds and the warm gooseberry tart they served me in their home.

      Our alpine gardens are richer for the contributions of three Czech plant hunters, Josef Halda, Josef Jurasek, and Vojtech Holubec, who have added gentians, campanulas, Edraianthus, daphnes, saxifrages, and drabas, to name just a few examples, to their annual seed catalogs. Over beer in a noisy Prague pub, Jurasek and Holubec related stories to me about their numerous foreign plant hunting expeditions. There were frightening revelations about remote areas where highway robbers demanded money and cameras (but fortunately not their concealed collection of seeds). At times, there have been sticky political situations and suspicious border guards unaccustomed to dealing with foreigners who say they are entering the country solely to collect seeds for their flower gardens. On one such trip in the Caucasus, some members of the Rock Garden Club of Prague (whom Vojtech affectionately describes as “people who are crazy for alpines and mountain plants”) were taken by the army and jailed for two days for “violating border laws.” Upon their release, they were honored as “important guests” at a celebration by the villagers.

      Josef Halda has made seed available from the most inaccessible of places (the portion of Tien Shan in Kazakhstan, for example) and his botanical monographs on gentians, daphnes, and primulas, illustrated by his wife Jarmilla, have earned him all-star status. He is a frequent traveler to North America where he has prepared rock foundations for dozens of rock gardens. One, affectionately called Mt. Halda, is at Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery (Oregon).

      Rod and Rachel Saunders specialize in plants from “the fairest cape…in the whole circumference of the globe.” They have operated Silverhill Seeds for 15 years in Cape Town, collecting seeds when weather, seasons and fires dictate. Rachel also shares duty as the editor of the journal of the Indigenous Bulb Society of South Africa. The Saunders were once trapped in a cave by a flooded river in the Chimanimani Mountains of Zimbabwe. They emerged three days later chilled, without food, and all their seed packets drenched. Still they have provided us with the opportunity to grow Dimorphotheca, Osteospermum, Romulea, and Aloe. Few of us know the handsome restiod reeds, such as Elegia capensis and Thamnochortus insignis, both of which would dwarf a rock garden, but which regularly appear in their lists.

      Panayoti Kelaidis of Denver (USA) has been fascinated with South African flora as well, primarily the high elevation, cold hardy plants of the Drakensberg, promoting Zaluzianskya ovata, Diascia integerrima (a selection called ‘Coral Canyon’), and ice plants (Delosperma). I have stayed up late with Panayoti, the rest of his household asleep and my eyes heavy from jetlag, to listen to “just one more plant” that he saw in the Drakensberg His passions also take in the indigenous flora of Colorado and the intermountain basin of the U.S. West, an area of low rainfall, cold dry winters, and hot (low humidity) summers. He, and his spouse Gwen, have promoted Aquilegia scopulorum, Salvia dorrii, and Prunus besseyi, the latter a dwarf form of the Colorado sand cherry.

      The uplift around volcanoes in Chile and Argentina is one of the areas of concentration for John Watson and Anita Flores de Watson. The two have mastered the challenging identification of Andean flora on their own seed collecting trips and on expeditions they have led for the Alpine Garden Society and others. I have traveled along the northern Chilean coast with them, admiring yellow-flowering Rhodophiala bagnoldii, becoming horrified minutes later when the plants were bulldozed by highway construction crews, an indication of the rescuing nature of their work. A well-known specimen of gardens is Mimulus naiandinus and a selection, ‘Andean Nymph’, has become popular. Ourisia polyantha, Anarthrophyllum desideratum, and numerous Alstroemeria are among the jewels of their efforts. Currently they are working on a flora of the Andean Viola, both the rosulate and non-rosulate species, and are contributing sections to the series of Plantas Altoandinas, the Chilean flora, published by the Fundacion Claudio Gay (Santiago).

      We are fortunate to be living in an era when so many choices of plants are being made available by contemporary plant hunters. As long as there is enthusiasm and inquiring minds, we will have “new” plants to take pleasure in growing. David Attenborough wrote in 1989 in the foreword to Plant Hunting for Kew: “The heroic days [of plant hunting] are by no means over. Here is a chance to savour them while they are still dawning.” 

      [This article appeared in the Scottish Rock Garden Club’s  “The Rock Garden,”  January 2005, issue number 114.] 







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