By Jean Starr
Ever wonder where the plants at garden centers come from? Even the typical nursery features a depth of products resembling a virtual League of Nations. In addition to the plants native to North America, many originated in Asia, Europe and even Africa. How they got here is a very long story that dates back to the days of pharaohs, kings and queens who directed explorers to bring plants back from distant continents. They sought new varieties that ranged from purely ornamental to edible to medicinal.
In his book, The Plant Hunter’s Garden: The New Explorers and their Discoveries, Bobby J. Ward tells about Marco Polo’s 13th and 14th century encounters with plants of commercial significance such as paper mulberry and hemp. Ward explains mid-twentieth century tensions that shut the door on botanical explorations throughout Asia, including World War II, the Korean conflict, the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict. Doors to China creaked open slowly following improvements in U.S. diplomatic relations in the early 1970s.
Successful explorations into South Korea in the decades following the Korean War led to collaborative expeditions with American and Korean botanical institutions. Discoveries made included increased diversity in Kousa dogwood and improved hardiness in camellias.
Kris Bachtell, The Morton Arboretum’s vice president of collections, was in South Korea in 1997 when his group found itself near a river border between the North and South. The first thing they noticed was the contrast between the two sides, with the southern forest intact and the North Korean side heavily deforested for firewood and lumber production. As they sat in the van, a logging truck began to pass them when one of its logs shifted and rolled right into their vehicle. “It almost killed us,” Bachtell recalls. “But we managed to collect seed from it.”
The collecting success in Korea set the stage for Chinese explorations. In 1991 the North American China Plant Exploration Consortium or NACPEC was formed, comprising botanical and forestry institutions in China plus seven North American gardens.
Stricter permission requirements and geographical exclusions brought about by an international treaty signed during the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992 has had an effect on plant collecting trips.
Bachtell ran head-on into a dicey situation in China’s Shanxi province. He, along with three other Westerners and their interpreter had a hard time finding a hotel in a town that, unbeknownst to them, did not allow foreigners. They eventually found lodgings and, as is common practice in China, handed over their passports to the hotel clerk.
Bachtell decided to take a stroll through town, which is what he was doing when a vehicle screeched to a halt next to him. It held several incredibly displeased individuals whom he could not understand. Somehow Bachtell was able to lead the menacing group to the hotel and, through their interpreter, learned they were being evicted, not only from the hotel, but from the town.
“We were kicked out and escorted to the border at 9 p.m.,” says Bachtell. “We drove through the night until we reached the next town around midnight and finally were able to check into a hotel.”
Even domestic plant collecting trips can be challenging. Andrew Bunting, assistant director and director of plant collections for the Chicago Botanic Garden, recently returned from a collecting trip through the American south in search of the rare Magnolia fraseri var. pyramidata. With him was the Arboretum’s head of collections and curator Matt Lobdell. “We were faced with daily downpours, excessive heat and humidity, a copperhead [snake], and serious encounters with chiggers,” said Bunting. It was worth it, though, as the group discovered some new and undocumented sites for Magnolia fraseri var. pyramidata while in the Taladega National Forest.
“It’s useful to visit some of these species in their natural habitat and learn about the conditions they are dealing with,” Lobdell says. “From understanding that it becomes easier to determine how they’ll perform in cultivation.”
According to the Global Trees Campaign, 48 percent of magnolias are threatened with extinction. Some of the goals for magnolia collection trips include finding plants with increased climate tolerance, disease and pest resistance, and larger, better blooms. Bunting’s book, The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias (Timber Press: 2016) features 146 of his top choices of magnolias and their hybrids.
Throughout the plant discovery process, consideration must be given to invasiveness. The Chicago Botanic Garden has a Weed Assessment protocol that involves research followed by a detailed assessment to help determine a plant’s invasive potential. The Garden is looking at a new program that will do an even more critical assessment. “New species to the garden are evaluated in our Plant Evaluation Garden for four years where we can study their seeding patterns,” explains Bunting. “Additionally, once a plant is planted in the Garden we continue to evaluate all plants for invasiveness. If any plant exhibits the characteristic to ‘seed around,’ then without hesitation it is removed from our collections.”
On occasion, explorers from temperate climates find themselves in the tropics. Bunting recalled a collecting trip to northwestern Vietnam that put them in the Five Fingers Mountain Range, chopping through tall bamboo and cardamom. “The weather was stormy and the climb was very difficult,” Bunting says. “We had a local guide, but we soon got lost and ended up spending two extra days in the jungle with no water and very little food.”
A step or two beyond the wild is where Tim Wood can be found. The product development manager for Proven Winners Shrubs does some wild plant collecting trips, but typically, he hunts for plant people. “I figure they know the plants in their country a lot better than I ever could in a two-week trip,” he says. “They may know a particular genera of plants much better than I do.”
Wood boils it down to seeking out plant people who collect, study and breed plants that could be interesting to North American gardeners and landscapers. This goal has taken him to the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, France, Canada and the USA.
Proven Winners has developed a checklist for potential introductions:
• Flowering shrubs because that is their focus
• Plants that can root from cuttings
• Plants that are easy to cultivate for growers and gardeners
• Plants with multiple seasons of interest
• Dwarf and compact plants that require less room, pruning and care
• Plants with colorful or attractive foliage that look good in a garden beyond the flowering period
• Plants that have a new use
• Plants with increased disease resistance.
No matter the purpose or the funding, plant explorers are a breed of their own. According to Wood, the biggest lesson is that plant people all across the world are special. They have a profound appreciation for plants, people and nature. They see the world differently than most, noticing and appreciating the beauty and wonder of plants of all types and species.
Jean Starr is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in several national and regional publications. She’s the editor and secretary of the Midwest Peony Society, a former columnist in the Times of Northwest Indiana for nine years and currently writes a blog, Petal Talk. firstname.lastname@example.org