Sunday, November 4, 2012

Giving thanks

A few posts back I touched on the subject of exploring the world for plants through the adventures of Ernest Wilson and his hunt for the Dove tree.  The concept of roaming the world for new botanical treasure is an alluring dream that for a brief time I had a little exposure to.  My experiences were quite tame when you compare my stories to those of botanical hunters, heading to lands that had never seen a foreign footstep.  Many never came home, paying the ultimate price to introduce new plants to our gardens, and with the Thanksgiving holiday only a few weeks away, it seems only fitting to give them the attention they deserve.

That's me (young version) on the right, Tasmania
My explorations took me to the highlands of Tasmania in search of alpine plants that are found only on the mountains of the island state of Australia.  Then, into the steamy jungles to traverse to the top of a glacier capped peak of Irian Jaya.  So remote and sparsely  populated, that we were warned of wandering off the road in fear of getting lost and not making it out of the wilderness.   These adventures would have seemed like a vacation to the harden explorers of the past.  I had access to warm, dry lodging; English speaking guides, and most importantly, medicine. I once thought I had contracted Malaria after spending a week in Java, only to be diagnosed with the flu and treated accordingly.


Personally, Irian Jaya is the last frontier and has its fair share of adventure stories.  The most famous is the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in 1961 while pursuing his anthropological studies of the area.  Heir to the massive Rockefeller fortunes, he went missing  after the boat he was traveling in capsized.  Did he drown?, was he eaten by sharks or crocodiles?,  or even worse, eaten by the head hunting tribesmen of the area?  Some speculate that he gave it all up and assimilated into the tribes of the area, like Colonel Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now'.  Years later, in 1996 a scientific group from Cambridge University was abducted by an independence guerrilla force operating in central Irian Jaya, two years before I went there.  All were released unharmed but the threat to outsiders was apparent.  As a side note, the common name for Europeans in Irian Jaya is 'Long Pig', for the fact that we are as pink as a pig, and obviously longer. Some will say it's because we taste like one!  Cannibalism was a very real threat and stories exist of explorers becoming the main meal for some tribes.

The Scottish explorer, David Douglas, life ended in a manner fit for a horror film.  He was sent to the Pacific Northwest in 1824 where he sent back to Britain over 240 species.  His most notable introduction was the popular cut Christmas tree, the Douglas fir.  Others include the Sitka Spruce, Sugar Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Grand Fir, Noble Fir as well as several other conifers that transformed the landscape of Britain along with the timber industry.  In 1834, while escaping the winter of the Pacific Northwest he traveled to Hawaii and died under suspicious circumstances.  The day started with him climbing Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawaii when he apparently fell into a pit trap, set up to catch wild bulls.  Unfortunately, it contained one that gourd him to death.  However, he was last seen visiting the hut of an escaped convict and bull hunter prior to the fall.  When his body was recovered, it was found that the money Douglas was carrying was missing.  Accident or murder? We'll never know.

Wilson's Regal Lily
Ernest Wilson's fate was delayed until 1930 in what would appear as a simple traffic accident.  In 1927, he took on the role of Keeper of the Arnold Arboretum in what seemed to be a retirement from travelling overseas.  It was a life that had been hard on him following an accident in 1910 when a rock slide had broke his leg in the Min valley, China.  After a three day forced march over rough terrain  with his leg braced crudely against the tripod of his camera, medical help was finally found.  His leg eventually healed but was shorter in length, making him walk with what he referred to as a 'Lily limp', honoring the  success of collecting the Regal lily from that valley system.  He was often troubled from that injury as his leg would go numb, a condition that many felt lead to the fatal accident where the vehicle he was driving skidded off the road and plunged down a 40-foot embankment.  The accident  also claimed the life of his wife.

My former employer, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, in England, was a major center for training collectors, who would be dispatched around the globe on various missions.  Many great names have been tied to this famous institution and in the glory days of exploration, a Kew trained botanist was often on board one of the sailing ships.  One story that I found intriguing was of David Nelson whose career was shorter, but more dangerous.  His first voyage was on board Captain Cooks Resolution, where he collected specimens from the Arctic to the Tropic's. This debuting trip ended suddenly when the legendary Captain was stabbed to death by locals on the Sandwich islands following a disagreement.  Unfazed, he soon signed up for his next ominous assignment,  to introduce bread fruit to the Caribbean as a food source to the then slave trade of the time.  He and another Kew trained horticulturist were sent to Polynesia to propagate and safely transport the young bread fruit on board the HMS Bounty, under the direction of Captain Bligh, second only to Cook in his seamanship.  Most people know the story of the 'Mutiny on the Bounty', but Nelson had to endure watching his precious cargo being dumped overboard,  while being cast away on a longboat.  Many don't know the rest of the story, but Captain Bligh was successful in navigating the longboat, 4000 miles over 47 days, across the Pacific, with limited supplies and no loss of life. Sadly  David Nelson died a few weeks later from a fever, even though he had survived three very potentially deadly events.

Cast away from HMS Bounty

Many explorers never gained the reputation of those who were successful, and unfortunately their names have been forgotten over time.  For others, the toll of traveling and exposure to foreign ailments shorten their lifespan, possibly cut them down in the prime of their lives.  It was a grueling job, separated from friends and family for what could be years, in pursuit of laying claim to a never before seen plant.  We take for granted that plant that grows in our back garden with very little thought about it's story.  Maybe now, after reading this post you'll look a little closer at that plant and imagine the collector running for his life, while being pursued by a mob of angry tribesmen looking for their supper.


23 comments:

  1. It's fascinating to learn what a deadly obsession plant collecting could be. As much as I love to garden, I wouldn't have risked becoming dinner just to expand my flower beds. I definitely have a new perspective on what was involved to introduce new species to the rest of the world. Great post!!

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    1. What I love about gardening is that every plant has a story, all we have to do is find it. Thanks for your encouragement.

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  2. Yes, really interesting post ! I once saw a film in which explorers were looking for orchids, maybe it was the first time I was thinking that they really haven't been on holiday... But it is never too late to think in a different way, and respect their dangerous work.



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    1. Orchid hunting has a ton of fascinating stories. Maybe one day I'll do a post on them. Thanks for reading

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  3. Wonderful read about a wonderful job. Dangers aside, what gardener/botanist/plant lover wouldn't want to go treasure hunting for plants. I'm forever bringing things up from the back forty, always wishing I were elsewhere doing the same thing. I've read a lot about the Tradescants. Need more if you can recommend any titles.

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    1. The Plant Hunters by Tyler Whittle is a good starting point to read up on explorers of the past. After that, digging around in books write by the people mentioned in Tyler's book will uncover many other stories. I managed to collect most of Ernest Wilson and David Fairchild's books, just need to find the time to read them. Thanks for reading

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  4. David Nelson... I know this name from somewhere else. A book a museum? Now I have to scuttle off and find it.

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    1. Let me know if you unearth anything interesting. I'm glad this post has you hunting now!

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  5. Truly thought-provoking. I'm stopping in after reading Tammy's post. I think I remember hearing about David Douglas during a trip to Hawaii. Thanks for all the great information!

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    1. Doesn't seem right to end such a promising career at the business end of a bull. I guess when your times up... One side note, Douglas was North America's first mountaineer. Pretty cool! Thanks for stopping in for the read

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  6. I aspire to go plant hunting and learn more about botany. The trouble is I have come to it a little late and saddled with a mortgage so the opportunities are few. Your experiences re the stuff of my dreams even though you say they are tame.

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    1. My days hunting are grounded for the same reasons, plus kids. It has been an honor to of done what I have already but don't let any of the other stuff hold you back. I get my kicks roaming around nurseries or surfing the internet hunting for my curiosities now. Keep your dreams alive!

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  7. Congrats Rob on your great post - all extremely interesting! I'd like to recommend the book 'The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession' by Andrea Wulf to all who would like to read more in the same vein. I've had a case of the winter blahs with all the cool, cloudy weather the past few days, and reading my fellow gardeners blogs is a real inspiration and pick-me-up! Keep up the great work!

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    1. I've been meaning to buy that book but haven't got around to it. Thanks for the tip.

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  8. Wonderful tales of harrowing adventures, all in the name of horticulture. wow. Thanks for adding to the story of many of our now common blooms.

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    1. I get a kick out of uncovering those tales. I'm sure there's more to come. Thanks for reading

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  9. So poignant. The beauty that gives us so much pleasure gained at such cost.

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    1. I guess it's the same with everything. Someone had to figure out if the prototype aircraft could fly or that the berry from a shrub was good to eat!

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  10. Wow, poor David Douglas - not a good end at all. Perhaps I'll get a Douglas Fir for our Christmas tree this year as a little thank you, a couple centuries late. Great post!

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    1. I will say that out of all the Christmas trees, the Douglas fir, I believe, has the best aroma. His contribution to plant science was remarkable. thanks for reading

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  11. Such a great piece of history you have pointed out there, I like the idea which jess has proposed that we should all get a Douglas Fir for Christmas in his honour.

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    1. I better change my tree order for this year. I see a Douglas Day celebration being on the calender from now on.

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  12. I am in the midst of planning a huge garden event that includes a speaker discussing plant explorers thanks to your series of posts about plant hunters. Had you never posted these, I might not have ever known the incredible history of the plants in my garden. Thanks a million for the inspiration. You have such a great voice and always write such interesting posts. I do wish you'd write more frequently. :)

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