Skip Navigation LinksThe Library of Congress >> Researchers >> Virtual Programs and Services  
Journeys and crossings, Library of Congress
  Home >> Plant Hunters >> Transcript

Transcript of "Plant Hunters" (Constance Carter)

From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Today's plant hunters scour the rainforest, desert, mountain, and tundra to discover new plants with economic, ornamental, or disease fighting potential. As wilderness and rainforest habitats are eliminated, plants and diversity disappear, making the role of the plant hunter even more crucial. Did you know that plant exploration is one of the oldest activities of mankind?

Since the dawn of civilization, people have carried back strange plants from far-off lands and gathered wild seeds and beneficial herbs for use at home. The American colonists enhanced their meager diet with seeds, grains, tubers, and various plants that they and other immigrants, explorers, sea captains, and missionaries brought to the new world. Some seeds were introduced simply by clinging to bundles and barrels in the ship's hold.

David Fairchild, Head of the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, stated in an 1898 report, "...the settlement of a new country is inseparably connected with the introduction of new plants...this work, which began with the efforts of the first settlers scarcely two weeks after their arrival on the island of Jamestown, has been carried on so gradually few people realize of all the food plants now grown in America, only the pumpkin, and a few grapes, plums, and berries are natives of this country. Even the Indian corn, is in all probability an introduction from Mexico."

The earliest plant hunter in America was John Bartram. He and his sons explored extensively in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida collecting plants for his garden and business. They published a Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbaceous Plants, which was used by the colonists as well as by European tradesmen.

Even our founding fathers actively collected and exchanged seeds and seedlings. George Washington wrote his second cousin near Charleston requesting "Acorns, Nutts, or seeds of trees or plants not common in this Country." Thomas Jefferson journeyed to Italy to collect a variety of upland rice that grew in Turin. He wanted to introduce, to America, rice that would grow in dry soil, unlike the lowland rice then cultivated in the swamps of the South. In a letter to William Drayton on July 30, 1787, Jefferson suggested upland rice might "enable us to get rid of those ponds of stagnant water so fatal to human health and life."

Plant hunters often explored regions and countries whose latitudes were approximately the same as the corresponding latitudes in the United States. They figured that similar temperature and soil conditions, and comparable sun, rain, and wind exposure would give the seedlings the best chance to grow and propagate.

In 1905, A. J. Pieters of the Bureau of Plant Industry stated that the object of seed and plant introduction was "to help wherever a need is felt for new crops or for new varieties of old crops." The plant explorer, Niels E. Hansen, traveled to Asia and Russia to find an alfalfa species that could withstand the drought and freezing temperatures of the high, dry lands of the Dakotas. Upon finding a yellow-flowered species growing in the "driest and most severe regions of Siberia," Hansen declared, "the new plants will extend the present alfalfa and clover limits as far north on the American continent as anyone will wish to farm."

Most of us are unaware of the challenges plant hunters faced as they collected seeds and seedlings for introduction into the United States. Diaries, journals, magazine articles, and books in the Library of Congress are great resources for discovering some of these. In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled to the Pacific coast at the request of President Thomas Jefferson. Their diaries describe several of the hardships they encountered, including difficult portages, fatigue, and debilitating illnesses. Mosquitoes and bears were another problem, and the weather was sometimes so cold that water froze to the oars as they rowed. Lewis and Clark collected numerous plant specimens including, in their words, the "roots of a thistle, the fern, the rush, the liquorice, and a small cylindric root, resembling in flavour and consistency the sweet potato."

Have you ever enjoyed the fragrance of, or admired, a Douglas fir? The Scotsman, David Douglas, is credited with discovering it, along with the sugar pine, western white pine, and California poppy. In his journals, Douglas provides us with a glimpse of the challenges he faced. On July 19, 1825, he wrote, "I laboured under very great disadvantage by the almost continual rain; many of my specimens I lost, and although I had several oilcloths, I was unable to keep my plants and blanket dry." Fatigue and insects were another issue, as he noted on Aug. 25, 1826: "I felt so much reduced that I was too weak to eat. I laid myself down to rest on a heap of fire wood, so to be free of mosquitoes." Hunger was a recurring problem and there were times when Douglas and his party had to eat the valuable seeds and berries they collected. Douglas also mentioned that wind-blown sand and bright sun irritated his eyes so severely, he had trouble seeing ten yards ahead. Even rodents caused difficulties as is evident from his journal entry of June 16, 1826: "Last night I was much annoyed by a herd of rats, which devoured every particle of seed I had collected, cut a bundle of dry plants almost right through, and carried off my razor and soap-brush."

In July of 1834, Douglas died tragically in Hawaii after falling into a camouflaged trap and being mauled by a bull. Sir William Jackson Hooker said of Douglas, "There is scarcely a spot of ground deserving the name of a garden, which does not owe many of its most powerful attractions to the living roots and seeds which have been sent by him."

Colonel John Charles Frémont collected many plants in the remote regions of Oregon and California in 1843 and 1844. His journal describes in detail the problems he and his party faced. On March 6, 1844, he noted "They were all on foot-each man, weak and emaciated, leading a horse or mule as weak and emaciated as themselves. They had experienced great difficulty in descending the mountains, made slippery by the rains and melting snows, and many horses fell over precipices, and were killed, and with some were lost the packs they carried. Among these was a mule with the plants which we had collected since leaving Fort Hall, along a line of 2,000 miles travel."

In another 1844 journal entry, Frémont recounted, "stout men lost their minds from the extremity of suffering...mules and horses, ready to die of starvation, were killed for food." He also told of marching 20 miles in a day and struggling into camp "excessively fatigued." Broken tree stumps had to be burned to melt holes in the deep snow to set up camp. Despite the obstacles, Frémont succeeded in collecting a number of plants including the Star Lily, Chaff Bush, and Flannelbush.

The next time you have a cup of tea, perhaps you should thank Robert Fortune. In order to develop tea plantations in the Himalayas of India, the East India Company hired Fortune to uncover the plants and methods China used in producing its unrivaled tea. This was a challenging and potentially dangerous mission since the Chinese carefully protected this information, especially from foreigners.

Being of Scottish descent, Fortune realized it would be necessary to travel in Chinese disguise. He had his head shaved, donned a braid, dressed like the locals, learned to speak Mandarin, and adopted Chinese customs in order to venture far into the remote areas of China. He traveled in a sedan chair carried by coolies, as did the dignitaries, in order to gain proper respect and admittance through city and village gates. Fortune had some close calls, but avoided being detected as an impostor. He successfully discovered the coveted secrets of propagating, processing and packing tea. Fortune helped to end the Chinese monopoly on tea by obtaining tea plants, equipment and tea experts to establish Government tea plantations in the Himalayas.

David Fairchild was a plant explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to staff at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, "his far-reaching travels brought into cultivation in the U.S. many important plants, including mangos, nectarines, dates, horseradish, bamboo and flowering cherries." When in Corsica to cut citron scions, Fairchild was almost detained as a spy. The guard reluctantly released him when Fairchild insisted that a U.S. Treasury check found in his pocket was his paper of citizenship. Fairchild remarked, "I left the town as quickly as I could, cutting from some citron trees as I went. It was my pleasure, ten years after this, to visit in southern California the orchard that was the result of the introduction of these scions."

In the May 21, 1910 Gardeners' Chronicle, the plant explorer George Forrest wrote, "Few realize the great hardships and dangers which have to be faced in order to secure new plants for cultivation...in the warmer regions there is danger from miasma, fever, animals and snakes. Not infrequently too, the collector has to seek his specimens among savage or semi-civilized peoples, who, in most instances, strongly resent his intrusion into their midst."

While Forrest was staying with a missionary at a French Catholic Mission along the Mekong, news came that the Tibetan Buddhist Lamas were going to attack. Forrest wrote, "Immediate flight became necessary...the rising moon that night saw us making our way by a narrow and dangerous track. Our little band, numbering about 80, were picked off one by one...only 14 escaping." Forrest fled the Tibetans for nine days. He recounted, "I had ceased to care whether I lived or died; my feet swollen out of all shape, my hands and face torn with thorns, and my whole person caked with mire...all the food I had consisted of two dozen ears of wheat and a handful of parched peas. Escaping with my life, I lost everything I possessed. What was much more serious, I lost nearly all the results of a whole season's work, a collection of most valuable plants numbering fully 2,000 species, seeds of 80 species, and 100 photographic negatives."

There were many geographic obstacles as well. Forrest noted, "The narrow valleys are cut off from each other by difficult and dangerous passes, closed for half the year by snow. The great rivers, which flow through funnel-like gorges, are quite un-navigable." Forrest also encountered other challenges such as poisonous caterpillars that snuggled under his blankets and insects that plunged into his soup. However, he overcame the difficulties and was successful in collecting and introducing many new species of rhododendron, as well as several primulas, magnolias, camellias, and conifers.

Frank N. Meyer was an intrepid agricultural explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As Edward B. Clark said in the July 1911 issue of Technical World, "He has frozen and melted alternately as the altitudes have changed; he has encountered wild beasts and men nearly as wild; he has scaled glaciers and crossed chasms of dizzying depths; he has been the subject of the always alert suspicions of government officials and of strange peoples jealous of intrusions into their land, but he has found what he was sent for." Meyer, known for his energy and resourcefulness, possessed an innate ability to locate plants that extended the geographic range, and improved the quality, of U.S. crops. He wrote in a 1906 letter, "I will do all I can to enrich the United States of America with things good for her people."

For over ten years Meyer traveled on foot to the most inaccessible areas of China, Korea, Manchuria and Russia in search of economic plants. In the "Travels of a Plant Hunter," Owen Wilson noted some of the conditions Meyer encountered: "The inns were miserable affairs, dirty beyond words and swarming with vermin. Mr. Meyer placed saucers of kerosene under the four legs of his bed to keep off the attacks from the floor and hung a mosquito net over him as a protection against the vermin that fell from the ceiling."

During his travels, Meyer learned the importance of a good interpreter. In the 1915 Yearbook of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, he remarked, "In many parts of China, the Chinese refuse to deal with a person who does not understand their ways of doing things. It is often only through a capable and energetic interpreter that one learns of the whereabouts of a valuable new plant variety." Meyer is credited with sending home seeds or cuttings of 2,000 different varieties of fruits, grains, plants and trees.

Ernest H. Wilson, nicknamed, "Chinese" Wilson, made a number of expeditions to China. Using a roughly drawn map, he trekked for weeks to find the elusive Chinese aromatic Davidia tree. Upon arriving at the purported location of the tree, Wilson found to his great disappointment that it had been cut down and used to build a cabin. After abandoning the search for this tree, Wilson unexpectedly found eleven Davidia trees while collecting other plants. He gathered their seeds and shipped them to London where they produced 13,000 trees.

Wilson also searched for the Regal Lily in "the Chino-Tibetan borderland," a very treacherous area prone to landslides. As Wilson traveled in his sedan chair along a steep cliff above the Min River, he was caught in a major rockslide. Seeing a large boulder coming toward him, Wilson jumped free of his chair. The boulder missed Wilson, but crushed the chair, sending it careening over the cliff. Unfortunately, Wilson was felled by another large boulder that broke his right leg in two places and lacerated his calf. He remarked, "not a pleasant situation to find myself in, and four days from the nearest medical assistance." Wilson fashioned a splint from his camera tripod. As he and his coolies began the long journey along a narrow road toward medical help, they met a large mule train. Having no place to get off the road, Wilson laid down across it. He recalled, each mule "stepped clearly over me as if accustomed to such obstacles." Wilson recovered from his injuries, except for a limp. His Regal Lily bulbs were shipped to the U.S. where they were successfully cultivated.

Even after plant hunters risked life and limb to collect them, there were no guarantees that the seeds and plants would be viable when they reached the United States. Frequently the specimens were highly perishable, so plant hunters tried to collect a large number of seeds and seedlings to ensure there would be enough to satisfy the needs of their sponsors. They also used a variety of methods to ready the plants for their long voyages. David Fairchild packed his citron scions by "sinking both ends in a raw potato." Ernest Wilson packed the Regal Lily bulbs by encasing them in clay and packing them in charcoal. According to Fairchild, Frank Meyer prepared his collections "with infinite patience, wrapping them in moss and Chinese oiled paper and burlap with his own hands before sending them by mail." Sometimes plant hunters also used wooden boxes to protect the seedlings from harm during shipment. In spite of these measures, there were many instances where only a few specimens survived the journey, and of these, some failed to germinate or take root.

Even when well packed, some seeds and plants were eaten by rodents and insects on the ships, or destroyed by the carelessness of the crew. Extreme temperatures, humidity, salt water, and mold were also detrimental or lethal to the specimens. In his 1913 article, "Chinese Wilson-Plant Hunter," Leonard Barron wrote, "The plants were nursed carefully in little pots, and taken on board ship. On the voyage through the Mediterranean the little pots were set on a ledge so that they could get the benefit of fresh air and sunshine through the open port. A sudden squall dashed the salty spray through the port and upon the plants. Nearly all died of the salt." In 1834, Nathaniel Ward developed a sealed glass case to protect plants against salt water and rodents.

As we have seen, plant explorers faced a number of challenges and overcame them with great courage and determination in order to collect and introduce the myriad of plants that have enriched our lives. Plant hunters possessed a common spirit of adventure, a fascination with nature, and a passion for plants. According to Fairchild, a plant hunter was an "unsung Columbus of Horticulture." They fended off attacks by wild animals and antagonistic natives, and contended with poisonous plants and insects. When struck by injuries or illnesses thousands of miles away from medical facilities, they acted as their own physicians. They navigated through foreign lands, not always speaking the native language, and were negotiators and mediators when conflicts arose. Sacrificing the comforts of daily living, they often slept on the ground, were exposed to extreme temperatures, and faced physical exertion and desolation. We owe a great deal to these valiant explorers. We hope you will use the rich resources of the Library of Congress to learn more about these brave and spirited plant hunters.

This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc dot gov.

>> Back to top of page

  Home >> Plant Hunters >> Transcript
 The Library of Congress >> Researchers >> Virtual Programs and Services
  March 30, 2015
Legal | External Link Disclaimer Ask a Librarian