Plant Hunting in AsiaThe life of the Plant Hunter is often romanticized, and rightly so, with all the travel to far and exotic regions together with dramatic scenery and indigenous people having little contact with the west. There is nothing quite like wandering the countryside in search of plants and the excitement of finding something new or different. But for many of our predecessors, it was a harrowing and difficult endeavor, fraught with danger.
Picture this: it’s your first expedition and you’re off to China. You’ve been studying and analyzing dried specimens for two years and you know that China has, by far, the richest temperate flora in the northern hemisphere, maybe in the world. So you’re excited about what lies ahead. After the long and arduous journey there, you find your way to a small mountain village and hook up with a couple of French missionaries. You find that their knowledge of the area and the people is invaluable. Just as you’re ready to begin your search for plants, tragedy strikes. Tibetan bandits attack. The missionaries are killed along with most of your staff and many villagers. You flee alone and bury your boots in a stream bed to avoid leaving large tracks. You spend the next eight days running by night and hiding by day, mostly in the rain with little food. At one point you wade in icy water up to your waist for over a mile and, at another, poison arrows narrowly miss your head as they pass through your hat. You even step on a bamboo trap and the sharpened cane pierces all the way through your foot. Finally you find a friendly village and they escort you to safety.
This actually happened in 1905 to George Forrest, a well-known plant hunter from Scotland, on his very first expedition. Seemingly unperturbed, he stayed on and managed to collect hundreds of plants, many of which were new to cultivation, and dozens of which became important ornamentals. Forrest made a total of seven expeditions to China. During his last expedition in 1932, after which he planned to retire, his life was cut short with heart failure.
Plant hunting continues to this day although the travel is faster and easier, and the bandits fewer. The emphasis has also changed. The earlier goal of searching for ornamentals has been superseded by conservation. Extensive habitat destruction around the world has caused the extinction of hundreds of plant species and tens of thousands more are threatened with extinction this century. This crisis has created an urgent need to document plant species in the wild and to collect seeds and plants for conservation in ex situ programs at seed banks and botanic gardens. It is curious that the ornamentals that have made it into our gardens, through our devotion to their beauty, have in many cases secured their long-term survival. For many of the others their fate depends upon an increased awareness and understanding of the role they play in their native habitats as well as any possible value they might provide for us, be it economical, medicinal, or ornamental. This awareness and understanding begins, in great part, with plant exploration.
Quarryhill’s plant hunting expeditions have been, thank goodness, without many serious obstacles or dangerous encounters. Ours have included roads that were closed from avalanches or bad vehicle accidents, inclement weather, and steep mountains. The most dangerous aspect on all of our journeys has been the driving, especially the drivers penchant for passing on blind curves. One of the first phrases I learned in Mandarin was Qing man man kai (please drive slower).
But I have had, on more than one occasion, the Chinese version of Montezuma’s Revenge. This is not pleasant and especially maddening when sleeping in a tent at 12,000 feet in Tibet. I’ve climbed a few mountains in torrential downpours in northern Japan. Once we had to duck for cover under a Chinese army supply truck to avoid golf ball sized hailstones in Tibet. I’ve nearly stepped on deadly snakes a few times in Sichuan. There is one snake in China that they call the 5-step snake (when you are bit, you die after your fifth step, if you are lucky enough to make it that far). I’ve pulled off far too many leeches from my bleeding ankles in Sichuan and Yunnan. While crossing a slippery log bridge on a mountain at 10,000 feet I fell into the icy stream below completely drenching myself. I’ve fallen out of a few trees and fought off monkeys with my walking stick. In Muli, a Tibetan town in southwestern Sichuan, a crazed Tibetan tried to stab us with his sword. We were only the second group of westerners at that time to arrive in Muli since the revolution and most of the town had gathered to greet us. I’ve been awakened in the middle of night at a remote outpost when a room down the hall was on fire. There was no electricity and the drunken manager had fallen asleep with candles burning on his bedside table. These are, however, all normal adventures for people that love travel and enjoy the great outdoors.
The next time you wander the paths of Quarryhill, ponder for a moment what it took to bring the seeds here and how fortunate we all are to enjoy the splendor that Quarryhill has become in its first twenty-five years.