Winter, 2007 – Plant Explorers

“Good God. When I consider the melancholy fate of so many botany votaries, I am tempted to ask whether men are in their right mind who so desperately risk life and everything else through their love of collecting plants.”

Carl Linnaeus
“Glory of the Scientist”

From the depths of our armchairs let us consider the plant explorer. Driven by both a passion for plants and a limbic instinct for collecting, these individuals changed not only the look of our gardens but also the course of history. When did term botanist take on the shades of nerdiness? Certainly not with the “The “Indiana Jones” of plant explorers, George Forrest, who is highlighted here in a BBC webpage.

When did horticulturalist become a synonym for boring? Visit for brief bios that read like adventure tales, not science texts. This horticultural who’s who includes plant explorers, garden designers, nurserymen and academics.

For an in-depth online education in the history of plant explorers you can do no better than The “explorer” is set apart from the “hunter” here and the 2 are traced from the earliest beginnings in the land of Punt through the Golden Age of Plant Exploration, the Wardian Age and the 20th Century.

The Scottish play a large role in the history of plant exploration. Good sites to peruse are the the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh with links to many small botanic gardens in Edinburgh and beyond. The author of the new book on plant exploration, “Blood and Beauty,” Ann Lindsay, boasts, “If you walk into a garden center, I can guarantee you that at least 50% of the non-natives there were found by a Scottish plant collector.” Okay, but let’s not forget the British.

The story of Englishman Ernest “China” Wilson is found at the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens. The list of plants Mr. Wilson collected is mind-boggling and includes 45 kinds of hydrangea alone. A number of plants in the collection at the Willowwood Arboretum were sent there by Mr. Wilson as past of his work with the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. Willowwood’s upcoming 100th anniversary provides us the opportunity to highlight the story of plant exploration with a symposium, “The World at Willowwood: Plant Exploration – Past, Present & Future” on June 22, 2008.

In spite of the advent of the global village, and our seemingly shrinking world, plant exploration continues today. There are still unexplored regions and uncounted plants waiting to be found. In fact, the destruction of so many forests has spurred the urgency of plant explorers and scientists seeking to find plants before they are made extinct. Share some of the adrenaline with legendary plantsman Dan Hinkley on a recent trip to China at You can watch video of Dan and Prof. Yin as they trapse along roads and traverse hilly terrain, the joy of discovery lighting up their faces. Their travels were documented for a PBS special, “The First Flower.” This video will be shown this spring as part of Willowwood Arboretum Centennial Anniversary programming.

Finally at the University of Arksasas we meet up with modern day plant explorer Barry Yinger. Mr. Yinger has made more than 60 trips to Japan in search of the asiatica for which he has named his business. Recently Barry brought home Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon. Mr. Yinger and other contemporary plant explorers, including Paul Meyer, Executive Director of the Morris Arboretum, will speak about their travels at “The World at Willowwood.” Please plan to join us for this very special day. Details will be online and in the spring education of Arboretum Leaves.

Are you interested in learning more about integrated perennial polyculture? If you would be interested in attending classes on this subject, please email me at and we will see about bringing the authors of Edible Forest Gardens here to the Frelinghuysen Arboretum.

– Lesley Parness

Lesley Parness is Superintendent of Horticultural Education at The Morris County Park Commission. She can be reached at