Colorado's own mining towns have stories of boom and bust, gold rushes, fortunes made and lost. But tomorrow night I'm looking East, not West. Mike Bone is preparing to tell the stories of his travel to the Golden Mountains of Central Asia as a plant explorer. And it will be a fascinating travelogue of places most of us will not see, but also, a glimpse into a tradition overlooked by most botanists and gardeners.
There is a book on my shelf, here above my head next to Tulipomania and The Orchid Thief, called In Pursuit of Plants by Philip Short that details the lives of plant collectors and explorers. These people, usually men, not necessarily botanists, scoured the world bringing specimens, alive or preserved, back to wealthy sponsors, or to scientists, or for their own obsessive collections. What struck me most about the eighteenth-century plant explorers was how many of them died before they saw or felt much success. Also, it seems many were often suffering in poverty, from strange diseases or in abject misery born of some privation. Have I mentioned how glad I am that Mike Bone and the other travelers made it back?
I am! And comparing the lives of the historic explorers to modern day plant explorers, I feel that progress is definitely made. Back then, an explorer would work with an expedition organized along military lines (sometimes explicitly military), conserving resources and counting days, rationing supplies, harvesting and pressing plants, boxing and crating them, and shipping them for months back to Europe, hoping that perhaps a fraction of what was sent back might survive. Today, the work of plant exploring is in photographs emailed back, in seed collected under permits issued by the local government, and in knowledge exchange, not in harvesting exotic treasure. Sure, its exciting to imagine mercenary-minded rapscallions ripping up whole plants before their competitors could find another seductive orchid. But trekking the mountains of Mongolia and Kazakhstan to see the flora is one of today's exciting adventures.
And it sounds like it was a marvelous trek! I've heard some of their adventures from both Mike and Panayoti, and I'm eager to see tomorrows presentation as well. In part, because it connects directly back to todays goals for plant exploration. While a desire for learning was also present in the seventeen- and eighteen-hundreds, today's plant exploration is closely tied to both conservation and to providing the best possible plants to gardeners everywhere. Plant Select, Colorado's own source for recommending and introducing plants, was one of the sponsors of this trip. Pat Hayward, Executive Director of Plant Select, will begin the evening’s program with a rollout of the 2010 Plant Select winners, as well as give a sneak peek of some potential plants for 2011.
Compare exploring for Plant Select with working for someone expanding his personal collection: its the difference between possessing a plant and sharing a plant. Tomorrow night you get both the excitement of the journey, and the payout from the years of work that has gone before. And its free! If you enjoy it, we ask only a donation to support our ongoing education effort. In a few years, it will not surprise me to find knowledge from this trek being used in our mountains here. Tomorrow, I'll be satisfied with learning about the plants, the travel, the people and... Were there camels involved?