Trends in Botanical Exploration

It was in Victorian England that botanical exploration first became all the rage: collectors embarked on ambitious trips to exotic destinations (particularly the Far East), returning with ships full of plants and seeds and distributing them amongst mostly wealthy, land-owning botanical hobbyists in England and other horticulture-savvy parts of Europe. (At least this romanticized picture is how I like to think of it.) This pretty much ended with the chaos of World War I.

Then in the 1980’s – 1990’s (arguably continuing up to the Recession of 2008), something of a Botanical Exploration Renaissance occurred, with gardeners taking an interest in nurseries such as Heronswood, Crug Farm, YuccaDo, and others sponsoring trips to far-off places to explore for new and better garden plants. This interest seems to have trailed off somewhat in the last few years – maybe. Or maybe the gardening public is just waiting for the next thing to get excited about.

So what’s next for botanical exploration? Well I’m not certain of the specifics, though I have some ideas as I will describe below. But the main thing I wish to address is any notion going around – and I’ve picked this up now and again – that botanical exploration is on the decline because “we’ve already found all the cool plants.” Oh no. Not by a long shot. It’s time to put that rumor to rest.

It is, however, more difficult to conduct a fruitful collection expedition today than it was in the past. Not that areas with cool plants are less accessible – though some do remain so – but because plant hunters are increasingly restricted by government agencies and regulations to look, but not touch. Many fine seed collectors have gone out of business because too many bureaucratic regulations designed to conserve plants and benefit local economies actually have a detrimental effect by making ex-situ conservation difficult or impossible. But that’s another subject for another post.

So, where will these plants come from? East Asia has been picked over quite a bit, but I think there’s still plenty more cool stuff over there. For example, ten years ago, who would have thought that there were so many hardy Schefflera species? Now that the craze has caught on, it seems like a new one or two of these is introduced every year. Of course lots of great perennials have come out of that region too. I don’t doubt there’s much more out there that just has yet to catch on or be discovered.

Chile has also received quite a bit of attention – and deservedly so. The thing to remember is that we have really only scratched the surface there as well. It’s primarily the species that are either the most noticeable, widespread, or easily to collect that have received the most attention so far. Yet many other Chilean plants could have excellent ornamental potential. I’d say we’re certainly no more than 10% done picking over Chile’s amazing flora. Even that Chile Flora web site and seeds shop lists only a fraction of their native spceies.

I believe quite a bit remains in Australia and New Zealand as well. The problem there of course is that 90% of their plants (thinking of those from the cooler/temperate parts) fail to survive 10% of our winters. But there are still plenty of Olearias, Leptospermums, Grevilleas, Chionochloas, and others that people don’t know about, as well as hardier and superior provenances of species already cultivated. Perhaps the cooler parts of Australia and New Zealand are about 20% picked over.

Then we have Mexico, which has received quite a bit of attention especially in Europe and the Southern US. Mexican plants seem to be a bit “hit and miss” as far as hardiness, and often there seems to be an inverse relationship between hardiness and excitingness. But hey, there’s still quite a bit down there. I rate Mexico as perhaps 30% picked over.

South Africa is interesting, but the problem with it is so much from that region isn’t hardy in the Northwest. Still, while most of the attention for hardy plants has focused on the Drakensberg Mountains, there’s probably a number of interesting, hardy, higher altitude species from the Cape Region we could be taking a closer look at. It’s hard to say but perhaps South African flora for our region has been about 40% picked over, largely thanks to the wonderful seed company Silverhill Seeds having distributed their flora across the globe.

Then there’s the US West Coast and Southwest. If you ask me, this region – from our own backyard all the way down to New Mexico – is a super treasure trove of drought tolerant and well adapted material for the Pacific Northwest. Despite the area having been thoroughly botanically picked over, not a lot of these plants can be considered common in Northwest gardens. Perhaps these plants just haven’t been marketed very well. Or perhaps the public just has some bias against sclerophyll vegetation since they want their gardens to look lush. Who knows. So in this case, my take is that we (I at least) know what’s out there, it’s just a matter of promoting these plants in a way that will successfully popularize them, and demonstrating their appropriate garden uses.

Then – here’s one we don’t think of very often – the Great Plains region down to the Ozark Plateau has some interesting, hardy, drought tolerant plants, especially in the Asteraceae but also other groups. Many of them are easy to grow and beautiful – as usual there’s just no good reason why more of these plants haven’t caught on.

Sometimes I wonder what’s lurking in the colder parts of Asia. I mean, if Tony Avent can find a gigantic Asparagus there that’s hardy to zone 3, there have to be at least a few more interesting goodies out there as well. I suspect northern Iran and the Caucasus Mountains hold a few more interesting secrets we don’t know about as well.

OK, now we get to the two big ones! The regions that deserve far more attention – the next botanical hotspots for Pacific Northwest Gardeners interested in botanical exploration, and (perhaps?) the focus of the next plant exploration Renaissance.

First, while Chile has received some attention, it seems few plant explorers (excepting perhaps Sean Hogan and Carl Schoenfeld) have yet taken much of a look at the east side of the Andes from about Southern Peru (yes, it does get surprisingly cold that far north) down to Mendoza, south of which the climate becomes (broadly speaking) similar enough to Chile at the same latitude. At higher altitudes this climate offers the only area in the Southern Hemisphere where frigid, subfreezing, desiccating winds, of the same sort that we tend to get during our worst Arctic blasts, occur regularly – a good sign for plants having the ability to handle our winters. The coldest part of this region is the Altiplano in southwestern Bolivia and northwest Argentina, where temperatures down to -10°F and colder are not unknown. Not a lot grows in these areas, but some plants do, and if one goes a little lower down where it’s still plenty cold, one finds many more plants, all of them exciting. For example Cistus Nursery has a Polylepis species that they collected near Tafi del Valle, Argentina that has been perfectly hardy for them so far. Polylepis is all over the east side of the Andes but I can’t say I’ve ever seen one for sale at a Northwest nursery. A major limitation concerning the plants from this region is that they are adapted to the opposite rainfall pattern from ours, a summer rainfall maximum with dry winters. This flora includes many cacti, whose success is likely to be restricted to the driest Northwest gardens. Still, this is a botanically very rich region where many plants are certain to be found adaptable enough to grow in the Northwest.

And now, the really big one. The moment you’ve all been waiting for. The place where the next wave of cool plants will come from: THE MEDITERRANEAN REGION. Now perhaps you are thinking this region is just Italian Cypresses and Cistuses. (Which aren’t bad anyways.) But there is oh so much more! I’ve known this for a while, but glancing through The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Gardens for a Changing Climate by Olivier Filippi has got me all excited about these plants again. (By the way, this book is superb in all respects, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re one of those people who is tired of hearing about climate change, don’t worry – curiously, despite the title, there is nothing at all about that in the book. It is simply a book about plants and gardening practices that cope with summer drought.) Now this book describes hundreds of plants, mostly native to the Mediterranean region, that (excepting certain cold-tender items) ought to be splendidly adapted to the Pacific Northwest, yet most of them remain entirely unavailable here. For example, when was the last time you saw Quercus alnifolia, Rhodanthemum hosmariense, or Potentilla verna in a nursery or garden? Not only that, it’s also clear from this book and other sources that it, too, only “scratches the surface” of the total diversity of useful plants that are “out there” yet seldom or never grown – the whole region is full of rare endemics that would look and perform great in Northwest gardens. And the really ironic part is, for the most part, the Mediterranean region is very accessible. There are roads and people everywhere, though perhaps less so in some of the more rugged mountainous regions, where the hardier cool stuff lurks. While we hear some talk of “Mediterranean gardening,” the emphasis is usually more on garden style rather than the plants themselves. This is a region with thousands of garden-worthy native plant species and millions of people that perhaps don’t appreciate them as much as they ought to. It’s time to take another look at Mediterranean native plants!

Well as usual this ended up being about 500% longer than I intended. By the way, you folks who just went off to Chile to look at plants and forgot to bring me along: you suck! You know who you are. Although, if you bring me back a sufficient quantity of seeds, then I take back that comment.

Buddleja coriacea, Cusco, Peru. One of my very few successful collections from Peru in 2004. Someday I’ll have to return!


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim boucher
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 19:09:14

    Was happy to see you bring the Mediterranean up. I am heading to Crete next week on a botanical expedition to find diktamos! Will try to get seeds.


  2. Ian
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 21:47:21

    Tim, where are you located? I think I have Origanum dictamus, assuming the plant I obtained was correctly labeled. But of course, there is tons of other cool stuff on Crete – I take it you’ve seen Tony Avent’s expedition log? In any case, have a great trip!


  3. tim boucher
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 15:44:15

    Hi Ian, I am in Baltimore. Are there any seeds from Crete that you are looking for?

    No I have never seen Tony Avent’s expedition log!


  4. tim boucher
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 15:50:02

    Found his Crete report – thanks!


  5. Ian
    Apr 18, 2011 @ 12:55:43

    I’m glad you found Tony’s report. Sorry I couldn’t respond more quickly as I was absorbed with plant sale madness over the weekend. Have a great trip and let me know what cool stuff you find!


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