Plant Expedition Logs

  1. Sweden & Germany 2014
  2. The Balkans 2012
  3. Crete 2010
  4. Taiwan 2008
  5. Thailand & North Vietnam 2005
  6. South Africa 2005
  7. Holland & Belgium 2004
  8. Arizona 2004
  9. Hawaii 2002
  10. Argentina 2002
  11. North Carolina 1999
  12. Texas 1998
  13. Korea 1997
  14. China 1996
  15. Mexico 1994
  16. England 1994

Plant Exploration: A Personal Perspective

by Tony Avent, Plant Delights Nursery at Juniper Level Botanic Garden


So, why do we do plant exploration and what's a plant exploration log? Well, sit back, get comfortable, and I'll try and make a short story long. When we began to formulate ideas on which to base our nursery and gardens, we were faced with choosing a niche in which to specialize. Having grown up in the southeast US (Piedmont region of North Carolina), I had spent many hours tromping through the local woods. From an early age, I remember rescuing wildflowers just ahead of the bulldozers, while always looking for and selecting unique forms of wildflowers. I would bring these back to plant in my family garden and observe the clonal differences. Even at a young age, I was amazed by the diversity that existed within a single species. I could not understand why commercial nurseries didn't seem interested in making similar selections and then offering these plants for sale.

When I attended NC State University to study horticulture, most of the students and professors there were focused on the common plants that were already found in the trade instead of looking at introducing new plants to the market. The notable exception was the late Dr. JC Raulston, who was hired at NC State during my days as a student. JC was the motivation that I and several other students needed to realize that our ideas indeed had merit.

Across the parking lot from the Horticulture Department was the Botany Department. Botany was where all of the real plant nerds studied...with a couple of noted exceptions. The botany students and professors knew where all of the cool plants were located, but their only interest was to collect dried samples and press them between paper, then file them away in a herbarium (plant mortuary). One visit to the botany greenhouses confirmed that these folks knew little about actually growing plants in cultivation, although they could recite the native habitat from memory. I can remember thinking over and over, what a great boon it would be to gardeners around the world if we could somehow manage to bridge the chasm between botany and horticulture. Indeed, many years later, this would become the foundation on which Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden would be built.

After a few years in the nursery business, we noticed that when a particular species was in cultivation, it was usually only represented by one or two clones, or a seed strain from one particular region. This would be akin to looking at an American Indian and assuming that the entire species Homo sapiens would look exactly the same. We struck on the idea to make part of our mission to undertake plant explorations to discover not only new species with good garden merit, but also different and improved collections of species that were already known and cultivated.

Our formal documented collections program began in 1994 with an expedition to Northern Mexico. Some of our trips are taken alone, while most are joint expeditions with other botanic gardens or nurseries who share our same interests and collection philosophies. We carefully document all collections as to habitat and location. Where road signs are not adequate, we use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for documentation. Our collection policies are that we take primarily seed or cuttings. If this is not a viable option, we take divisions of a plant, or in the case of a large enough population, we might dig 1-3 actual plants. In the cases of a very unique individual variant, we may dig a small clump. These unique variants are usually selected against in the wild by the forces of nature, as they have strayed too far from the normal species variation. In making any collection, we are careful not to disrupt the dynamics of the natural population. In a rare case, where construction is imminent, we have taken up to a dozen individual plants. In reality, we probably should try and rescue more plants where the destruction of the entire population is imminent.

Plants from our collections are not sold. The plants from our collecting trips are grown out and evaluated here at Juniper Level Botanic Garden. Once we understand the plant and can determine its garden and potential commercial value (if any) and lack of aggressive weedy tendencies, the plant will be propagated for commercial offering. Of course, not every plant will ever grace the pages of the Plant Delights catalog. Some will be cute in the garden and that's about it. Others may be difficult to propagate, and a few may actually not survive. Since we don't propagate woody plants, these will be shared with other nurseries or botanic gardens.

While we will publish our expedition logs, we do not publish our actual collection site notes. These are only made available by special request to researchers and those selected individuals whom we are confident will protect the integrity of the sites that we have visited.

So, how do we determine where to go on collecting expeditions? The answer is! Herbariums are great places to begin, as most of the good plants have been found and documented by botanists. There is also an amazing amount of information that has been published by botanists about the flora of most regions. Not every country or state has a published flora, but there are many more than you would ever realize. Many of these are out of print, and can only be found through libraries or used book dealers. Also there are monographs published for many plant groups. Monographs are published papers or books where a single genus of plants is exhaustively studied and described. While many monographs are quickly outdated, these are a great place to begin.

In selecting areas to explore, we match soil types, climate, topography, and many other factors. How many plants are we currently growing from that region and how do they perform? How much exploration has been done before and from where? If an English plant explorer went to China and then returned the plants to the UK, any plant that needed warm summers would probably languish or die. There would be great benefit to be obtained by re-visiting such an area. Often plants growing in sub-tropical climates were actually pushed there by glacial activity, and may still retain quite a bit of latent hardiness. As you can see, there are a number of factors involved in selecting a site to explore.

For many years, plant exploration from the US was limited to a few botanic gardens in the North and Midwest regions of the country. These gardens visited an array of foreign countries, and while they brought back many interesting plants, their distribution systems and policies were usually poor at best. Few individuals or botanic gardens outside of a tightly held network were able to acquire these plants. Many of the older more revered botanic gardens had little desire or interest in sharing their collections. This stemmed from an attitude of superiority combined with a non-profit status lack of motivation. These gardens, referred to by the late Dr. JC Raulston as the Zone 5 Mafia, justified keeping the collections where they could be watched an studied by their experts.

The international opening of borders has greatly expanded the availability of plants in many countries, long closed to plant exploration by those outside the "good old boy" network. Suddenly plant collectors and botanic gardens who existed "outside the loop" were on a level footing with the "Big Guys". Amazingly, while plant exploration is becoming more popular, there is still only a small handful of horticulturists pursuing plant exploration within the borders of the United States. The diverse flora of China has truly become the "flavor of the month" for plant exploration, despite equally good plants within our own US borders. For this reason, we have made the US our top plant exploration priority. Of our 25 trips between 1994 and 2002, 20 of those were in the US.

Expedition Chronology

JLBG has sponsored 68 expeditions between 1993 and 2015, all led by Tony Avent except as noted. Detailed expedition notes for some trips are available by following the links on the list below.

  1. Alabama
    1. A1AL - Alabama March 2006
  2. Argentina
    1. A1AG - Northen Argentina March 2002
  3. Arkansas
    1. A1AR - Arkansas April 2014
  4. Arizona
    1. A1AZ - Phoenix, AZ December 2003
    2. A2AZ - Phoenix, AZ December 2004
    3. A3AZ - Phoenix, Tucson, AZ December 2005
    4. A4AZ - Gila Co, AZ, Clark Co, NV January 2008
  5. The Balkans
    1. A1BLK - Balkan States (Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia) June 2012
  6. Bermuda
    1. A1BE - Bermuda Bermuda December 2000
  7. California
    1. A1CA - California So. California February 2004
  8. China
    1. A1C - Yunnan, China October 1996
  9. Crete
    1. A1CR Crete, April 2010
  10. Ecuador
    1. PES Ecuador (Petra Schmidt) August 2002
  11. Florida
    1. A1FL - Panhandle, FL August 2001
    2. A2FL - Panhandle, FL January 2003
    3. A3FL - Lake City, FL March 2003
    4. A4FL - Alachua Co, FL May 2007
    5. A5FL - Decatur Co, FL January 2010
  12. Georgia
    1. A1GA - NC,SC,GA October 2001
    2. A2GA - Hancock, Warren, Turner Co., GA June 1998
  13. Hawaii
    1. A1HA - Maui, Hawaii January 2002
  14. Idaho
    1. A1ID - W. Idaho April 2002
  15. Korea
    1. A1K - Korea South Korea October 1997
  16. Laos
    1. PES Laos (P. Schmidt, Thailand) September 2003
  17. Louisiana
    1. A1LA - St. Francisville, LA October 1999
    2. A2LA - N. Louisiana, Mississippi February 2003
    3. A3LA - N. Louisiana, E. Texas March 2004
  18. Massachusetts
    1. A1MV - Martha's Vineyard, MA June 2004
  19. Mexico
    1. A1M - Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Mexico X October 1994
  1. Michigan
    1. A1MI - Haywood Co, MI June 1999
  2. North Carolina
    1. A1NC - NC NC/SC/GA March 1998
    2. A2NC - NC Pender County, NC December 1998
    3. A3NC - Pender County, NC Feb 1999
    4. A4NC - Durham County, NC May 1999
    5. A5NC - Brunswick County, NC May 1999
    6. A6NC - Richmond County, NC May 1999
    7. A7NC - Caswell, Montgomery Co., NC May 1999
    8. A8NC - Moore Co., NC July 1999
    9. A9NC - Brunswick, Columbus, Bladen Co., NC August 1999
    10. A10NC - Wayne, Duplin, Sampson Co., NC December 1999
    11. A11NC - (trillium trip) NC, SC, E. TN, GA, AL, VA April 2000
    12. A12NC - Brunswick Co., NC June 2001
    13. A13NC - Wake Co., NC April 2002
    14. A14NC - Moore Co., NC April 2002
    15. A15NC - Caswell Co., NC April 2002
    16. A16NC - Johnston Co., NC May 2002
    17. A17NC - Brunswick Co., NC August 2002
    18. A18NC - Johnston Co., NC March 2003
    19. A19NC - Buncombe Co., NC June 2003
    20. A20NC - Brunswick Co., NC May 2004
    21. A21NC - Anson, Richmond Co., NC October 2004
    22. A22NC - Pamlico Co., NC November 2006
  3. Oklahoma
    1. A1OK - S. Oklahoma, N. Texas May 1999
  4. South Africa
    1. A1SA - East and West Cape, South Africa March 2005
  5. South Carolina
    1. A1SC - N. South Carolina June 2002
    2. A2SC - Kershaw, Edgefield, Aiken Cos., SC April 2005
    3. A3SC - Marion, Horry, Georgetown, Dorchester, Charleston, Beaufort Cos.,SC. March 2007
    4. A4SC - Kershaw Co, SC May 2010
  6. South Dakota
    1. A1SD - South Dakota, Wyoming June 2006
  7. Taiwan
    1. A1TW Taiwan 2008
  8. Texas
    1. A1T - N. Texas August 1998
    2. A2T - West Texas, Hill Country, TX November 2000
    3. A3T - Hill Country, TX May 2003
  9. Thailand
    1. PES Thailand (Petra Schmidt, Alan Galloway)September 2003
    2. A1VT - Northern Thailand August 2005
  10. Vietnam
    1. A1VT - Northern Vietnam August 2005
  11. Virginia
    1. A1VA - Ronoake, VA June 2000
    2. A2VA - Shale Barrens, VA & West Virginia April 2001

Even with the increased interest in plant exploration, the number of serious plant explorers in the horticultural field remain quite low. As our country puts more of an emphasis on new plants, the number will no doubt grow larger.

As you can imagine, there are always obstacles, primarily in the movement of plants from one country to another. Poorly thought out and outdated regulations that are still in force, both on the US side as well as in the country to be explored, often result in lost plants, wasted money, and lost time.

Recent (2002) decisions by the USDA to require phytosanitary certificates for all incoming plants will effectively end legal plant exploration from most foreign countries. In the US, it is easy to get a phytosanitary certificate with a phone call and a small cash outlay. In foreign countries, there is often no workable system for a plant explorer to use, short of purchasing a black market phytosanitary certificate for an extraordinary fee.

This unfortunately defeats the purpose of the phytosanitary certificate, which is to ensure that no prohibited pests are present in shipments entering the US. While the USDA is supposed to promote agriculture while protecting our crops, the effect of this regulation is the exact opposite. It deters the search for new agricultural products, promotes circumventing regulations by imposing impossible demands on importers, as well as abdicating responsibility for pest prevention to foreign inspectors.

The other major obstacle for plant exploration is the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). This idiotic treaty was formulated by countries who felt their natural resources were being raped and pillaged by large pharmaceutical companies. When a drug was developed from plants found in a particular country, that country felt slighted when they didn't get enough of the proceeds....even though they usually spent NO money on R&D. A global consortium then passed a treaty that gave the sovereign rights over all natural resources to the country of origin. This is opposite the long held global policy that sharing benefits everyone.

Now many countries have actually banned plant exploration as an unintended consequence of the CBD. Even top gardens such as Kew in the United Kingdom, which has led the world in acquiring plants from foreign countries before the treaty, now refuses to share with most other gardens, under the auspices of the CBD. Exclusionary treaties like the CBD are great for gardens which have already raped and pillaged the world for great plants and now want to promote themselves as the self-anointed guardians of the worlds flora. While the US has not ratified (and hopefully will not) the CBD, plant explorers need to be well aware of the CBD hoops that each country now requires.

Most foreign government representatives with whom we have had the privilege of working on our trips, realize that benefits can be an exchange of information and ideas that are not always directly financial. It is this mutual benefit that has long been the basis of plant exploration and exchange, and will hopefully take center stage again when the greed issue subsides.

I told you I could make a short story long. If you've read through the entire diatribe, I hope you now have a better understanding of the world of plant exploration, and in particular what we hope to accomplish. What we present here is a sampling of our expedition logs from some of our longer trips, so that you can enjoy the wonderful excitement that we experience on one of these expeditions. Hopefully too, you will share these with your friends when they complain about the prices of new plants. Thanks for reading and enjoy the logs.