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October 14, 2005

Plant Explorers

Earlier today I was googling around as I indulged a recent sudden interest in Linnaeus (Yes, I realize having sudden intense interests in old taxonomists marks me as a big science dork. I've made peace with what I am.). In the course of that, I came across an interesting site on plant exploration called, appropriately enough, PlantExplorers.com. It's mainly an educational site, but they also have relationships with a number of seed exchanges in a variety of countries, which should certainly interest some folks.

Although North America is blessed with an abundance of berries, most of other fruits here were brought from somewhere else, and although many of the biggies came from Asia in ancient times, and arrived via Europe with the colonists, many others came here much more recently by plant explorers, and the 1800's marked a great explosion in new plant introductions as the formerly forbidden reaches of China first opened to the West. Plant exploration has of course been occurring for as long as mankind has cultivated plants, but reached new heights beginning with the colonial era in Europe, then later around the turn of the century with a new crop of British and American explorers. Some, like Charles Darwin, Carolus Linnaeus, and even Capt. William Bligh (his ill-fated mission, if you recall, was to bring back breadfruit from Tahiti) are well known, but others have faded into relative obscurity.

E.H. Wilson brought Actinidia delciosa, now known as the kiwi fruit (then known as 'chinese gooseberry') and sand pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) from China. Charles Sargent, first director of Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, introduced the modestly named Sargent's crab apple (Malus sargentii) and Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentii) from Japan. Possibly the greatest plant explorer, certainly the greatest of his era, was Frank N. Meyer, who introduced a dizzying array of species (roughly 2,500) from East Asia, including the oriental persimmon (Diospyros kaki, a significant improvement over the native Diospyros virginiana...Meyer also brough back Diospyros lotus, rootstock species), the Meyer Lemon (which was named for him...probably a cross of lemon and orange or mandarin), the litchi (aka lychee or Litchi chinensis...yum!), assorted pears, apricots, raspberries, and blackberries, as well as nuts such as the Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollisima), and Pistacia chinensis, which though not edible itself is a common rootstock for the cultivated pistachio. (This is just a selection of fruits Meyer brought back, which, though much more interesting to me, pale in comparison to his most important acquisition: the soybean. The Midwest would look so empty without him!).

Thomas Jefferson, who himself introduced a number of species to the new United States, once said:

"The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its cultureā€¦One such service of this kind rendered to a nation is worth more to them than all the victories of the most splendid pages of their history, and becomes a source of exalted pleasure to those who have been instrumental in it."

Anyway, just thought I'd share the site. I'm always interested in more fruit/plant sites...feel free to send suggestions as you find them.

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