Plant Exploration

A personal perspective

By Tony Avent

A journey of discovery

What is plant exploration

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.

Dr. JC Raulston

Bridging the gap

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 a Native American 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.

Carl Schoenfeld on a rock cliff in Mexico.

Ethical and sustainable collection

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 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 simple…study! 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.

While we have traveled worldwide looking for new plants as well as new forms of known plants, our top destination has been right here in the United States. 93 of our expeditions have never required a passport. Despite being botanized to death, there is still an amazing amount of new plant species to be discovered and exploited right here in the US. So far, we have discovered many new species from those expeditions, with most still awaiting formal publication. 

While our passion is North American native plants, we are not exclusionists.  In other words, we don’t racially and ethnically profile plants for the purpose of discrimination. We find this abhorrent in all its manifestations….with ornamental plants as well as people. Sadly, many people fail to understand that “native” is not a place in location, it is only a place in time. 

The challenge of crossing borders

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 and 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.

Click here for the full Expedition Chronology.

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.

Convention on Biodiversity

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.

Taiwan plants after shipment
Taiwan plants after shipment
Taiwan plants potted
Taiwan plants potted

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.

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.

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.

– Tony Avent

Expedition logs

JLBG has sponsored over 100+ trips between 1993 and 2023, all led by Tony Avent except as noted. Detailed expedition notes are available for the trips listed below. We are still working on adding logs to this page, thank you for your patience.

England trip, 2020

England, 2020

With the ink barely dry on the Brexit signing in early February, and well before Coronavirus panic hit, it was time for a return trip to the UK for another round of plant collecting. Accompanying me is Walters Gardens plant breeder, Hans Hansen of Michigan.

Sweden and Germany trip, 2014

Sweden and Germany, 2014

We departed Raleigh on Sunday, May 25 and touched down in Munich, Germany, early Monday morning for a week of visiting gardens in Germany and Sweden. Accompanying me on this trip was Hans Hansen, Director of Product Development at Michigan’s Walters Gardens.

The Balkans trip, 2012

Balkans, 2012

Our goal was to explore the Balkan flora of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Balkan flora is some of the richest in Europe, with nearly 1,000 endemic plants in the Central and Southern European regions.

Arum creticum

Crete, 2010

Despite the fact that Crete is a summer-dry Mediterranean climate, there are many plants from there that have surprisingly adapted well to our summer-wet region of North Carolina. Our trip goal was to look for new plants as well as better and more unique forms of those which we already grow.

Sweden and Germany trip, 2014

Sweden and Germany, 2014

We departed Raleigh on Sunday, May 25 and touched down in Munich, Germany, early Monday morning for a week of visiting gardens in Germany and Sweden. Accompanying me on this trip was Hans Hansen, Director of Product Development at Michigan’s Walters Gardens.

The Balkans trip, 2012

Balkans, 2012

Our goal was to explore the Balkan flora of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Balkan flora is some of the richest in Europe, with nearly 1,000 endemic plants in the Central and Southern European regions.

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