It occurred to me the other day that plant collecting has really changed over the past few years. For example, a mere 15 years ago when I first got into collecting plants, I was looking for unusual plants. Then variegated plants...then this morphed into collecting mainly aroids and gingers. I met many people along my journey, and many introduced me to others that shared my passion for unusual plants. This got me thinking…most plant collecting is second hand, or even third. I mean, I was buying and trading with people who had in many cases collected these plants themselves. Sometimes they didn’t want to part with a particular plant, and it was all part of the excitement when after many visits they might share a small plant with me.
About 10 years ago, we decided to go to Thailand to visit our friend Mark Collins and collect amorphophallus. First let me just say that I am NOT an adventurous eater. I like my food dead and cooked to nearly beef jerky consistency…and not looking at me in the eye. I lost about 7 pounds on that two week trip, living on warm Coca-cola and sticky rice. (Who doesn't refridgerate soda?)
After a rollercoaster ride from a van driver with a death wish, we arrived near the Thailand/Burma border. We got out of the truck and were given these large “spoons” to dig amorphophallus tubers with. As we walked towards the trees, a 6 ft cobra sauntered across our path in the direction we were headed, seemingly oblivious to the spoon-weapons we carried. The whole time I’d been worried about leeches and I’d forgotten to worry about cobras!
The amorphophallus species in that area have long, carrot-like tubers and grow in glorified concrete. You cannot break or chip the tuber, because it will rot on the journey. So think…digging straight down about 2 feet in hard packed soil, with a big spoon. Luckily it was only 100 degrees. When we finally got back to Mark’s farm, he had them for sale for 50 cents! It gave me a huge appreciation for the collectors that had come before me.
Importing plants can be difficult as well. After many times bringing in plants that never recovered from shipping, I have mostly quit bringing things in after repeatedly opening boxes of newly imported, pre-killed plants. I can kill my own plants locally much cheaper.
One of the first collectors I found was Dewey Fisk. He was one of the first people I found with a website and I was excited to see he was local. At a time when the internet was just getting warmed up, Dewey had one of the only places online to look up ID's for aroids.
Dewey’s partner at his nursery was Ralph Lynam. He was full of wonderful stories and credited his longevity with drinking a gallon of milk every day. He recently passed away at 99. This is him at left with my son Jesse, then 6 months.
I also used to have a great nursery in Homestead for cool things. The owner would regularly travel to Thailand and bring back such incredible stuff that he didn’t even know what it was. I suspect he just enjoyed travelling to Thailand, with the plants being an afterthought.
Or Jean Merkel, at Alberts and Merkel Bros nursery...I can’t tell you how many times I found a plant I couldn’t live without only to have it unceremoniously wrenched from my
hand and replaced with a much smaller version...if I was lucky! Every once in a while though, if the moon was in the right phase, he would part with a plant and you would bolt to the car before he changed his mind. It was all part of the excitement.
I do so miss Julius Boos, and his booming voice re-accounting his colorful travels. He will be forever etched in my mind. It was always the highlight of the Aroid show when he would show up. There are so many other long time collectors that seem to have retired or passed away in the last few years, it seems all at once. Many of the plants have been lost.
Now that many of the aroid collectors I started with are gone, it seems it has gotten to the point that it seems so much collecting is done online. In some ways this is great, your collection can grow very quickly this way. In many cases you need to do little more than type in the name of the plant to find it. It may be easier, but I find it a little sad that the plants don’t have the wonderful stories behind them…
Usually involving leeches!