John Bartram spent many nights in a Florida swamp huddled by a campfire, guarding his fellow travelers. It was his job to ensure they weren't attacked by alligators as they slept. His exploration party had walked hundreds of miles across Florida. They'd swum across snake-infested waters, faced fierce bears, and fought off Indian attacks.
Indian attacks? Yes. The year was 1765.
What was the treasure he sought? Plants. Bartram and his fellow adventurers were looking for strange new plants.
Pioneering botanists often faced great hardships in their search for plants. In 1719, for example, French botanist Pierre Poivre was on route to China to study local flora. He sailed aboard a 750-ton ship armed with cannons. When English soldiers attacked the vessel, Poivre was wounded. Taken to Batavia, Indonesia, to recover, he discovered nutmeg and cloves.
Frank Meyer, one of the early plant collectors for the United States Department of Agriculture, walked almost 1,000 miles across China gathering unusual specimens in the early 1900s. The plant stock from which we now grow peaches came from a 1920s USDA expedition there.
Because of enterprising and courageous botanists like these, we enjoy a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Tomatoes, carrots, soybeans, potatoes, and lemons are just a few examples.
Plant exploration continues today. Though it is not as treacherous as it once was, there still are exciting moments.
Peter Del Tredici, director of Living Collections at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University (Boston), had a hair-raising experience in China in 1997. He was traveling in a minivan with his colleagues. Following a narrow dirt road, they came upon a large truck filled with oversized logs. One of the logs shifted and lunged toward their van. Suddenly, they heard a loud crunch.
The log had "acted like a lance," Del Tredici said. The tree trunk sheared off the driver's side door, which became wrapped around the log. No one was injured.
When asked about plant exploration today, Del Tredici emphasizes that, "the era of the 'great white hunter' is long gone."
While there are still dangers to face in unexplored regions of the world, they are not nearly as heart-pounding as Poivre's or Bartram's. There are surely many thousands of plants left to be discovered, named, and examined. But today, countries have strict rules governing plant collecting. Botanists must obtain special permits, and they often travel with official, well-trained guides.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society