Above: Herbarium specimen of kousa dogwood from Japan. Right: Herbarium specimen of Korean lilac collected at Seoul University. Below: A stately centenarian—the Japanese katsura-tree.

Under most circumstances Paul Meyer is glad to get close to a tree, but the huge log of Tilia mandshurica hurtling toward his minivan was not a welcome sight. During a 1997 trip to China, Meyer and his plant-hunting companions had a harrowing encounter with a logging truck on a bumpy dirt road on the way to Changbai Shan. After the accident, they got out to assess the damage. “To our absolute amazement, the driver side front door had been cleanly ripped off, miraculously leaving the windshield, as well as the rest of the car, intact,” he wrote in his journal. “Had the log hit the van a few inches to the right, it would have caught the frame and … most likely killed the driver, and/or [passengers] sitting directly behind the driver.”

Traffic perils aside, plant hunting today is a considerably less dangerous occupation than it was at the turn of the last century. That doesn’t mean that it is always predictable, however. Some finds have fallen into their laps. Meyer was suited up to give a lecture at Seoul University when he came across a lovely Korean lilac cultivated on its campus. Other plant quests have involved climbing remote mountaintops.

“Hunting plants presents difficulties over and above those connected with hunting big game,” Wilson observed in his 1927 book, Plant Hunting. “The game hunter after finding, stalking and shooting his quarry has but to remove the pelt, dress it and the trophy is won.” The plant hunter, in contrast, “must abide the proper season for securing ripe seeds, roots or small plants … and often several fickle seasons pass before success is attained.” After plants reach their destination, “Then comes the test. Will the new arrivals adapt themselves to alien climates and novel conditions of life? … There are many ‘ifs’ and often months and years of anxious moments pass before the truth is known.”

At the Morris Arboretum, the waiting takes place in several greenhouses not typically seen by the visiting public. Inside the Medicinal House—named for a medicinal-herb garden once planted nearby—the temperature is kept around 35 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the most vulnerable plants from freezing in the winter.

It requires a little imagination to square these puny contenders with some of the towering adults in the public gardens. Anthony Aiello, the arboretum’s curator and director of horticulture, shows nine seedlings of Meyer spruce that look like dollhouse-sized Christmas trees. Named after Frank Meyer, they are growing from seeds sown in the fall of 2002, after the arboretum’s last trip to China.

“You can see that these little guys have put on new growth,” he says, pointing to sections of light green on the needles. “And this one doesn’t look like it made it.

“We really have to be patient,” Aiello adds. “You can’t rush the plants—they are really on their own time frame.”

Meanwhile, on another workbench, the centuries-old process of grafting goes on with varieties of witch hazel that Aiello collected in England and Belgium in February. Small twigs, called scions, were inserted into grown plants of native witch hazel and held together with rubber bands. They then were placed in the moist environment of a plastic tent for a few weeks. Afterward, they were wrapped with wax tape to keep the graft moist and allow it to knit. As the scion grows, the understock, or host plant, will slowly be cut back. If all goes well, the witch hazel will be ready for the garden in five to nine years, Aiello says.

The process is “a little nervewracking,” he admits. “You go through all this effort—whether it’s a trip like this, or especially if you go all the way to China—and you bring these things back and wait for the seeds to germinate” or the scions to take. “There are a million things that can go wrong. But all we really need is for one of each to take.”

As plants grow, they move from the greenhouses to one of the hoop houses —so named for their rounded frames, which are covered with plastic in the winter and shade cloth in the summer. The hoop houses are semi-crowded way stations for a variety of trees and shrubs, including silverleaf hydrangeas (“a case of a native plant that’s been completely underutilized”) from a collecting trip Aiello took to southern Appalachia and a Yulan magnolia he chanced upon in a villager’s backyard in China’s Shanxi province. A group of manchu striped maples touch the ceiling, pushing for space.

Aiello regards them as a protective parent would a gangly teenager, acknowledging that “at some point these plants need to be put out into the cold, hard world.” Shelley Dillard, the arboretum’s propagator, pushes him along. “She always wants things to move out into the garden and create space,” he says. “She really gives me a hard time if anything has been down here for more than 10 years.”

Before seeds and seedlings even arrive in the greenhouses, they are documented in the plant recorder’s office. Each specimen at the arboretum gets an accession number as if it were a painting in a museum. Field notebooks kept in that office note exactly where each plant was found, what it was growing with, and occasionally such details as luster, hairs, flavor, and odor.

Often, these accessions are seeds, which are picked out of collected fruit and allowed to rot in plastic bags during collecting trips. “You walk into our hotel room and it smells like a winery,” Meyer jokes. Those seeds are cleaned and then shipped with other kinds of samples to U.S. authorities for inspection.

The arboretum’s herbarium contains another record—dried leaves, fruits, and flowers arranged on acid-free paper like works of art. “Herbarium samples can last for hundreds of years and become permanent non-living records of what the plants looked like,” Aiello explains. They also preserve DNA, which can be reconstituted for research.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

The Global Garden
By Susan Frith
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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