Statues of Lydia and John Morris look out on their gardens.

The best plant-collecting trips yield stories as well as specimens. “What’s a tremendous privilege is to enjoy the culture,” Meyer says. That has, on occasion, meant feasting on sea slugs and bull-penis soup, and drinking toasts spiked with snake urine. “For whatever reason—I’m not quite sure why, because I grew up in the Midwest eating roast beef and mashed potatoes—but I’m just very open to trying new things.”

At 6 feet 4 inches Meyer has sometimes found that he is the specimen under observation. “On our first trip to western China in 1981, in some of the villages we were like creatures from another planet,” he recalls. “My hair was longer then, and blonder—not as grey. As [a colleague and I] walked down the streets of this town, people started following us. Soon we were literally being followed by hundreds of people.” The crowd followed them into a bookshop to watch them look for a book on local flora. Meyer has even had children run up to pet his hairy arms. “I took it all in good humor,” he says.

The karaoke singalongs and special birthday dinners he describes in his expedition reports contrast dramatically with the months of isolating travel logged by earlier explorers.

In the case of Frank Meyer, whose contributions to the Morris Arboretum likely include a Tatar wingceltis, loneliness burdened him even more than danger, wrote Isabel Shipley Cunningham in Frank Meyer: Plant Hunter in Asia. (This, despite the fact that danger came in droves: threatened execution by Chinese soldiers who mistook his group for opium smugglers, attempted roadside robberies, reports of Westerners murdered or held for ransom, and, eventually, civil war.) Meyer himself observed that: “Loneliness always hangs around the man who leaves his own race and moves among an alien population.”

Only the conviction that he was doing important work made it worthwhile. “I never get through with my work here,” he once wrote.

In May 1918 he disappeared on a riverboat going down the Yangtze. Though Meyer’s body was later recovered from the river, the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

Dawn redwoods from China.


E.H. Wilson predicted that after a “golden age” of plant exploration in the 19th century—when the world’s “most secret corners had been penetrated and their riches exposed”—followed by a revival of interest in Asia in the early 20th century, the era of the professional plant explorer would come to a close. That hasn’t proved to be the case.

“Certainly there is so much to be learned in the tropical world,” the arboretum’s Paul Meyer says. “There is also a lot to be learned in the temperate world,” though plant exploration will likely continue to focus on new populations of known plants and a careful effort, he hopes, to prevent the propagation of invasive varieties. No one wants another kudzu. “I find myself pulling back the reins of my commercial colleagues who want to introduce a plant too quickly, before it’s been fully tested. We grow plants at the arboretum for many years and evaluate their potential for invasiveness.” Fortunately, he says, “There are lots of plants that are perfectly well behaved and are not a problem.”

This fall, Meyer will travel to the former Soviet republic of Georgia with a colleague from the USDA to collect apples, pears, an oriental spruce, and a heat-tolerant nordman fir.

“I think the only thing that’s going to limit us [in plant collecting] is the disappearance of so many natural areas around the world,” he says. The camellias Meyer and his companions found on the South Korean islands two decades ago were actually growing on pastures grazed by goats; their habitat was destroyed. “Because the Korean villagers loved and respected camellias, they saved them, but the goats were eating everything around them,” Meyer recalls. “When the camellias die there, I’m afraid there’s not a younger generation that’s going to take their place. Losing that particular population is a real genetic loss.”

At least their legacy continues in the United States. A California nursery is introducing a cold-hardy camellia, “Korean Fire,” derived from seeds collected by a colleague of Meyer’s on the 1984 trip.

Meanwhile, Meyer watches the arboretum’s own camellia plantings year after year with Darwinian interest to see which ones will hold up best to a harsh winter. Most greet the spring with glossy green leaves and a profusion of red-cupped blossoms. “It’s absolutely remarkable how well these are doing,” he says.

Not a bad payoff for a handful of seeds.

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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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