For this month’s issue, I’m delving back into the mid-90s and republishing an article from the third issue of The Paxtonian. When I first considered reprinting my fictional portrayal of a 19th century plant collector, that I wrote back in my 20’s, it gave me pause.

Plants. How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count The Ways …

Travels and travails of a Plant Geek

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For this month’s issue, I’m delving back into the mid-90s and republishing an article from the third issue of The Paxtonian. When I first considered reprinting my fictional portrayal of a 19th century plant collector, that I wrote back in my 20’s, it gave me pause. However, I read over my plant-geek inspired narrative with an open—if not skeptical—mind, and I think it’s worth sharing again. Or, at least, I’m comfortable putting it out there for a new generation to read. If not for the somewhat forced plot, at least in helping to establish where I was, intellectually, with a fledgling Paxton Gate in the works, in San Francisco before the tech bubble, and a clearly burgeoning passion for plants.

In reading over my old pros, I was transported back in time. I reinhabited my young self—the mind of a budding entrepreneur, excited by every new possibility, eager to learn, with boundless confidence. One of the many things I was discovering in the early days of Paxton Gate was the world of plants. I had always enjoyed plants and learned quite a lot about them while gardening with my mom in our sizable garden plot in Northern California. That nascent interest was the catalyst for diving headfirst into the world plants, including a particularly deep dive into Bromeliads. Reading through The Hunters again, after so many years, brought me back to that headspace of being swooned by botanicals and even reliving the early plant collecting trips I embarked upon. 


I certainly wasn’t a sponsored botanist, sent abroad by British Aristocracy as was my protagonist in the upcoming piece, but I’m sure I harbored some fantasy as if I were. Anyone who goes on a plant collecting trip secretly hopes to find a new species. I’d love to close out this article by showing you a picture of Tillandsia seanquiglii, discovered in some far away land, but alas, it never happened. While my trips did, at times, harbor a small degree of the drama, nothing was so fanciful as the story I’m sharing today.


In the mid to late 90s I undertook four plant collecting trips - one to Mexico, another to Guatemala, and two to Ecuador. I always had the proper import permits and gathered only for myself, never selling anything in Paxton Gate or elsewhere. My collecting was limited to members of the Bromeliad family, which is still a passion of mine even if somewhat diminished by time and other distractions. I was cautious to avoid protected species (in fact, in the last issue of The Paxtonian, I talk about stumbling upon endangered T. xerographica in Guatemala and leaving with nothing but photos). I can’t honestly say, though, that I never collected on private property; sometimes it’s just hard to tell when one is surrounded by jungle! For what it’s worth, Tillandsias and other members of the bromeliad family that adorn trees, rocks and even power lines, are quite often viewed as weeds by people that live with them. I also never collected in parks or reserves.

In fact, on a two-day horse trek deep into the jungle in southern Ecuador near the village of Vilcabamba, our trail passed through a national park of some sort. I spent much of that first day, from my elevated horseback perch, spying beautiful specimens growing in trees, all within arm’s reach. I had asked my guide to let me know when we left the park so I could start collecting. I never saw many of those amazing plants again and took home only film.

On an earlier trip to Ecuador, rather than a horse I found a seat atop a “train” that ran to the northern, coastal town of San Lorenzo from high up in the Andean mountains. The train was not exactly a train. It was rather a bus, with train wheels instead of typical tires. At the time, the train was the only overland means of getting to San Lorenzo and it passed through nearly every habitat that one could find in Ecuador. My Lonely Planet Guide had said to grab a seat up top rather than inside, so I did. For almost the entire trip, amazing plants, bamboo, orchids, succulents, and of course bromeliads, whizzed by just out of reach.

On that same trip, I traveled by bus from Quito to Tena. At the time, Tena was a tiny jungle village at the edge of the Amazon basin. Unfortunately, as I understand it, today’s Tena has been overrun by the oil industry and is nothing like it was back then.


Just like the train ride, I sat at a window on the bus, ogling the scores of amazing plants flying by with no way to get out and see them. Upon reaching my destination and after securing my hotel ($1.75/night, the most expensive on that trip), I immediately started seeking a taxi for the return trip. I just couldn’t handle not stopping to see those plants. After a couple days in Tena and exploring the nearby jungle (which included an encounter with a monkey who stole a piece of quartz from my pocket), I met up with my “taxi” driver, who was just a guy and his pickup.


He also brought his brother along for company, I suppose, or perhaps he didn’t totally trust this gringo who had scheduled such a long ride with odd requirements of stopping along the way. I had negotiated driving to Baeza, a small town not far from the capital, Quito, allowing for an additional three hours of stopping and checking out plants en route.The agreed upon price also covered the return time to Tena for my driver. I couldn’t afford any of this but couldn’t help myself.

In the end, the trip was fantastically successful. I found all sorts of amazing and beautiful plants, not typically available from growers, and successfully puzzled my driver and his brother as to my behavior. I’m sure they didn’t know what to make of me. Every mile or so, while sitting in the back of the pickup, I’d rap my fingers on the window to have them stop. Then, as they saw it, this guy would hop out of the truck, trapse out into the jungle, and return with an armful of weeds.

Suffice to say, when I wrote the following, my head was in a space where I could easily put myself in the shoes of my protagonist. I was feeling it as much as I was composing it.


So, without further ado, I share with you my story, The Hunters—unedited, in its original form including my copious use of the em dash—written nearly 30 years ago.


The Hunters

Pages From the Diary of an Orchid Explorer

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The jungle has been suffocating us for days. Behind me, two sturdy mules plod along—their hollow faces nearly speaking their discontent and trepidation. Leading the mules is a young Indian—a boy—more skilled than the two peons in the fore forging our path, their machetes singing as they struggle through the tangled underbrush.

This now our seventh day, following our sixth night sleeping amongst the insects, the snakes, and vermin—not to mention the fear of being attacked by bandits. Huge trees caged by aerial roots bar our path like portcullises. Upon their boughs grow numerous other organisms: epiphytic ferns, Bromeliads, fungi, lichens, and mosses, and occasionally a small cluster of orchids—nothing of interest yet. It seems that upon everything grows something else and if there isn't again something growing upon that, there is certainly something scurrying, crawling, or slithering there. To our left a precipitous rock cliff climbs from the valley floor, exiting our view beyond the trees. It is covered with lithophytic plants—mostly Tillandsias—rising some 50 feet above the valley floor through which we attempt to pass. Opposite that is an impassable stream—half a day ago it began as a trickle, a small brook by which to guide our seemingly random journey. Marching across a fallen tree toward the opposite bank are rows of animated leaves; actually, they are leaves borne by ants harvesting them upon which to grow fungi for food. Each looks like a tiny single-sailed dinghy fording the greatest of all rivers.


Finally, we reach a point where enormous trees begin to dominate and—in comparison—the creepers, thorned vines, and underbrush wane in their shade. The machetes cease their singing, and the peons stand upright letting their arms hang; we've obviously reached a point at which they think that I'll be interested in what they see. I rush forward to the crest upon which they stand; it proves to be the top of a shallow, sloping incline descending into a colour-filled valley below—lavender, white, and crimson abound. The valley, roughly crescent shaped and curving to the left, is filled with orchid-laden trees and shrubs.


From where I stand—gazing across the roof-top of the jungle—I can recognize at least three different species of Cattleya; there are many others. Somewhere in this valley lies the object of my search. Quickly trudging down the earthen slope, I enter the greenhouse created by the great arching trees. I have felt this exhilaration before, but never alone. My orchid-hunting partner, Joseph, and I— having been friends since college, I in human biology and him in literature—ventured out to Central and South America some three and a half years ago. The first year we collected relentlessly, gathering for quantity, solely to reach the quotas set by the nurseries sponsoring us back home. We rapes the jungle, taking from it every attractive, flowering orchid known to science—those commonalities most easily sold.

Soon, we realized a respect for the jungle and the orchids—the parasitos, as the natives call them—and we found ourselves in search of discovery rather than quantity.

We sought new species, possibly new genera. Often we heard tales from the natives of a gigantic orchid, one called El Grande Purpureo Parasito (the natives aren't very creative with their names). This mysterious orchid was rumored to afford a bloom nearly the length of a man's forearm, whose beauty was matched only by its scent; a scent so strong and bewitching that it would drive a man into an insane frenzy to acquire the plant. Hypnotized, many men met their death.


We chose to make it our mission to find this orchid, or to dissolve its rumor. Apparently, its scent had already begun to take effect. Unfortunately, we found that the various tales of El Grande Purpureo Parasito placed it in two geographically separate areas: the hills outside a town in Ecuador called Milagro, and in the Northern region of Peru near Contumaza. Because our financing was running short and we were soon to be forced to return home, we decided to each explore a region— I started in Peru and Joseph in Ecuador. We decided to send word of our progress to Piura, a centrally located port town.

In sum, my trip was a failure. I hired numerous peons, traversed many miles, and discovered that El Grande Purpureo Parasito was, at best in this region, a generously sized Morning Glory, with no scent whatsoever. After some time of searching further, I felt certain that there was no El Grande Purpureo Parasito to be found here and retreated, choosing to follow Joseph in Ecuador.


Upon reaching Piura, I found that Joseph had long missed his check-in date—in fact his boy, Alviranzo, was the only one to return saying that the others left one morning to search for parasitos and never returned. He waited days before finally returning home. Alviranzo was a bright boy who wouldn't have left the party unless he thought it necessary. He recounted their journey and described their struggles and was specific and eloquent. He described, and eventually guided, the path Joseph had taken. The following morning, we left, now in search of my dear friend and hopefully the great orchid he had found.


As I enter the cover of the trees at the base of the incline, these reminiscent thoughts taunting me, I feel the warm, humid air trapped there. Above me, color explodes. Alviranzo hurries up beside me, dragging the mules behind, and says in the native dialect of Spanish, "Over here is the camp, the camp where I waited."

At the base of the cliff in a somewhat sheltered cove are strewn ashes, weathered sleeping rolls, and other dross. Inspecting the debris, Alviranzo confirms that it is roughly how he left it. This worries me—they have not been back to the camp. Scanning the jungle for clues, I decide we must search the valley. "Which way did they go?" I ask Alviranzo in his language.

"This way, I remember, they walked into the morning sun,” he says pointing East. For the remainder of the day, we search the valley, back and forth, and finally are forced by the oncoming darkness to set camp.

A sense of urgency often helps readers take an action, so think about inserting phrases like "for a limited time Alviranzo, already having made a fire, is preparing a simple meal. I eat my food quietly and hastily bed down, for the sleep to hasten the night so I can resume my search. To no avail: the night is relentlessly long. I pass it by trying to contrive ways that Joseph might possibly be alive. I awake before first light and ready myself for the day's search, determined to scour at least the entire portion of the valley that boasts such a generous offering of orchids. I am certain that Joseph would not go beyond that without fetching Alviranzo and preparing for another journey. Endlessly, I force my way through the tangled underbrush, hoping for some sign of Joseph’s presence in this place.

At about midday, while drinking the water of a freshly cut Iiana vine I am startled by a stray mule; the tattered creature staggers from the shadows of a partially fallen tree—obviously the animal left behind months before by Joseph.


Its skin hugs its ribs like fine fabric draping a wagon wheel; it is barely alive. My breathing quickens and my pulse resonates in my ears. We continue searching; I, in fact, begin calling Joseph's name, hoping that he had only received some disabling injury, and somehow managed to stay alive; hoping to hear his return call. Instead, I am answered by the call of one of the peons, "Over here, come over here!" I run toward his voice, toward the cliff face. Rounding the base of a huge skirted tree, I nearly stumble over his crouched figure. He is squatting there examining a bone, a human fibia. This single bone seems to be the only one present, the skeleton must have been scattered by scavengers. We begin to search the area. Knowing that Joseph was a very tall man and that this fibia was that of a shorter man is the only thing that keeps me from truly crying aloud. Yet, the outlook is grim and my hired help is beginning to waver, beginning to show their fear, beginning to recall the tales of the powerful aroma of El Grande Purpureo Parasito. Reminding them that I am a man of science, I try to convince them that the idea is completely preposterous though I, too, had begun to be tormented by the tales.


Finally, we find two nearly intact skeletons at the foot of the cliff. They were the peons; I can tell not only by the small size of their skeletons but by the tattered remnants of their once colorful clothing left clinging to their bones, bleached by the sun, and picked clean by scavengers and insects. They look harmless, like bones in an anatomy class, yet they raise a fear in my gut that I have never felt before. I stand, frozen, and stare blankly; the peons cross themselves and mutter in their dialect so quickly that I can't understand a word they say; Alviranzo turns and begins to look for the third skeleton, for Joseph. We follow suit. We search the surrounding area again and again, each time finding our way back to the two skeletons. Finally, feeling careless for not having done so in the first place, I examine them to see if I can ascertain how they died. I do. One of the peons had most of the bones on the right side of his body broken and a crushed skull, the other's legs had been broken and his femurs jammed into the region of his pelvis.

I look up. Above me through the thick foliage of the trees I can see spots of the light, yellow-brown cliff. I leap forward a few steps and press myself against the moist rock-face to see if I can peer between the tree and the cliff. Instantly, my vision is washed with a flash of purple part way up the cliff. Quickly positioning myself further to the left, I expand my view. From a great crevasse in the cliff grows a number of small trees spotted with purple—purple orchids measuring over a half of a foot from petal to lip. Among them, in the crotch of the lowest tree, hangs the last bleach-white skeleton, from its closed, bony hand a giant purple orchid sets new aerial roots. I have found Joseph and El Grande Purpureo Parasito. A wonderful scent fills the air.


Not many orchid owners or even enthusiasts are aware of the perils that were suffered by the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century orchid hunters—those men who hunted and collected the parents of the species and hybrids we enjoy today. Those men, of whom many died in search of that last new species, often spent great portions of their lives as transients in search of the color-filled and often fragrant treasures that now grace our tabletops and windowsills. The orchid hunters were a hardy group who risked and often lost their lives to achieve their goals.


The perils to contend with were many. Orchid hunters, as well as plant hunters in general, had to battle Dysentery, Pleurisy, Leprosy, Typhoid, Malaria, Cholera, and Yellow Fever, in addition to poisonous snakes and insects, nearly impassable vegetation, the toughest of all terrains, and thieves and bandits. Thomas Lobb lost his leg as a result of exposure on his last jungle jaunt. Father Charles Plumier died of pleurisy on his way to investigate the quinine tree (Cinchona succirubra). After fighting dysentery for several months and recovering, Joseph von Jacquin was taken prisoner by the British because of the Seven Years’ War between England and France. Aime Bonpland died of fever contracted from the unavoidable mosquitoes on the Orinoco River. The list goes on. Orchid collecting reached its peak in the late 19th century when many collectors roamed the jungles of Mexico and Central and South America (as well as other orchid bearing regions of the world).


Theodore Hartweg (1812-1871) collected in these areas for at least 10 years for the Horticultural Society, returning no less than 140 species of orchid as well as many cacti, conifers, and enough seeds to fill 7,000 packets for the Society's members. Other collectors, such as Benedict Roezl (1824-1885) sent home huge lots of orchids—10,000 in one shipment. He reported being robbed 17 times. Collector Jean Jules Linden (1817-1898) specialized in hunting, introducing Odontoglossum hastilabium, O. lindenii, O. luteo-purpureum, O. triumphans and many others. Theodore Hartweg (1812-1871) collected in these areas for at least 10 years for the Horticultural Society, returning no less than 140 species of orchid as well as many cacti, conifers, and enough seeds to fill 7,000 packets for the Society's members. Other collectors, such as Benedict Roezl (1824-1885) sent home huge lots of orchids—10,000 in one shipment. He reported being robbed 17 times. Collector Jean Jules Linden (1817-1898) specialized in hunting, introducing Odontoglossum hastilabium, O. lindenii, O. luteo-purpureum, O. triumphans and many others.

As is often the case, the origin is far disconnected from the final destination.


As is often the case, the origin is far disconnected from the final destination. For all we know, these beautiful plants magically appear on the display tables of the nursery or store to be purchased by the next interested prospect. There is no obvious lineage from the jungle by the efforts of the collector, to the grower, to the hybridizer, to the market and eventually to our homes and gardens. Every orchid holds within its fanciful bloom a fascinating and intricate collection of stories, each opening with the tale of a dauntless collector braving the jungles of some distant land.

 - Sean Quigley

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