H: Thursday, March 27, 2008

Plant Hunting: Privilege Pleasure Posterity

Captain Richard M. Steele, Nova Scotia

My first plant hunting was with my father in the Spring of 1919 just after the end of WWI. Travelling by horse and carriage and then by canoe, we explored the virgin areas of a long inlet of the Saint John river in New Brunswick Canada. We spent more than two weeks in the area and found many interesting plants and saw interesting wild life. I remember best two species of Gaultheria procumbens and hispidula (known to me then as "Wintergreen" and "Fairy Eggs" respectively). There were Jack in the Pulpits, Trilliums, Dogtooth Violets, Skunk Cabbage, Pickerel Weed, as well as a Moose, Deer, Partridge, and Shad which we fished and ate, a "gizzard" fish that we bought from a native that was net fishing at the head of this inlet. There was much more that my aged and jaded mind can no longer recall.

Joe Gable on Mt. Mitchell
Joe Gable on Mt. Mitchell

Since that awe inspiring trip in my young life, plant exploring has been a joyous, relaxing, and very rewarding feature of my life. This absorbing avocation has usually been in company with others of similar interest.

One of the most memorable was ten days that Joe Gable and I spent exploring various areas in The Great Smokies in 1966. We were able to again see "Red Maximum" near Mount Mitchell and collect several scions from the largest old Plant. Joe also very studiously searched for a wild Rhododendron catawbiense that showed a distinct sign of purple in it's bloom, but in vain.

On another occasion, while searching in the wild near Hopewell, Virginia I located a truly significant form of the azalea then known as nudiflorum;...I called on the lady who owned the farm and took her to that beautiful plant, photographed the two together and arranged permission to return that fall to collect seed and a section from the plant. When I returned that October I found the whole area bulldozed level and that plant lost forever.

In 1954 enroute to take up duties in the Canadian Embassy in Washington, I stopped for an hour break in driving, near Pocologan, on the shores of the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, Canada and went off into shrubland to look at the masses of Rhododendron canadense that were in full bloom. About a half mile back from the road I found a rich deep purple form of the plant which I captured for posterity with my camera.

I returned to Canada 2 1/2 years later to collect both seed and the plant. To my chagrin a new Super Highway had been built through that area and the plant had been destroyed. We have the photo but the plant is gone. Similarly a new highway in Nova Scotia destroyed our only colony of the very rare white form of Rhododendron canadense.

When Gable and I were in the Great Smokies we again went to Roan Mountain. There we found a new road had just been opened to the top. We were able to drive on up. Where the excavating equipment had dug a ditch alongside the road they had ripped out a number of small rhododendrons. One was lying on top of the pushed back debris. It's roots were bare and the sun shining down on this wilted plant. I crossed the ditch and collected the sad thing. We wrapped it in a newspaper, then poured most of our drinking water into the paper and put it in the glove compartment of the car. A number of days later the plant was removed and potted and it is still occasionally a seed parent for crosses aimed at hardiness These atrocities and others led to the formation of "The Rhododendron & Native Plant Foundation"

The Purpose of the foundation is;

1. To Establish "Living Collections of plants important to the Future":

(a) by exploration
(b) by collection
(c) by breeding

2. To Demonstrate

(a) How these plants can be best grown on domestic cultivation.

(b) How they may be used to enhance the beauty of our surroundings, or serve some other significant needs.

Plant collecting in northern Newfoundland
Plant collecting in northern Newfoundland

The Foundation is a low key, hands-on operation. The dues are not cash, but require each member to annually contribute three hours of objective labour. The more distant members fulfill their obligation by tasks assigned on the Plant Expeditions, or by tasks assigned to them in or close to their area. Although the prime task of the organization is to ensure that important plants are retained for future generations, it was early established that "It was not intended to encourage heroic and wasteful efforts to sustain Minutiae or Oddities whose more appropriate destiny is departure"

The original concerns and objectives were to locate, record, photo, and collect scions and seed of fine specimens of rhododendrons and associated plants. However it became obvious that many other plants needed similar attention. The group decided that they would take on some of this broader work but that the geographic area should be defined and that the pace should be unhurried.

Because of geographic and climatic diversity it was decided that the area of operation would initially be the Canadian Atlantic provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador with Gaspe and some eastern sections of the Province of Quebec when and where that was feasible.

A somewhat tentative preliminary program was established for the period 1990 - 2005. It is aimed at establishing a good broad fundamental knowledge of the Land, the Plants, and the conditions under which they succeed. There is to be a full review of the program after the completion of the 2005 Expedition.

R. lapponicum from seed - collected wild in northern Newfoundland
R. lapponicum from seed - collected wild in northern Newfoundland

Successful expeditions have been conducted in each of the areas. Expedition 2000 will proceed in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador during the last week in August and the first week in September.

A very significant historic event is taking place in Northern Newfoundland this summer and a visit to that site is being included in this years schedule.

L'Anse-aux-Meadows at the northeast tip of Newfoundland is the site of a Viking Settlement 1000 years ago, more than 400 years before the arrival of Columbus. Ten Viking ships from various areas of the world are sailing to rendezvous in that area from 23 - 28 July. There are 3 replicas of the original grass and earth houses and Viking reenactors will be showing Viking skills daily until 8 September.

Some of the native plants that will be encountered on this year's visit to these northern sites include;

Rhododendron lapponicum, Empetrum eamesii, Cornus suecica, Rhododendron groenlandicum, Silene acaulis, Loiseleuria procumbens, Larix, Phyllodoce caerulea, Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Ledum decumbens, Pinguicula spp., Diapensia, Betula pumila, Vaccinium uliginosum, Saxifraga spp., Gaultheria procumben, Betula michauxii, Chamaedaphne calic, Juniperus horizontalis, Empetrum nigra, Primula spp., Gaultheria hispidula, Potentila spp., Andromeda glauca, and many, many others.

Anyone interested in joining Expedition 2000 can write for information to: R.M.Steele, Mail RR#1 Rose Bay, Nova Scotia, B0J 2X0 Canada. Email:

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