Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Adventures of a Plant Explorer

Plant explorer Dan Hinkley came through Portland recently, and told stories of seed collecting and traveling the world. His most recent book, The Explorer's Garden: Shrubs and Vines from the Four Corners of the World, includes excerpts from his garden journals. I imagine that it's the best possible way to keep track of all the many plants that he has encountered during his travels, in addition to the usual stories and situations that accompany traveling. Here is an excerpt from his chapter on the Azara species.

"This morning it was proven again that there is nothing that elongates a mile more efficiently, or that more lays to ruin the enjoyment of the moment, than an empty gas tank, a cognizance that has arisen in human consciousness swiftly and that will hopefully depart in same fashion. We left our lodging in Temuco in the dark this morning at 5:30, and I had not filled the tank as planned when we had arrived in town the night before. Heading toward Conguillio for a long day’s outing, lost and fogged by caffeine withdrawal, and hobbled by our pathetic command of the language, I watched the gauge drop from really low to really screwed. It was my fault. Coasting a Chilean secondary road on a prayer of fume, we finally found gas and NescafĂ© in an unlikely village. I celebrated by procuring a day-old potato and beef empanada for breakfast.

Our approach to the trailhead in our vehicle was by way of a dusty single-track road woven through the devastatingly beautiful landscape of a relatively recent lava flow, just as the sun rose above the ridge to the east, which blinded further still my driving abilities. I was ebullient, three hours after our departure, to be on the trail with the ordeal behind us.

We all drove the trail independent of one another, at different speeds, which was perfectly fine with me; I did not see my mates for most of the following eight hours. I was entranced by the immensity of the Nothofagus along the lower reaches of the trail: the largest I had ever seen, with impressive Araucaria as well. A particularly full and pyramidal specimen of Austrocedrus chilensis had me looking for seed on the ground for a considerable time.

At higher elevations, the low understory became a uniform blend of two plants: one I had met before and one I had not. The former was Maytenus magellanicus, looking so uncannily similar to our native Paxistima myrsinites that I caught myself transported mentally to a hike in Olympia. Kevin, Jennifer, and I collected this further northward in 1997. The other, however, was familiar but curious. In foliage and fruit, there was no question that this was in the genus Azara; as I was approaching the alpine zone, I could only believe this was actually A. alpina that I was seeing for the first time, an assertion I confirmed minutes ago with my reference books back at our hostel." -Temuco, Chile, March 3, 2005

Chani West-Foyle, Marketing Associate

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