The Travels and Trials of Plant Explorer Panayoti Kelaides


PK Gentiana grandiflora vista

It’s only thanks to Tony Avent’s latest catalog cover that I knew that of the existence of Panayoti Kelaidis – he appears there just to the right of the Ranters.  I didn’t know him as a famous plant Panayoticollector/explorer who’s put the Denver Botanic Gardens on the map, but was just curious enough not to miss his recent and rare talk in the DC area.

Kelaidis’s talk and slides were of his two 3-week trips to the Steppes of Asia in search of plants.  He’d chosen that isolated, tough-to-visit part of the world because its climate is similar to Denver’s (it’s Denver’s “steppe sister climate,” he told us).

The super-schlepp in Western-most Mongolia required 10 camels and (I imagine) strong stomachs and other body parts, too, but PK (as he suggests people to call him) seemed no worse for wear, thanks to the tour company responsible, for which he had high praise.

Here are my take-aways from his talk and slides.

–  Plant exploration and collection is for people with far more advanced cases of plant addiction than mine.  Note that the tagline of his website reads:  “Serious plant nerds are especially welcome…others be warned.”  Got it.

Only someone with extreme knowledge of plants could spot the often-inconspicuous plants he showed us as something never before grown in North America.   Regular trekkers would choose another tour altogether.  (I once trekked the Himalayas and my fellow travelers turned out to be rugby players from the Midlands of England, big drinkers who’d hike back down a mountain at the end of the day in search of spirits, then party into the wee hours.  Not a gardener in the bunch.)

PK Scutellaria Mongolia 025

– This kind of travel is HARD, I tell ya.  I can’t imagine three solid weeks in Western Mongolia, by camel  (reportedly not an easy animal to get along with),  even for the young and fit (and PK’s my age, for crissakes.)

– So with due respect for the hardship endured bringing plants back home from the steppes of Western Mongolia, I was silently thanking him and other explorers of the natural world for doing what they do.

– PK is great company as a raconteur, and I can only imagine the high times and high jinx when he hangs out with the (other?) wild men of horticulture (Tony Avent, Felder Rushing, etc).

– But ladies, he mentioned having a girlfriend.


Hey, guys – a plant we recognize!  I could get used to seeing pansies growing this way, rather than dozens arranged just so in the border.

Planting Collecting: The Controversy

In a follow-up email I asked PK how he responds to critics of plant collecting (on the grounds that it brings more “exotic” and therefore potentially invasive plants into the U.S.)  He had an answer.

As to the “invasive” bullshit: Human civilization has been built over the dead carcases of native plants: our cities, farms, garbage dumps, strip malls, Nascar race tracks–you name it–have obliterated a vast portion of the worlds biodiversity. The fragments that are left are being frittered still–Horticulture is the sentient way that Homo Sapiens seeks to comprehend the plant world: without gardening there is no food, without ornamental gardening there is no impetus to study or enjoy wild nature beyond mere “observation”.  Gardening is sex–nature worship is watching pornography.

Of course no plant explorer wishes to introduce weeds (Doctors do not seek to kill their patients–although some do). To dwell on the down side of plant exploration is the same as criticizing any activity for its potential negative side effects: give me a profession and I will do the same: Priests? Pederasts. Teachers? Ignoramuses who abuse children. Bankers? Think Wall Street exploitation of the mortgage crisis–they were scuzbags of a cosmic order—and we could go on through every profession (think Lawyers).

Plant Collectors used to be respected until that “scientist” from Seattle invented the “invasive” bullshit. Human civilization is by nature invasive–and plant exploration is one of the most powerful means of measuring, understanding and ultimately mitigating the extent of that invasion. End of MY rant! Hope that helps explain my position?

Indeed it does!  And how sad that passionate, knowledgeable, passionate plant collectors like PK have to defend such an honorable pursuit.

PK Quince  Triangle bed DSC06243

For a change of scene, here’s a view of PK’s own garden in Colorado.

See PK’s Central Asia slides and info on his website, or see photos of his own garden here.


  1. I want a bumper sticker that says “Gardening is sex- nature worship is watching ponography.” Should be an item in the Denver botanical gardens gift shop.

    • Well put. Where would we be without those strong men who traveled the world for our garden treasurers!

  2. We love PK’s vast knowledge and amazing contributions to gardening, here in the Denver area. I’m grateful we have such a plant nerd who is willing to share so much.

  3. Well. That’s a fresh perspective on gardening-back-to-nature. A new “accept the nature of humankind as the invasive weeds we are and let us get on with changing the planet to suit us” kind of philosophy.

  4. I’ll be thinking of PK when I’m pulling up “hardy” Himalayan blackberries and “architectural” Japanese knotweed this weekend in my Seattle Garden! I thank the scientists who study invasive plants so that the next kudzu can be identified before it takes over.

  5. I would reverse that axiom about gardening versus nature worship; gardening is more like pornography in that it is a fantasy of dominance and control to serve only the interests of humans, whereas what he is calling nature worship is interacting with the plant world as it is for the mutual benefit of all kingdoms of life.

  6. Collectors of exotic plants were amongst the first to react to the mania about “invasive” plants. Invasive Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience was written by David Theodoropoulus in 2000. He is an importer and seller of seeds—including some non-natives—who reacted to the federal effort to restrict all such imports to a small approved list, called the “white list.” Although he isn’t a scientist, his book is primarily a literature review of the many scientific studies that refute the assumptions of invasion biology. It’s an engaging and controversial read.

    But there are more voices with new concerns entering this debate. Here is a website about the projects in the San Francisco Bay Area that are destroying over one million trees because they are non-native, in a place where there were few native trees. And these projects are using a lot of toxic herbicides to destroy non-native vegetation in parks, exposing the public to this health hazard.

  7. The plant in the picture next to the pansies is also a genus of garden plants–bergenia, but around here we call it Pigsqueak. Hold it’s leaf between thumb and index finger. Rub your digits together just right until you get a……pig squeak. Keep trying, you’ll get it and then fall on your ass laughing.

  8. Let me start by laying on compliments, I am a fan of garden rant, probably my favorite and probably only gardening blog that I visit on a regular basis and I’ve never felt a need to comment. Second I have huge admiration for plant explorers like Panayoti Kelaidis, Tony Avent, etc. Their work is fascinating and valuable. There is also some jealousy, I would love to be able to do what they do some day!

    Then there’s the invasive tangent. I’ve thought about it for a couple of days and thought a response was warranted. Like so many hot button issues the truth lies somewhere in the gray area in the middle, not the extremes on either side of the issue. So first I think it was the wrong question to ask. Asking about the connection between plant collecting and introducing “exotics” and potentially invasive plants was repeating a weak argument from one side of the issue. I think Garden Rant does just fine when it isn’t trying to stir the pot and create controversy. You were baiting PK and he bit. While he had some good points in his response they were mainly lost with him calling invasives “bullshit” and “invented”. Going to the other extreme is not productive. I’m not even sure what “scientist” from Seattle he’s referring to, but I don’t need to, I see the effects of invasive plants all around me. I don’t assign blame, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Native plant purists are often attacked instead of finding common ground, there’s probably a lot in common, including a love of plants. I think there are better arguments that move us all closer to the complex reality we live in.

  9. A great man from my homestate! I appreciate his research and especially the plants he brings back to the botanical garden!

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