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 collector/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.)
– 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.