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First Flower

21st-Century Plant Hunter

Trekking through dense, remote forests in search of rare and wondrous species seems like a Victorian pursuit. But not to Dan Hinkley, a horticulturist who travels the globe today on a quest for exotic plants. As with the great plant explorers of previous centuries, what Hinkley brings back from his expeditions may not only enrich our gardens, it may even shed light on the evolutionary relationships among plants. For NOVA's "First Flower," producer Doug Hamilton journeyed with Hinkley and Chinese botanist Yin Kaipu through the Hengduan Mountains of southwestern China. This interview took place at a site where, two decades ago, Yin's mentor discovered a remarkable "hanging lily." See also five video outtakes shot in the Hengduan Mountains, at right.

Glimpsing a treasure

Q: To a plantsman like you who has seen thousands of plants around the world, what is special about coming here with Professor Yin and seeing the "hanging lily?"

Dan Hinkley: It felt almost as if I was being led to an original piece of artwork from a da Vinci or a Michelangelo that had been lost and then rediscovered. It's an extraordinary opportunity to look at something that's subtle and yet so beautiful, intricate, and meaningful. It was a real thrill to see it.

Q: Were you disappointed that it's not in flower?

Hinkley: Not at all. It wasn't disappointing to me in the slightest that it wasn't in flower or ripe with fruit. I could observe the design of it, which was just so different and unique to the genus. Indeed, it's aptly named "the flying lily." Had I seen even the weathered foliage of it, I would have been equally satisfied.

Q: You seem to have a particular fascination with lilies.

Hinkley: I have been infatuated with the genus Polygonatum for many years. I've looked at species all around the world, and I find something extraordinarily beautiful about them. And this one we're looking at is a very rare plant, represented only by a very few individuals, and it's hanging onto life in a most specialized way. It's completely pendulous, unlike all the other species that I've ever seen. It's really exquisite.

Q: What is important about seeing this plant in the place where it was found?

Hinkley: Well, I can appreciate this experience on many different levels. This is the place where this plant was discovered. So it has that really personal and historical reference that I find very exciting and endearing, especially to see it with the professor [Yin Kaipu], who is the student of the person who discovered it.

On another level, it speaks so loudly of what diversity there is out there in the trees of the world, in the rain forest, and in that upper level. If it hadn't been for Professor Liu Zhaoguang that day looking up at just the right time and seeing it, it's likely that this plant would still be unknown. And the less aware we are of those plants that are up there, the more likely it is that they're going to be discarded without ever having been discovered. It speaks really loudly of how many species are still there waiting for someone to stop and look up and see them.

Q: Is the chance to have such discoveries part of what drives you?

Hinkley: Well, you know, all of us want that moment. The discovery was so special for this professor [Liu] that he wanted to be buried near it. There is that adrenaline that is pumped into the system when one thinks that you're looking at a plant for the very first time. I can appreciate what he must have felt like on the day he saw it. Maybe, if I'm lucky, before I die that same experience will happen to me.

Meddling with nature's charms

Q: Would you have wanted to collect seeds from this lily?

Hinkley: No. There has to be a reason to take seed away from nature, and I can look at this plant and see that its specialized habitat could never be replicated in cultivation. It's best left precisely where it is and appreciated here. While it might be considered the ultimate collector's plant, I would never risk taking a piece of it away from here, because I know what a challenge it would be to simply keep it alive.

Q: We're here during the summer when we are more likely to see plants in flower. But you generally go on your collecting expeditions in the fall. Why is that?

Hinkley: I've come to Asia on many occasions in the autumn simply because that is the time most seed ripens. It's my opportunity to look for ripened fruit to then take home and try to cultivate. But collecting seeds is not the only motive that I have. I want to learn about the individual plants by seeing them in their natural setting—their associations, how they grow, where they want to grow. This trip I will leave without any seed, without any propagatable material, but I am going to be wealthy in terms of the information I can share with other people.

"We've lost the charms of nature, the fragrances, and just the subtleties."

Q: Is there a big difference between wild plants and the garden flowers we're used to seeing?

Hinkley: Well, so much of ornamental horticulture is a refinement of the raw data found in nature. From the time people first began cultivating plants, they began to improve them. We wanted to make a more fruitful grain, a larger-eared corn, a larger potato, a disease-resistant apple. And the same thing has been applied to ornamental horticulture. That's why, at times, there's such a difference between what we see in the wild and what grows in our gardens. We don't see large hybrid clematis or enormous blousy peonies as being part of the natural world. Indeed, they're not part of it; they're refined, highly refined "sugar" in many ways.

Q: Do you think the "showy" garden flowers improve on nature?

Hinkley: Quite frankly, I appreciate more fully a plant in its simple charms. The hydrangeas are good examples, where there's such beauty and simplicity in the plant in its original state that I find that's beauty enough for me. I hate to say it, but there's a certain degree of vulgarity, in my mind, in those plants that have become just over the top by us meddling with them, whether that's a daylily, or a hosta, or many of the annuals that we grow. We've lost the charms of nature, the fragrances, and just the subtleties. I mean, many of the garden plants have become botanical versions of Pamela Anderson.

E. H. Wilson: a rare human being

Q: Tell us about one of your predecessors, the great early 20th-century plant hunter Ernest H. Wilson.

Hinkley: Wilson was a rare breed of a person. He was a brilliant field botanist, but he was also a gardener. And on top of that, he was able to translate the excitement that he felt about a plant into written material that the general public could understand. So he brought the wonder of the natural world, the botany of the natural world, to the doorstep of the everyday gardener. That's the reason I have such great admiration for what he did.

Q: What plants did he bring to the gardens of Europe and North America?

Hinkley: Oh, there are tremendous numbers. I have a three-volume set called Plantae wilsonae, which lists all of his introductions. It's staggeringly huge. Some are particularly famous, such as Lilium regale, the regal lily. Wilson's so-called "lily limp" came from breaking his leg while collecting that species of lily right here, not far from where we sit today. But also there are things such as the dove tree, Davidia involucrata. He was in a race with the French to bring it into cultivation for the very first time. It was known to have existed in Sichuan, and there was an enormous contest to see who would get to it first. Indeed, Wilson lost that contest. But he was the first to photograph it in the wild.

How extraordinary it must have been to walk through these mountains and more or less cherry-pick all of these plants that had never been described before. I don't mean to imply that he was taking only the best, but he had the opportunity—this was 100 years ago—he had a completely uninventoried forest flora to his avail.

"The number of plants here that still have not been successfully entered into cultivation is staggeringly huge."

Q: What motivated Wilson and other plant explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries?

Hinkley: I think it was a renewal of the Age of Discovery; it was a renaissance. Earlier, explorers had sailed off and charted the globe and found all these novelties of nature—kangaroos and cockatoos and kiwis. But they had ignored some of the less imaginative life-forms. Then, during the golden age of gardening in Victorian England, it became the rage to have these plants and cultivate them for the first time. At that point, collecting reached a fevered pitch. And it was for the good of gardeners.

Q: In the literature, these plant explorers seem to be thought of as celebrities.

Hinkley: Certainly, yeah. They were the rock stars of their time and celebrated for good reason. What they went through to do this work is a far, far cry from what anyone does today. I am always quick to point out that plant exploration of the 21st century does not remotely compare to what those people went through to describe plants and bring them into cultivation 100, 150, 200 years ago.

Q: How did their challenges compare to yours?

Hinkley: Well, a bee sting here and a leech bite there—that hardly compares to breaking one's leg and being carried out for days on a mule afterwards. It certainly does not compare with being on a boat across the ocean for three months before you even get to the shore of the country you're going to. I think about that every time I'm sitting in business class on United Airlines for that horrible 12-hour flight to Beijing or Chengdu. I catch myself bemoaning those long sits in the plane and the airline food, and then I remind myself what the early explorers went through. They were away from their families for years. It wasn't just months or weeks; it was years at a time that they were living here and doing their collection work.

Preserving the Mother of Gardens

Q: What did Wilson call China?

Hinkley: Wilson referred to it as the "Mother of Gardens," and he was probably paraphrasing what people who had come here before him had said. That's certainly one of his more well-remembered quotes, and it resonates to this day. The number of plants here that still have not been successfully entered into cultivation is staggeringly huge.

People tend to think that with modern transportation and the amount of exchange between cultures that all the plants that are worth growing in our gardens are already there. But it's one thing to come in and to see them; it's another thing to get to them when they are fruiting, when they are actually producing seed, and then to get that seed home and successfully germinate it and turn it into a cultivatable plant. That's a whole other story. So there's still an enormous resource here throughout all of Asia, but particularly in western China.

"We need to know what is surviving at this moment in time on the planet."

Q: What are some garden plants that we are familiar with that originated in China?

Hinkley: For anyone across North America who considers themselves a keen gardener, or even a weekend gardener, they have come in association with the plants that we are surrounded with right now. Whether it be the ferns, the maples, the rhododendrons, camellias, the lilies, the irises, the daylilies, even the hostas, we're in their place of origin, right here. This is where they came from.

That doesn't necessarily mean that this is where they first evolved. They may have been right in our own backyards, North America, 10 million years ago. North America just happened to be wiped clean by the last ice age, whereas this part of China simply was not; it was spared. It was [what botanists call] a refugium, a refuge for the plants, and that is why the diversity still holds here to such a degree. [For a glimpse of some of the most spectacular transplants from China to gardens of the West, see Mother of Gardens.]

Q: How does the plant diversity here in China compare to that in North America?

Hinkley: We wouldn't think the flora of North America is lacking when we walk up the mountains of the Rockies and the Cascades and the Appalachians, but in a relative sense, we are quite poor. In my own state, in Washington State for instance, we have fewer than 3,000 species of higher plants, but right here on this one mountain in Sichuan, there are over 3,000 species in just a few square kilometers. And that kind of diversity can be seen over and over again across western China.

Q: Several international organizations have called for an effort to protect this area. What's at stake here?

Hinkley: It's as important to protect a place like this as it is to protect the forests in North America or Central America, Australia or New Zealand. Every single slice is still filled with plants and with animals, insects, amphibians, and all life-forms that we still have not inventoried. We don't yet have a reference point for what life is on this planet. We're going back and looking at what once existed here through fossil evidence, but we still yet don't have a clear idea of what lives right now. We need to know what is surviving at this moment in time on the planet.

Play Video
Flying Lily

In this video extra, see how Dan Hinkley was led to the site of the "flying lily" and the grave of its discoverer. See other outtakes below.
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By the side of a road, Hinkley examines a wild hydrangea more demure than its cultivated counterparts.
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Professor Yin shows off a wild rose that E. H. Wilson collected for the gardens of North America and Europe.
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Jumping from their vehicle, Yin and Hinkley climb to a welcome find—a lily that Ernest Wilson introduced to the West.
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Hinkley marvels at the display of good garden design that he finds in a completely natural setting by the side of a mountain stream.
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Hinkley in element

Hinkley in his element, enjoying the splendor of an alpine meadow high in China's Hengduan Mountains

Interview conducted in the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan Province, China in the summer of 2006 by Doug Hamilton, producer of "First Flower," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA online

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