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Adventures of a Modern Day Plant Hunter

Tim Woods tells tales about a trip to Korea hunting for new plants.

Contributors: Tim Wood

As we got closer to the Yellow Sea the greater my sense of concern. The rain was pelting against the windshield of the bus so hard the wipers seemed useless. A sick feeling was building in my stomach. What have I done? It was I who convinced Dale Deppe, the owner of Spring Meadow Nursery to go to Korea in search of plants. And now, the two of us were on bus heading to the coast straight into a Typhoon! No wonder we were the only passengers on the bus! At first, the Korean scenery had looked hopeful, even here, we saw plant nurseries and poly greenhouses scattered along the highway, but soon my spirits sank. The rain came down harder and although we still saw the occasional greenhouse, the structures now lay three feet deep in brown muddy water. Washed out roads, rice fields that looked like expansive lakes and a report that eight people had been washed away fueled my worries. This was my introduction to plant hunting in Asia. We had unknowingly came during typhoon season.

I'd heard plant hunters Berry Yinger and Dan Hinkley tell of their travels, filled with high adventure, adversity and the general tribulations of wild collecting in Asia, but my plant collecting practices are quite different. More like business trips than romantic adventures, I search out plant enthusiasts, plant breeders and growers in the hope of finding ornamental plants with commercial promise. My plant hunting philosophy is simple. The odds of finding a commercially interesting plant in Asia are much better in a nursery than out in the woods or on the side of a mountain. Local nurserymen and plant enthusiasts know the local flora better than I could ever dream to know  in an 8 day visit. I had come to Korea to find new plants for the American nursery market, but as we traveled into our first typhoon, it was difficult to remember why we came, and if it had been such a good idea after all?

Our journey actually began a year earlier, back in my office in Michigan. I had been reading Dendroflora, a plant journal published by the Royal Boskoop Horticulture Society.  I was pouring over the latest issue looking for clues that might lead me to a new plant or plant breeder.  Although my Dutch is worse than poor, I was able understand an article on Hibiscus syriacus, more commonly know as Rose of Sharon. It’s a showy flowering shrub that has big colorful blooms in late summer, ant it’s hardy enough to grow out of doors in Northern climates. A small footnote in the article cited a collection Hibiscus syriacus at Mirim Botanical Garden in South Korea that cultivated over 150 different varieties. Unbelievable! Our nursery has perhaps the largest collection of Hibiscus syriacus in North America and we only have thirty six cultivars. This was the lead I had been looking for. A source for something new and exciting for the hungry American plant market. Few plants offer the blast of summer color that Hibiscus syriacus does, and not much has happened in this genus since the National Arboretum released it triploid, Greek Goddess series back in the mid eighties. Although these are beautiful plants, they are weak growing hybrids that lack sufficient hardiness. We were looking for something better.

Although my first love is horticulture, my position as Product Development Manager forces me to act as much like a detective as well as a plantsman.  Years back, I read of an American expatriate, Carl Ferris Miller, who had stayed on in South Korea after World War II.  He had fallen in love with Korea, given himself a new Korean name and had changed his citizenship, being only one of only two Americans ever to do so.  Working as a stock broker in Seoul during the week and as an amateur botanist in the weekends, Miller, almost unknowingly, built a private arboretum about three hours south of Seoul in a small fishing village called Chollipo. Mr. Miller was our door into Korean Horticulture. Certainly he would lead us to meet the right plant people in Korea but I did not know his new name and had no idea how to locate him. My next big break came when I stumbled upon a web page published by an amateur Hibiscus enthusiast (members.tripod.cpm/~h_syriacus).  I had found the most comprehensive listing of Hibiscus cultivar descriptions ever compiled. What a wonderful invention the internet is, providing the common man or woman the opportunity to freely publish to a worldwide audience on topics as obscure as Hibiscus syriacus!  I downloaded addresses and telephone numbers for several Korean contacts, including Mr. Miller's Chollipo address. At last, I had the beginnings of a rough itinerary.

Driving closer to the coast, my doubts and misgivings increased. I had written to all of my intended contacts months before our departure, but only a few had written back. I had come to learn that Koreans don't use traditional street numbers for addresses. Supposedly street numbers are a Japanese invention, and anything Japanese is not to be accepted in Korea.  The mail delivery relies primarily upon the quality of the mail carrier. When mail arrives in a village or neighborhood it’s up to the mailman and his memory to do the rest. Fortunately, I had received confirmation from Chollipo. Miller had instructed his staff there to assist us, for he would be in Outer Mongolia when we arrived. The assistance of the Chollipo staff was key if we were to effectively fill our two week itinerary and have any success finding plants. As our express bus stopped in village after village, I wondered if each one was our stop and how we would know with any certainty. Would the typhoon ruin all of our plans? What would become of the other typhoon that was building in the Pacific Ocean.  I had been warned that August in Korea would be hot and humid, akin to summer in Houston, but no one had warned me about the typhoons. August is not the time to vacation in Korean between the typhoons, the heat and humidity, but we did not come to vacation. My contacts had specified that peak Hibiscus bloom would be the second week in August, so here we were, driving into a typhoon.

When we reached the end of the line, the bus driver signaled toward the exit and smiled. Pleased with his driving skills and recognizing the tension of the long drive he offered us cigarettes as we departed the Hyundai bus into the storm.  I took the cigarette out of politeness, but it was soon too wet to light. The torrential rains had soaked it and us as we ran the six long feet to a small roadside tent that served as a bus depot.  We had arrived in Mollipo, South Korea a summer tourist town without any tourists, only two wet Americans and a roadside tent / bus depot / convenience store.  My instructions were to call the arboretum once we arrived, but the tent had no telephone. The shopkeeper pointed across the road to a phone booth, after I mimed a telephone call holding my empty hand up to my face.

Few people hunt plants in Korea. China and Japan are much more exotic, romantic and productive. Hunting in Europe has the distinct advantage in that we share a common alphabet, which greatly enhances travel, overall communication and your sense of security. We chose Korea for those same reasons most people don’t. Few others have been to Korea to look for plants so we faced less competition. Another unique feature favoring Korea is that Hibiscus syriacus is their national flower. Even though it’s native to Syria, the Koreans have adopted the flower as their own. In some manner, it has the symbolic significance of a unified Korea, North and South. We saw the significance of Hibiscus syriacus on several occasions during our trip. At a government research station we saw a field planted with of hundreds of Hibiscus laid out in the shape the Korean peninsula, with each state having a different flower color. We were guests at the “National Hibiscus Festival” in Children’s Park in Seoul where politicians and dignitaries lined up at the podium to give speeches. To a couple of western nurserymen this all looked very important as we sweated under the intense Korean sun with our silk Hibiscus flowers pinned to our lapels.

Within seconds of dashing from the bus depot / tent to the phone booth across the street, my umbrella was contorted and useless. It didn’t take to long to realize that using a pay phone was futile. Back in the tent, armed only with my drenched puppy dog look and more telephone-like gestures I had convinced a local man to make our call on his cell phone. He motioned for us to get in out of the rain and into his car. But instead of a phone call, the man, much to our surprise, revved up his car and zipped up a narrow washed out dirt road. Helpless and wet best describes our condition. Our continued attempts to have him use his Sansung cell phone were as futile our pay phone attempt. Trusting in the goodness of people was our only option at this point so we sat back and enjoyed the bumpy ride to who knows where.

Plant hunting trips are a crap shoot. You never know what you will find. You are certain to find something new or rare but to find a really good ornamental shrub is another story.  Many of our customers’ clients are at war the big mass merchandisers. When fighting Goliath, you’re not going to win fighting it out on price, because you just don’t have the purchasing power of a big chain. Independent garden centers have successfully resorted to offering better service and better products. New and improved plant varieties are an essential weapon in their battle. That’s one of the reasons we look for new plants. But a plant has to be more than just new. People want color and easy care, and to get them to buy a plant, it needs lots of appeal. We’re not just hunting for plants, we’re hunting for commercially viable plants and that’s a lot more challenging.  Often we come home with nothing, but that’s not to say the trip was a waste. It’s a slow process that takes commitment and patience. If we meet the right people and establish the right kind of relationship, they’ll remember us when or if they ever develop or discover a new plant. 

Our immediate goal was the Chollipo Arboretum, so when our unnamed driver pulled into an apartment complex we felt somewhat confused. With the typhoon raging on and a storm of  conversation between our driver and some of the apartment dwellers, we were taken aback when one of the tenants, speaking in perfect English greeted us and welcomed us to Chollipo Arboretum. No, we did not discover any new and exciting plants at Chollipo, but all was not lost. The typhoon soon headed north, the sun came out and we had two great days in the arboretum. We made good friends, ate freshly caught, barbequed eels and washed them down with xozu (a strong potato wine). The eel wasn’t too bad and the Korean people were great. That night the storm knocked out the electricity, and we had a candlelight dinner of fish stew in a nearby fishing village. When the lights came back on we played ping pong with some of the Arboretum’s college interns. Although they spoke no English, and I spoke even less Korean, the oohs and aahs uttered after a vigorous volley or a surprisingly good shot by the American said it well enough. The Chollipo staff helped us set promising appointments, told us which buses and trains take, and called our appointments in advance. The sun was shining again.

Eight days in Korea can be a long time when you’re away from home, your wife, kids and a western style bed. It seems even longer when you’re not used to the 98 degree temperatures and 99 percent humidity.  When traveling the country side, we had a chance to experience the real Korea.  Sure, one of our hotels had ocean water in the tap, but what difference does this make when there’s no shower or bath anyway. The beds were no more than a quilt and a linoleum floor, but in some ways it was as enjoyable as Seoul Hilton where we stayed during the later days of our trip. While most westerners will never experience the sights and smells of a Korean fishing village, I feel fortunate to have seen this part of Korea.

After the South Korean Secretary of Agriculture finished his “Hibiscus Festival” speech, Dr. Shim, a local horticulture professor who studied at the University of Illinois, quickly pulled me aside and told me that a television crew was going to ask me some questions. He dragged us over to a series of scientific display posters and motioned for us to stay put. I like to think of Dr. Shim as the Mike Dirr of Korea. Both of them love plants and both share their knowledge enthusiastically. Dr. Shim was basking in the media, telling his fellow citizens how he had hybridized a series of new Hibiscus. This was the one day of the year, he later told us, that the media was interested in Hibiscus. He was not wasting his opportunity. Suddenly, all the cameras were pointed at me!  Dr. Shim whispered into my ear, “Tell the Korean people how much you love the new Hibiscus. Tell them your plans to introduce them in America.” 

“Dr. Shim has created the most beautiful new Hibiscus,” I said proudly basking in my fifteen seconds of fame. “The American people will love them,” I proclaimed as the sweat rolled down by brow.  Before the day was done, we were interviewed by yet another Korean TV station, but this time back at Dr. Shim’s research plots. “We love Dr. Shim’s new Hibiscus,” I shouted over the roar of F16 fighter jets playing war games overhead, “ … and the American people will too!”

We’re excited about these plants and believe they made the whole trip a great success, but only time will tell if the American people will love Dr. Shim’s new Hibiscus too. Plant hunting is like a crap shoot. Not all the plants you find will be winners. Our plants are locked in quarantine for two years. We’ll have to see how they perform and see if they have what it takes to be popular with the public. We also brought back other plants that have commercial  promise, but these too will have to be tested and evaluated in our climate. Regardless, whether a single plant ever makes the grade and gets into a garden center, our trip to Korean was a success. We formed some great new friendships in Korea and these friendships hold a wealth of promise. We had met with a university professor who studied at the University of Illinois, an Arboretum director with a PhD from Michigan State, a government researcher who attended NC state and a friend at the Chollipo Arboretum with whom I had studied with at Longwood Gardens some 20 years ago.

I recently saw the evening news where they showed leaders of North and South Korea hugging in public. This event was even more surprising than finding myself on Korean TV.  A new breed of Rose of Sharon, the symbol of one Korea, appears to have taken root. But as it is with new plants, its hard to tell this too successful in the long run. Dr. Shim is hopeful. He and others are breeding hardier strains of this beautiful plant. New plants that can endure the frigid winters of the North when it is reunited with the South. We too are hopeful for Hibiscus. It’s a beautiful plant that shines in the heat of the summer. Few plants deliver such color and have impulse appeal. Who can resist the beauty of this plant in full bloom? Sure, some plant snobs will turn up their nose at Rose of Sharon as too common, but fortunately most Americans aren’t plant snobs. So I’ll say it again, “…We love your Hibiscus Dr. Shim … the American people will too!”

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