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Plant Hunters

CREDIT: Darwin Initiative Project 162/11/010

For British plant hunter John Wood, few endeavors are quite as satisfying as retracing the steps of an 18th century explorer. In the late 1970s, Wood retraced Peter Forsskål's journeys in Yemen; Forsskål discovered many new plant species before succumbing to malaria more than 200 years before Wood's adventures. “Many of these plants were never refound in Yemen until I went back,” Wood says.

“Collecting is physical work, and it is often done in remote areas under primitive and physically challenging conditions.” -- Robert Scotland

It may seem old-fashioned, but plant collecting is still an important scientific endeavor. “That is the primary way we discover new species,” writes Gerrit Davidse, a researcher and curator of grasses at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, in an e-mail to Science Careers. With an estimated 350,000 flowering plant species in existence and 280,000 of them now known, described, and named, “that leaves still ca. 70,000 to be discovered,” Davidse writes.

Today, medicines, vehicles, and GPS have made the work of plant collectors safer and a bit easier, but the basic techniques and challenges remain the same as they were in Forsskål’s time. It takes a particular set of skills and personal attributes to do the job. “These individuals are self motivated, have the ability to withstand hardship, probably have a great eye and photographic memory,” writes Robert Scotland, a reader in systematic botany at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail.

Such individuals must also have a thirst for adventure and be willing to sacrifice some comfort and job security. Most plant hunters either live on short-term contracts or take permanent positions with other responsibilities. But for passionate plant collectors, the thrill of the hunt is difficult to match.

Doing the picking

At its simplest level, all you need to collect plants is a notebook, a plant press, and some newspapers for drying. What sets professional collectors apart from amateurs is the ability to find new and interesting material. “You need to have some understanding of the plants you are collecting, ... an awareness of what’s different, what’s unusual, what’s potentially interesting,” says Wood, who has been working at the University of Oxford with Scotland as a senior research associate for more than a decade. “Good observational skills and knowledge of a local flora are very important,” Davidse writes.

CREDIT: Zachary Rogers/Gerrit Davidse
Gerrit Davidse collecting a DNA sample from the grass Zizaniopsis miliacea in a roadside ditch in Butler County, Missouri, in 2011.

Then, one needs to know how to harvest scientifically useful material. For traditional taxonomic studies, it is important to harvest specimens that include "fruits and flowers, and the root systems; something that shows what the plant generally looks like," Wood says. By drying the plant material quickly using the sun or silica gel, collectors can ensure that it is also suitable for molecular sequencing. It takes practical expertise to adequately dry and preserve plants -- and keep them that way all the way back to the institution, Wood says.

Just as important is to record complete data, including the date and place of collection, what the plant looked like, the environment in which it was found, and geographical features like altitude, says Mark Watson, a principal scientific officer at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. “It’s going to take you quite a long time to get everything together,” including good digital photographs of the plant, so patience is important, he says.

Preparing for an expedition

Nowadays, most major expeditions are in developing countries because the flora there tends to be less well-explored. Outside of the obvious logistics of traveling -- getting vaccinations, mapping out how to get to your destination, and so on -- you need to build strong contacts with local botanists and obtain all the relevant permissions from the host country, as well as from the receiving country if you intend to ship living plants.

You also need to take care of the logistics of the field trips, from arranging to take along sufficient food and water to hiring people to help. Wood likes to travel light, so he generally limits his treks to 4 days before returning to the base, usually taking a local guide, friend, or collaborator with him. Watson mostly goes on much longer, collaborative expeditions, up to 4 weeks. “To get five botanists on a trek-based expedition in Nepal takes about 40 staff on the trekking side to help you,” including porters, cooking staff, and Sherpa guides, he says.

While planning is important, you must be prepared to improvise. “You may have a general idea of where you want to go, but there is no way that you can know exactly how you are going to get there” until you ask people in the region, says Thomas Croat, a researcher and curator of botany at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Also difficult to know in advance is exactly how you are going to operate once you are there, so make sure you take sufficient equipment along with you or ship things ahead of time so that you can improvise solutions. “You have to plan to be able to fabricate things on your own, … because you can’t rely on the materials or the supplies being there,” Croat says.

CREDIT: Thomas Croat
Thomas Croat's 100,000th plant, collected near Mindo, Ecuador.

Working and living in the wild

Often, the most interesting places to collect plants are the most difficult to access and live in. “Collecting is physical work, and it is often done in remote areas under primitive and physically challenging conditions,” Scotland writes.

Be prepared to spend days trekking, cutting through forests using a machete, and climbing up and down cliffs and trees. You also need to be able to tolerate nuisances such as plants that can provoke allergic reactions, ticks that get inside your clothes, and bees that attack if you disturb their nests. Weather conditions can be inconvenient, Watson says. Roads can be so muddy that you get stuck, adds Wood.

Staying well and safe is especially important in the field. “If you’re 3 days’ walk from the nearest way of getting to a road-type thing," getting medical care is "a bit more tricky,” Watson says. Dangers include close encounters with wild animals like snakes, getting lost, and being caught in the middle of conflicts. Many of the more interesting areas for plants are politically difficult, Wood says. “I’ve had bullets going over my head in Yemen, not aimed at me, but getting caught in between two groups fighting each other.”

CREDIT: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh/Mark Watson
Mark Watson at work identifying plants.

One essential quality for plant collectors is to “be very adaptable to changing situations, because whenever you’re in the field, you’re constantly having to reappraise things, and if you’re very set in your ways, ... then you’re just going to get very uptight,” Watson says. You also need passion and dedication. “If you’re not that really interested in the plants and collecting and recording, then you are just going to get pretty miserable,” Watson adds. Finally, a large dose of persistence is necessary. “You have to learn to get around everything,” Croat says.

Collecting rewards

Collecting plants in the wild also offers rewards. Foremost, perhaps, is the fulfillment of scientific curiosity. “To really appreciate the plants you’re working in, you need to go and see them alive in their natural environments,” Watson says.

You can also “get a real buzz” from recognizing a new species on the spot, Watson adds, although this is a rare experience. Usually, identifying plants is a long and painstaking process that most often happens in an herbarium or a botanical research institution. The way it usually goes is, “you get something, you haven’t seen it before, you dry it, you preserve it, you send it to someone or you study it, and it becomes obvious as you work through the literature that it doesn’t match any other species that’s already described, and so after a gap of a year or two and sometimes a lot longer, it becomes obvious that it’s a new plant,” Wood says.

CREDIT: Darwin Initiative Project 162/11/010
John Wood at work pressing plants.

Watson, whose expeditions often involve scientists from several disciplines and countries, particularly enjoys sharing knowledge with colleagues. “There’s nothing like being in the field together, camping for 3 weeks, to build strong collaborative relationships,” he says. Adding to the thrill of adventure are the rewards of purposeful travel. “We’re experiencing the cultures of the lands that we go through, so getting to know the local people, how they live, how they use the plants around them is really interesting,” Watson says.

Career prospects

A common way to get started is on your own, by walking around your local countryside armed with a flora and a glossary of terms. “Just going out collecting plants and trying … to put names on plants, … you get familiar” with the technical terms used to characterize them, Watson says. “Sometimes special field technique labs are offered to students, or the basic techniques are explained during lectures in taxonomy courses,” Davidse writes.

But the best way to learn is to do fieldwork with experienced collectors. You can find such opportunities by associating with a botanical institute, a natural history society, or a research team. Volunteer to spend the summer helping botanists identify plants that they have harvested on previous expeditions, and let them know you are interested in contributing to future fieldwork, Watson advises. “I think there are good opportunities around, because not everybody is cut out for that kind of thing.”

The difficulty comes when you are trying to make a career out of it. Most plant collectors live off a series of short-term grants, and often, plant collecting is only part of their work, Scotland says. If you’re lucky, you may be able to land one of the few short-term positions on offer at botanical gardens, museums, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and environmental protection and conservation programs where collecting is a full-time activity, Davidse says.

CREDIT: Timothy Walker
Robert Scotland at Praia de Castelejo in southern Portugal, surrounded by the hoop petticoat daffodil.

The other approach is to seek a permanent position at a university or a research institution -- but these stable jobs are usually much broader. “Plant collecting although vital, difficult and demanding is not particularly recognized academically and therefore is often an adjunct to other activities,” Scotland writes. In academia, the usual path would be to become a systematic botanist, ecologist, or conservationist -- and as part of that career, do some plant collecting.

“In Victorian botany these individuals would be sponsored by plant nurseries here in the U.K. to bring back seeds and plants for the horticultural trade,” Scotland writes. Nowadays, “If anyone comes to you and says, ‘I want a career in plant collecting, the honest answer is saying ‘forget it,’ ” says Wood, who started collecting plants as a volunteer while working as an English teacher in developing countries. “However, if you are interested in this, then what you should look at is … careers or areas which would allow this, and perhaps require it, as part of your activities.” Over the years, and without formal training, Wood has been able to build up an extensive publication record and collect more than a hundred new species. “Certainly, contributing to research which enables botany or science to advance is satisfying,” he says.

Further Resources

Utah State University Intermountain Herbarium’s K-12 advice on plant collection

Research at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis

"Report of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Expedition to Central and East Nepal 2001", with Mark Watson as a participant

Thomas Croat’s videoed talk "A Lifetime of Plant Exploration"

"Big Hitting Collectors Make Massive and Disproportionate Contribution to the Discovery of Plant Species," with Gerrit Davidse and Robert Scotland as co-authors

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.