The Indiana Joneses of the Plant World


We’ve got a treat of a feature in the March 21 issue for all you plant lovers out there.

I spoke to the wonderfully named Dr Sandy Primrose (what are the odds?) about his book on plant hunters.

These intrepid explorers searched far and wide for new species. Originally to decorate the gardens and orangeries of the super-rich and the Botanic Gardens, the job sort of disappeared during the war years, before re-emerging in the late 20th century as conservation missions.

In the course of putting this interview together for the page, I had to “prune” some of the answers Sandy gave us, which was a shame. The whole conversation was fascinating.

Here’s a couple of those answers that you won’t see in the mag — about orchid hunters. Don’t miss the full interview in this week’s issue!

What are some of your favourite stories of the plant hunters?

“The story which I really like is the one of Tom Hart Dyke in Central America. His team got captured by the FARC guerillas.

“I like two things about it. One is that he and his friend who was also captured decided one day they would play cricket and they got this piece of fruit and a stick and his friend bowls the piece of fruit, hits it with the stick and it goes ‘splat’ all over the leader of the guerrillas who were keeping them captive!

“He thought that was the end of them. And the other was his pal had a pair of boxer shorts with something like Micky Mouse or Donald Duck, and this FARC guerrilla comes in and she wants them! You can’t believe it, can you?”

In the book, Sandy tells the story of how Tom and his team were searching for orchids in the roadless area between Central American and South American called the Darien Gap.

They didn’t see a single one before FARC captured them.

Tom and team spent months in captivity, convinced they wouldn’t make it alive.

The guerrillas eventually released them. But in the end they had to turn back to the guerrilla camp and ask for directions to the nearest town!

Sandy devotes a whole section of the book to orchid hunters, who he describes as a breed all of their own. Adventurous to the point of putting their own lives in danger.

Photograph by Ed de Vogel.

These orchid hunters — what is it that makes them so special?

“The interesting thing is that orchid hunters are all men, and they are absolutely fixated by it.

“If you look at ornamental plants, there are female collectors. And same in the Botanic Gardens and so on . . . but orchid hunters?

“Orchids are a male thing (I don’t know why). They just get besotted with them.

“I think they’re nice to look at but I don’t get excited by them!”

Don’t miss the full feature in this week’s issue.

For more from Alex, read his blog here.

Alex Corlett

Alex is the "Friend's" Features Editor, working with the talented Features Team to bring you everything from cryptic crosswords to financial advice, knitting patterns to international travel and inspirational real life stories. Always on the hunt for a new feature idea, Alex also enjoys cycling and loves a good tea room.