Modern Day Plant Hunter

Tom Hart Dyke first shot to international prominence in the year 2000, when he was kidnapped in the Colombian jungle on a plant hunting expedition that went dangerously wrong.

I’ve had some extremely exciting horticulturally endowed trips over my green filled lifetime. It’s been an absolute privilege following in the deep rooted traditions of plant hunters of past and present, travelling to the far flung corners of our green globe, risking life and limb in pursuit of some of the world’s most awe-inspiring plants.

I’m proving that modern day plant hunting still has its place in our ever changing communication rich ‘small world’. Honestly readers – there are so many plants still to be discovered!
My travelling jaunts have taken me to places from the high endemism filled volcanic archipelago of both The Canary Islands & Cape Verde Islands, to down under in Tasmania, seed collecting for the Royal Horticultural Society & Kent Garden’s Trust. From the snow capped Atlas Mountains in Morocco and an unforgettable orchid hunting foray funded by The Finnis Scott Foundation to the remote Mentawai Islands in Indonesia. You simply can’t beat observing plants in their native habitat to improve your plant husbandry back home. During these plant hunting forays I’ve succeeded in bringing back a number of plants in seed form that have helped establish the developing, botanically unique World Garden at have also given me the opportunity to share plant material with like minded plant orientated folk throughout the land, whilst at the same time developing a ‘conservation through cultivation’ angle by preserving threatened plants in cultivation should wild populations disappear. However not all of my plant hunting trips have gone so ‘horticulturally swimmingly’.

On March 16th 2000 – whilst Orchid hunting in the rainforest endowed Darien Gap, a friend and I found ourselves on the receiving end of an AK-47 stuck to our temples and were held hostage for 9-months before being released!

Since my Colombian Captivity - between 2005 and 2010 I’ve made five intrepid - safer - return journeys to South America, and just to give you a flavour of what flicks my horticultural switch, here’s my diary entry from one of my most memorable plant hunting expedition...

Central Peru 14th December 2009

During the past 3 weeks I’ve travelled over 1,800 miles, observing Peru’s kaleidoscopically endowed transitional landscape. From the Pacific desert coastline, that hasn’t seen a drop of rain in over 10 years, to the Glacial freezing Andes with hazardous scree endowed almost un-passable tracks at 17,000 feet (with your heart pumping dramatically, pushing out your rib cage till it almost splinters into a thousand fragments) to the sweltering humid laden heat of the Amazon Basin only a handful of feet above sea level.

Your senses are overloaded. All you can do is accept the altitude induced thumping headaches, the vomiting and emotional tearful outburst. By far the most awesome of all my botanically spine-tingling highlights was sensationally stumbling across an entire clump of the world’s largest flower spike. A one-in seventy-five year occurrence! It had been a childhood dream to see this aristocrat of the plant world.

The plant in question is the rare bromeliad (Pineapple relation!), Puya raimondii. Growing at over 14,000 feet above sea level where nothing else virtually grows. This is currently the finest stand of this endangered species in the world. Plants can take some 150 years to reach flowering size and after flowering the whole plant dies – in other words it’s monocarpic. Several specimens I observed were over 44 feet tall with over 10,000 whitish-yellow flowers borne per spike. Each flower spike can produce up to 10 million winged-papery seeds! The combination of these extraordinary imposing prickly aristocrats, the high altitude and seeing dozens of small hummingbirds hovering whilst pollinating this “Queen of The Andes” made me kneel down in overwhelmed admiration whilst bursting my dammed eye-lids; salty moisture flowing onto the UV parched free draining substrate. It was all emotionally too much – my chlorophyll had overheated, steam billowing from my eye holes and nasal cavities!

This is why I go plant hunting. TOTALLY ORGASMIC! Armed with a park ranger’s permit in hand I collected some seed. The World Garden at Lullingstone is now one of the few gardens in the world to cultivate this very rare stunner!