A few years ago, I wandered through the Shanghai airport, clutched my backpack and wondered what in the world I’d been thinking when I agreed to join a plant hunting excursion to China with a leader and 10 fellow travelers I’d never met.
The Plan: The owner of a plant nursery, an experienced traveler, agreed to lead a plant hunting trip to China. A food corporation paid him and an interpreter along with seed company researchers to search for unique, edible plants.
The leader also invited a few “tag-alongs.” We paid our own way. I’m an amateur gardener who loves plants, and I have no Chinese language skills.
Preparation: I’d studied up on Kunming in the Yunnan district in southwest China, a botanically rich area for our proposed travel.
At the Shanghai airport, the leader announced, “We are heading west instead to an area previously closed to foreigners.”
For the rest of the trip, I felt as if I was in a travel fog, not knowing the lay of the land. Our leader was blunt: “I am not your travel agent.”
Food: With spotty refrigeration, we stuck to a vegetarian diet. During the day, I subsisted on packaged coconut-flavored crackers and tangerines. An occasional noodle shop in remote villages provided noodles and vegetable soup.
For dinner, we stopped at mom and pop eateries, sometimes overwhelming the family with a dozen customers. We pitched in to help peel winter squash, cut up beans and broccoli, and chop greens. Sometimes I added twigs to the wood burning stove to keep the woks hot for stir fry. A favorite dish: stir fried, freshly harvested Shiitake mushrooms.
Travels: Our journey took us to valleys hot and muggy where the air felt like the insides of a laundromat dryer. In cloud-capped mountains, I shivered while wrapped in my coat and curled into my sleeping bag.
We traveled in a van, on buses, on a train, on a workman’s boat up the Yangtze River, on a rickety tram and in a “sleeper” bus that consisted of sheets of plywood layered above the seats. I grabbed my sleeping bag and climbed onto my “extra-firm” bed. I felt like merchandise on a shelf in a hardware store. A lap belt kept me from being pitched onto the floor during the nighttime drive on a pothole-riddled road.
We circled past cities to reach hillside farms. In the shadow of skyscrapers, someone mentioned the name of a city we passed — Wuhan, a name I’d never heard of. I never imagined that in years to come, Wuhan would headline international news.
As we traveled, we collected samples from arboretums, town parks, remote farms, roadsides, woodlands and around Taoist temples — with permission.
At night, we cleaned seeds and labeled them. How does one determine the genus and species of a jewel-looking seed pod the farmer identifies as, “Snake bite cure?”
While others in the group chatted with farmers, I often looked for families with children and grandparents to engage with. Photos don’t show how delightful the children are and the deep, multi-generational bonds within families.
Great Find for One Who Has Lagged in Seed Collecting: A farmers’ store with hundreds of packets of commercially packaged vegetable seeds. Pictures of the vegetables on the cover, instructions in Chinese. All cleaned and labeled.
I cleared customs with no problems.
When I returned from traveling overseas, I scrubbed and disinfected travel gear including boots. I wondered if I appreciated the blessings of clean drinking water.
Family stopped by to welcome me home.
“Where’s Mom?” asked a family member.
“In the kitchen hugging her water faucet and fridge,” answered another.