May 10, 2009

Life Through the eyes of an Iconoclast- Josef Halda Visit

This past two weeks were busy with hosting the National Primula Society national meeting, hosting two cocktail parties, and having house guests, for both weekends from various plant societies and friends in the plant world, our last weekend involved a real treat, having Josef Halda from the Czech Republic for a house guest, as he passed through the Boston area on a speaking tour of North America for the North American Rock Garden Society. Being as we are, we tried to provide Halda with as normal an experience as we can arrange, complete with duck eggs for breakfast, dogs jumping in his bed, and fresh picked strawberries. With nothing too fancy, I think he had as good a time as we did, both at his talks, and hiking in the woods.

Josef Halda photographing lichens in a Massachusetts forest.

Trillium undulatum, the Painted Trillium, was lucky find in these acid woods.

We sort of knew that this would be an extraordinary weekend, but we never expected to have such fun, and to enjoy such company. This weekend actually began last january, when our friend and nurseryman, Harvey Wrightman, of Wrightman Alpines in Canada, called with the opportunity that Josef Halda might stay with us for a couple of days, while traveling through the US on a NARGS speaker tour. If you are unfamilar with Halda, here is a short bio I snipped from our past NARGs New England president's script, written by Helen Herold.

"In the way of many of his fellow Czech countrymen, Josef Halda traveled to the mountains a very early age, first with his grandfather and immediately he was drawn to the wonderful flowers. Encouraged by his family, he brought some home to grow in a garden. By the age of 12 he had his own collection of plants in his parents’ greenhouse. By age 16, he was corresponding with Lawrence Crocker, a partner in Siskiyou Rare Plants in Medford, Oregon and subsequently sent them cuttings of Daphne arbuscula, a very hardy evergreen Daphne which grows only on the limestone cliffs of the Muran Valley in Slovakia. This led to more correspondence with other growers in both Western Europe and North America. This is one of those remarkable occasions where gardening trumped politics, but, it would be another 20 years before Josef would travel to America.

He and his wife Jarmila have collected seed of new discoveries in Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia , West China and Upper Burma. Their Czech background has given then better access to remote regions in states of the former Soviet Union. Even now, travel can be restricted at best, or worse, dangerous. They have also researched and published monographs for Primula, Gentiana, Daphne, Paeonia and Androsace. The photos will portray both the plants we have never seen and the natural habitats which can hardly be described. From this vast region originate many of the hardy bulbs grown in our gardens. There are many more that are yet uncultivated; but may soon be here."

We did know that this would be a wonderful opportunity to be taken to another realm by one of the world’s great
field botanists and grower. And, we had been warned that anything could happen, as such things could when in the presence of genus. The unknown always is a bit intimidating, A visit could become hopelessly off track, lost in the formalities of cocktail parties and book signings, and with such greatness as that which comes in the aura of Josef Halda, one certainly could expect most anything, after all, here is a man who has slept for months in the high Himilayas, who has walked in the footsteps, quite literally of the worlds most infuencial botanical explorers from the 19th and 20th Centuries, such as Earnest.A.WIlson, Reginal Farrer and Frank Kingdon-Ward. What does one feed a guy who has lived for months off in High Burma eating the bulbs of Arisaema, boiled bulbs of Nomocharis and wild bamboo shoots? To make matters worse, when I asked what his favorite meat was, he responded with that although Red Panda and Tibeten Elk is good, he really like Blue Pheasant from the Chinese Bamboo forests above 10,000 feet....Surely this was not a Twinkies sort of guy. Simple, unpretentious seasonal delights were the safest best, roasted chicken, fresh arugula from the garden, the first French radishes of the year, nothing more needed. For gardeners like many of us who read this blog, we nod, for we are more about being real, and authentic experiences rather than displays of impression. Still, I secretly fantasize about a selfish weekend alone with no schedule, guests, no people, perhaps even alone, in a cabin, in mid May, with nothing but the sound of Tanagers and the early morning spring chorus of migrating birds, for the flora and fauna of May are rare and brief, and demand focused reverence best appreciated alone.

Note: When traveling on expeditions for the National Museum in London and Key, explorers can rarely carry in 9 months worth of food into the remote villages and high alpine areas of Burma, Tibet and China, so it is essential to be able to eat what the villagers do).

Fresh back from a long expedition last year in Burma, where he identified many new species of Gentiana and other high alpines on which he was going to speak on, Saturday at Tower Hill Botanic Garden near Boston, Josef Halda was also our house guest, and needed to endure two fiesty terriors, a parrot and a flock of ducks, as well as my cooking. Hopefully, this was going to be an adventure for him, too. After arriving Thurday evening, a day early, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, since we never have had the pleasure to meet Halda before ( many refer to Josef by his last name, I don't know why), I suppose, like Mozart, it comes with greateness. And, great, he was, but more so, he quickly became a friend and teacher, perhaps a not so inciteful yet strategic move by our esteemed tour planner, who decided that he should stay with us for the weekend, the parallels between Halda's home life and hours was so similar, that we spent two night laughing about how we both have African Gray Parrots, we both keep the egg laying ducks known as Indian Runners, we both kept honey bees, made Tilea tea and both have two dogs, we had the same camera, the same piano background, and we both collect a menagerie of plants, ranging from Hoyas to Hosta, cacti to Alpines, a habit often scorned upon by purists. Essentially, we connected on maby levels, and it was simply, nice. A bit of fun was had by all, I think. Josepf was not only a very generous and nice man, but his intelligence was humbly hidden deep below his humor, his infectious enthusiasm about many things.

Honestly, I was a bit apprehensive at first, for I had heard stories. "Halda might just 'go quiet' on you," "He might feel a little uncomfortable and just decide not to talk, or even may appear shy, introspective". People make me nervous too, but I wasn't sure what I was in for.
So I tried to imagine what I would feel like while on a one month tour of a country like the USA.....surely, I would be tired, if not exhaustested, but, after a meal of roast chicken and mashed potatoes,he was eager to go on a hike in the woods rather than sit and watch Oprah. He said that this was exactly what he wanted to do. After meeting him at the train station, after introductions etc, he said..." tomorow we see flowers, right?" "And indeed, my plans to go hiking were confirmed far before I needed to worry about agendas, mood, or even a glass of wine....all that was needed was a curious mind, a tired and over stimulated mind of a consumate plantsman, and 8 hours on a boring train tride starring out at swamps of skunk cabbage, ( which he never stopped romancing about!, white trillium grandiflorum ( which excited him from the window of the train ride through New York state.... and a woodland filled with the spring flush of new growth, the brilliant jewels of orange orioles, and the promise of ephemerals, migrating warblers and Erythronium americanum. Halda had one thing on his mind- a hike, the New England forest in mid May, is irrisistable, and we we're both in for a treat. He was primed for this hike.

The forest in the Wachusett Mountain Reserve, in Princeton, Massachusetts, on a May weekend.
I drive to work each day, on the same route, the same exits, the same highway and stores....I pass three different Home Depots, five different Gas stations and nine different Dunkin Donuts. So the idea of walking through a woodland is very appealing, especially one that is in peak growth, a unique trait of the deciduous forest like that found around where I live in Central Massachusetts, for here, the springtime is short, and intense. A multitude of woodland wildflowers must emerge, bloom, pollenate and bear fruit before the canopy of foliage in the trees matures by the first week of June, so these three weeks in May, bring the most amazing plants into bloom, and the idea that I could walk my favorite trail with on of the worlds most respected and influencial botanists, made this weekend extraordinary, even a gift.

I walked these woods often with a good friend,trail runing through the mud, mosquitos, avoiding snakes and wasps, laughing through drenching warm spring downpours as well as hot and humid August days when the forest would dry to a crackle in the summer heat, only relieved with an evening thundershower; recently, I have not made time to hike these woods, a state forest near me called Wachusett Mountain, a small, if not tiny ski area near Boston, but also a mountain ( New England sized hill, actually) with one of the last remaining mature growth forests in Massachusetts, and also, with it;s small elevation changed, a varied and rich flora. I knew of a colony of the Common Eastern Dogs Tooth Violet, Erythronium americanum, a yellow ephemeral that has such a short blooming season, that I too have missed its bloom every year, for all it can take for these earlt emergers is one day of warmth, and a honey bee, and they can call it a year. We found seed pods and spent bloom, but had to appreciate the mottled foliage of the plants, for of course, we were too late.Halda shoots a rare spotted Salamander

Still, we were rewarded with some perfect displays, such as the Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum, and even many forms of the Painted Trillium, Trillium undulatum, which excited Halda very much. It's funny how real plant people behave, when in the wild. We hardly talked, instead, eyes darted ahead, and off the trail, seeking a bright flash of color which might mean a colony of wood anemones or better yet, a clump of Mayflowers ( Epigea). Suddenly, one will yelp " Look.....look, oh my gosh, over here....." " No wait, look at this, OH WOW, unbelievble", and so our day went. All rather common discoveries, for these busy woods an hour west of Boston bore no new species or unundentified gems, since these are some of the most botanized areas of the world, we still came back with our Nikons full of images, and we were excited and whelmed with the joy of the simple woods in May . Instead of being the famous plant explorer and the toy designer, we were both like young boys,( but speaking in the common language of Latin, of course) exploring a backyard woodlot for the next cool thing. I experienced a new perspective of what I felt was common, if not a new appreciation for such everyday experiences as seeing a grove of Mountain Lauren, which I walk through often, suddenly become not just photo worthy but earned gasps of joy from one of the planets most well know botanists, how can't that change ones view of the common! On this mothers day, Mom was of course, right.....Perspective is everything.

A grove of mature Mountain Laurel ( Kalmia latifolia), along a trail in the Wachusett Mountain Reserve.

Even the mosses and Lichens were beautiful in the spring sunshine, especially given that much of the upper canopy of these forests was missing due to a severe and damaging ice storm this past December.

Josef Halda photographing Arisaema triphyllum, our native Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Even the common is uncommon, this unidentified violet, a tiny white species which I may go collect the seeds of, was growing in the rock crevices on the north west trail of the mountain, it excited Halda very much, and now, I can see why. How could I miss these things after dozens of hikes past it?

Our state wildflower, Epigaea repens, the Mayflower was a nice find since this is quite late in the season, to be in bloom. It's fragrant, white waxy flowers were found on only one colony on the north side of the mountain.
Our native pink ladyslipper, Cypripedium acaulis, remained elusive, mostly due to the fact that it is a few weeks early to find these acid lovers in bloom. This one was perhaps the closest to blooming.

The white Anemone quinquefolia, the Wood Anemone, a favorite of mine since it grows in the woods behind my home, was a late find, but this fine colony was found growing in the root system of a Beechnut tree. This one group had large flowers, nearly an inch in diameter.

Here we are at the end of Josef Halda's visit, with Mount Wachusett in the background, as seen from the terrace after his talk at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden. From Here, Mr. Halda travels on for his last weeks in the US on the NARGS speakers tour, to the Berkshire Chapeter next week in Stockbridge Massachusetts, and then the Manhattan Chapter. We wish his safe travels, and hope to visit him soon.


  1. Wow, what a great week for you...you guys will have to make a trip soon!

  2. What a fantastic post and what a great man.

  3. Anonymous7:43 AM

    The anemone is not nemorosa (Europe only), rather quinquefolia, our own native.

    And please do a quick spellcheck or proofread! The mistakes really take away from a good read.


  4. What a fantastic experience! I'm sure both of you mutually enjoyed the visit. It would be amazing to take a hike with Halda. I am also surprised to see that Cypripedium acaulis grows in such a wide distribution. I am in northern Canada (still snowing here) and these pink orchids grow in the forests all around our house.

  5. I enjoyed reading this post, learned some new things. Thank you!


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