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May 09, 2008

Renaissance Man: Ode to Taxonomists

Flowers at the Chelsea Physic Garden


Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. Last week, Mark "mastered" golf in Scotland.  His next task: gardening in England.

The second greatest irony of running a 300-plus-year-old botanical garden with more than 5,000 individual plants is that you tend to lose track of a few of them. In a garden dedicated to the ordering and preservation of the plant kingdom, gardeners occasionally happen upon a shrub, a flower, or a blade of grass that causes them to ask the very same question you or I might: "What on earth is this?"

Luckily, there are people who spend their entire lives coming up with answers for what on earth things are. They're called taxonomists, and they have nothing to do with the egregious sums we're all forced to fork over to the government. The most famous taxonomist ever was a Swede named Carl Linnaeus. He came up with the system of naming plants and animals whereby we use two Latin names, and he was the first to divide organisms into kingdoms, orders, genera, and species. Linnaeus visted the Chelsea Physic Garden. There stands a small patch of garden dedicated to the towering influence he had on the field. To this day serious gardeners--even serious hobby gardeners--refer to plants in Latin.

(It's also worth noting that Linnaeus was a serious Renaissance man in his own right, recognized as a physician and zoologist as well as a botanist. As a physician, he specialized in the treatment of syphilis. Undoubtedly, he heard some pretty crazy stories.)

The Chelsea Physic Garden has its own taxonomist. His name is David Frodin. Born and raised in Chicago, he did his PhD in Cambridge and spent 15 years in Papua New Guinea, where, while battling bouts of malaria, he discovered a number of new species of plant. At the Chelsea Physic Garden, he's spent the last five years putting together a catalog of all the plants, including the unknown ones, which means he has to find out what they are. A volunteer named Marcia, who hails from Brooklyn originally, collects mystery specimens from the garden, dries them out, and stores them in the garden's herbarium.

Occasionally, they come upon a genuine botanical mystery. Awhile back, a hosta was found that didn't seem to correspond to the known varieties of hosta. After much inquiry, they finally realized it was something new, a hybrid that had come into its own right there at the Chelsea Physic Garden. More recently, a small daffodil with a cream-colored flower was found. Despite the fact that it was sitting in a small greenhouse and growing cutely in a pot, no one had ever seen such a daffodil before. More to the point, no one seemed to know if it had a name or not.

Marcia dried it and filed it in the herbarium. Soon enough, it will make its way to David Frodin's desk, where he will attempt to find its match in one of the botanical reference books he keeps in his office. That in itself could take a rather long time. There are pages and pages on daffodils.

Frodin's office radiates learnedness. If you ever wanted to sit down and write a treatise or a monograph, with its packed bookshelves and soft light, it seems like just the place to do it. I spent a few minutes in there with Frodin. He showed me the catalog so far. It's already many inches thick. I asked if there were any other mysteries at the garden. "There is one other," he told me, and then took me over to the door and out onto the fire escape. Standing outside, we took in the view. Beneath us were spread more than 6,000 plants representing almost 4,000 different species. Frodin can name almost every one. Only inches away from us, the railing of the fire escape was bearded in a climbing vine. Frodin pointed at the vine and said, "This one."

And that is the greatest irony at the Chelsea Physic Garden. The closest plant to David Frodin's office sits furthest away from his field of knowledge. To get to the bottom of it, Frodin will have to take a cutting to the Royal Horticultural Society office at Wisley, where there is also one stunner of a horticultural garden. In the meantime, Frodin has his own suspicions. "I think it's a member of the moonseed family," he said. I'm in no position to disagree.

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