Cheng Ho! Sailing and Trekking David Fairchild’s Legendary Journey

By Craig Morell, Director, The Kampong

In the golden age of plant collecting a century ago, botanical explorers traveled the world in search of rare and unusual plants. Unfettered by modern agricultural regulations, they explored remote regions at will, surveying and searching for botanical gardens around the world. Dr. David Fairchild was one such collector. Credited with more than 70,000 collections over half a century, Fairchild spent a great deal of time in the Pacific Islands, especially the East Indies. Many important food and ornamental plants were gathered on these trips, including new varieties of mangos, avocados, palms, flowering trees, and interesting new fruit trees.

Cheng Ho Journey

Fairchild had a Chinese junk called the Cheng Ho built especially for his 1940 journey. As chief plant collector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fairchild had the huge task of finding new plants to help feed America. Some of the plants photographed in his books and assembled on those trips were introduced and can be found at The Kampong today. Fairchild started the Office of Plant and Seed Introduction very early in the 20th century, giving him numerous opportunities to collect plants in many countries. Last September, I had the chance to retrace Fairchild’s extraordinary Cheng Ho journey.

Two years ago, Dr. Carl Lewis of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (FTBG) had an idea to revisit several of the islands where Fairchild traveled in 1940. The trip would also include a few islands left unvisited after Fairchild had to depart abruptly at the onset of World War II. What took David Fairchild weeks to reach — the Moluccas Islands — was for us just 25 hours away.

Dr. Lewis had arranged all of the stops on the 21-day tour, starting in Bogor, Indonesia where Fairchild studied at the Treub Laboratory at the Bogor Botanic Gardens on two separate occasions. The 210-acre garden is legendary for its vast herbarium and living collections and has been pivotal for its role in tropical botany.

Where Fairchild set sail on his Chinese junk in Ambon harbor, we left in a different fashion: boarding a modern twin-mast 132-foot Balinese schooner called the Ombak Putih, Indonesian for White Wave.

21 Days, 900 Miles

Our island stops — twelve in all — would be 50 to 100 miles apart, and as on Fairchild’s Cheng Ho expedition, the islands are mostly volcanic in origin. Cone-shaped and ringed with verdant bands of towering coconut palms, many of the islands are barely arable, with the only commerce taking place wherever there is enough land to build a small fishing village.

In following Fairchild’s journey, we hoped to find the islands where he had collected plants,  visit the villages he’d visited, and perhaps see some of the same trees he saw 76 years ago. Plant enthusiasts will understand our thrill, knowing that David Fairchild was one of the world’s foremost plant collectors and that some of us were from his former home The Kampong and the garden named for him.

David Fairchild’s Home and Legacy

As a point of reference, The Kampong (NTBG’s garden in Coconut Grove, Florida) was David Fairchild’s home from 1916 to 1954. FTBG was named after Fairchild late in the 1930s, and is seven miles south of The Kampong. Both gardens are on the Atlantic coast and enjoy a sub-tropical climate. The two gardens have had a long-standing relationship based on their namesake.

Our travels took us through a variety of islands where the balmy climate fostered a spectacular growth of plants with no heat or drought stress set upon them for decades at a time. Motor launches got us onto the beaches with little effort, although we were forced to quickly become accustomed to “wet landings” in which we waded through seawater to reach the beach.

Taxis and rented vehicles motored us to interesting forest areas to see plants that Fairchild would have seen, such as the famed Pigafetta palm, Hydnophytum ant plants growing on tree trunks, massive Dipterocarp trees, and many others. I took a copy of Fairchild’s Garden Islands of the Great East with me using it to track the islands on our journey as a check list of plants and sites to explore. We visited islands with lyrical names such as Kahatola, Halmahera, Mandioli, Ternate, Obi, Buru, and others.

Island by island we traced a 900-mile course, landing on one beach, then another, trekking through fascinating forests, each different from one another, all while gaining knowledge at every turn. A lecture preceded dinner every evening, usually followed by spirited discussions of the day’s events. Dr. Lewis and I re-created a photo from the Garden Islands book by posing in front of what we believe is the very same Hernandia tree seen in Fairchild’s book.

Curious Roots, Fruits, and Tubers

As we trekked through the Spice Islands[1], we could see and smell the reasons for the area’s historical name. The Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese battled fiercely over control of the islands for their natural bounties of nutmeg and cloves. In the West we are used to seeing these spices in small jars at large prices on market shelves, but in these islands we saw hundreds of pounds of the spices drying on tarps along the streets. The local village markets had heaps of spices, selling packets for just a few coins.

Following Dr. Fairchild’s methods, we toured several farmers markets, redolent with the smells of chili peppers, fish, and mollusks brought up from the depths, and a wide spectrum of curious roots, fruits, and tubers. We could imagine David Fairchild collecting seeds and fruits in such markets in 1940.

For all of us, recreating Fairchild’s Cheng Ho expedition offered the rare chance to experience the native habitats of many plants that are now in cultivation around the world. For a few brief

moments, we were intrepid travelers, collecting memories and photographs just as David Fairchild did 76 years ago.

Following this journey I can now look at some of the plants that David Fairchild collected and say to myself, “I know where that plant came from —  I was there.” Having experienced my own version of the Cheng Ho expedition and seen the native habitat of the plants I care for enriches and informs my role as one of the caretakers and preservers of the legacy of David Fairchild.

[1] Moluccas (or Maluku) archipelago north of Australia and west of New Guinea are historically famed for producing spices like nutmeg, mace, clove, and pepper.

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