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Stalking the rare wildflower. Couple roams world to find unusual seeds for international customers

IN my garden, I am growing a crocus from the slopes of Mt. Parnassus in Greece, some snowdrops from Spain, a gentian from Turkey, and a rare lily from Yugoslavia, all thanks to the extraordinary efforts of seed collectors Jim and Jenny Archibald. For a number of years the Archibalds ran a small nursery in England - a nursery full of choice and wonderful plants, says one gardening friend who was fortunate enough to visit it during its peak years.

As they both approached the age of 40, however, Jim and Jenny decided to make a drastic change in their life style. They sold the nursery and turned the so-called ``mid-life crisis years'' into a creative adventure.

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Each spring they pack up a Land Rover and set off to collect rare plant seeds from Europe, North Africa, the Mideast, Asian Turkey, or some other remote corner of the world. In the fall, they come staggering back to England, laden with their flora, herbarium specimens, notebooks, and bags of seed. Once at their home base, Jenny and Jim finish cleaning any of the seed that has not been cleaned en route and then as quickly as possible write, print, and distribute their enticing and informative seed list.

Orders come flooding back to England from the Archibalds' worldwide list of customers. Jenny and Jim spend the next weeks mailing off packets of rare seeds. After taking a collective deep breath, they then organize their next jaunt, pack up, and head out to collect other rare seeds for the next year's business.

There is nothing new about seed collecting. It is a centuries-old pursuit. Expeditions became extremely popular in the 1930s and, with the exception of the war years, horticulturists - particularly British ones - continue to explore remote valleys and mountainsides of the world in search of rare, new, or refound treasures.

The traditional method of financing these expeditions has been by selling shares to interested gardeners, who would later participate in the division of whatever seeds were collected. Jim was involved in several such horticultural collection trips during the 1960s, to Morocco and Iran.

When he started this business, he decided that some of the old methods of collecting and distributing seeds were outdated. Rather than selling shares, he chose to develop the seed list and mail-order business. He also made the decision to make use of modern transportation - airplanes, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and roads - rather than leading Sherpas, Tibetan people known for their mountain climbing ability, on slogging, foot-weary treks in the wilderness.

In 1986, the Archibalds experimented with pulling a trailer across Europe and into Turkey. There they parked the caravan and used it as a base camp, jaunting off for a week or two at a time, collecting and photographing. Although several friends told them they were crazy to haul a trailer such distances, they found that the idea of a base worked very well. It was a much more convenient way to handle the seed, herbarium specimens, books, and supplies.

Jim usually has a rough idea of which plants he wants for the next year's list. He particularly searches for species that are not now in cultivation and should be widely grown, or plants of great garden merit. Both Jenny and Jim do their homework, studying flora of the regions they intend to visit, researching in herbaria, and consulting with experts at Kew Gardens in England; Edinburgh; and other botanical gardens.

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From this research, they have some idea of the general habitat and the distribution of plants they are seeking. ``One can plan a trip, but one's got to be very fluid to find exciting plants,'' Jim says. ``It takes time to get a feel for each region.'' For example, when he began to hunt for dionysiae in Iran, he looked at all the northeast-facing cliffs. Within a month, he could tell at a glance whether or not there were dionysiae on any particular cliff.

In 1987, they made a dramatic switch and came to the United States to search the Rockies and other Western mountains for rare wildflowers. ``This past year was a slightly different game,'' Jim says. ``There are a lot of relic species in very limited locations. It takes time to find them.''

In Utah, for example, ``at first you see a sea of sagebrush. Then you see variations. After a two-day search, we were able to recognize the particular cliffs where we would find Saxifraga caespitosa juliabrisson, a rare plant that is like a silver saxifrage with scarlet trumpets.''

Locating rare plants demands one set of skills, successfully collecting the seed another. It is a matter of timing and experience, as any gardener who has tried to beat the ants to ripe bloodroot or cyclamen seed knows.

Generally, flowering plants will produce ripe seed in about four weeks, says Jim. Some of the high mountain plants can take six weeks. Other late-flowering plants, like Gentiana algida and Campanula zoysii, produce seed very quickly. ``The seed may be almost mature before the flower withers,'' Jim says.

The Archibalds have learned that they can collect a number of species long before the seed pods open naturally. On the other hand, they often collect old seed capsules and find viable seed in the bottom of each capsule.

Jim and Jenny try to collect and keep seed in dry conditions. They turn the packets frequently. After experimenting with the traditional muslin bags, which are difficult to clean, they now use paper envelopes for their collections. For every week they spend collecting, it takes another week to sort out the seed, clean it, and write their field notes. Uncleaned seed is bulky.

As they travel, they press every collection and make accurate herbarium specimens, which they later send to the appropriate herbarium. All Turkish material goes to Edinburgh; Greek herbarium sheets go to the Goulandris Museum in Greece; the American specimens will go to the Denver Botanic Garden and other American institutions. All collections are labeled with the color of the flower; where it grows - the type of habitat; the date; the part of the country; and the altitude.

These herbarium sheets are important, because they help the Archibalds accurately identify the seeds for their list. Jim can correctly identify most plants in the field. Others are easily identified from an existing herbarium specimen. A few each year are sent to experts for proper identification.

The matter of nomenclature is not as clear cut as one might think. Often the experts do not agree. ``Gardeners tend to see something in a narrow context,'' Jim says. ``Plants in nature are very variable. There can be enormous diversity in one area. Throughout the whole range of a single plant, individual plants at each end of that range might look very different. One botanist will give them different names; another will lump them all together under a single species.''

All of the information is assembled in the Archibalds' extensive seed list as accurately as possible. Unlike most garden catalogs, which gardeners read, order from, and discard, these seed lists are valuable reference materials to keep on file for years.

To receive a copy of the 1987 list of North American species, write to Jim and Jenny Archibald, Sherborne, Dorset, England DT9 5LD. It's available without charge, but sending a dollar or two would help defray costs of mailing this extensive and weighty list.

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