Plant hunting always has been a dangerous business.

Last year many of us in the gardening world were stunned to hear of the disappearance of Rodney and Rachel Saunders. The Cape Town couple owned the South African company Silverhill Seeds, which was popular with gardening enthusiasts all over the world.

In fact, being one of those disorganized people who never get around to deleting anything, I still have e-mails on my computer from Rachel. When I ordered from Silverhill years ago, she sent a message to inform me of a backlog and a later one to say that my seeds were ready to be mailed.

An Ominous Silence

The Saunders had just been filmed for an episode of BBC Gardener’s World before they vanished in February of 2018, in what would be late summer in the southern hemisphere. The producer of that episode, Robin Matthews, had advised that they visit the oNgoye Forest region, as he was from that area and familiar with the wealth of botanical life there.

He later would profoundly regret making that suggestion, though the Saunders’ trip seemed to begin promisingly, with Rachel sending Robin—via app on February 9—a photo of a rare gladiola they had found. Last seen alive on February 10, the Saunders would disappear shortly thereafter. Later, authorities would deduce that they had been kidnapped and murdered somewhere near the Bivane Dam and their bodies thrown into the Tugela River. Rodney Saunders was 74 at the time and Rachel 63.

Gladiolus caeruleus

There would be some disagreement over whether the motive was terrorism or robbery. The four persons arrested for involvement in the crime reportedly had ties to Isis, but also allegedly stole from the Saunders’ bank account, as well as running up charges on their credit card.

The Perils of Seed Collecting

Although we all felt outraged that anyone could kill such non-threatening people as plant hunters, their murders reminded me that searching for new or hard-to-find species always has been a dangerous business. Scottish botanist George Forrest, who rooted out some rare rhododendrons, barely escaped with his life during the 1905 Tibetan revolt after the missionary priests with whom he had been staying and most of the rest of his own party were slaughtered.

In fact, many of the first seed collectors were the missionaries themselves, since species that would seem old hat to natives were exotic to newcomers. Those plant-loving priests included Jean Andre Soulie, discoverer of Rosa soulieana and the butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), who was murdered during the same revolt in which Forrest was spared.

Gladiolus alatusOf course, some of the plant explorers were more roguish than religious. Robert Fortune, for example, probably would be considered a soldier of fortune where plants were concerned. Most famous for stealing tea bushes from China, he often traveled where he wasn’t legally allowed to be and reportedly had to fight off pirate attacks at least a couple different times during his journeys. That might be considered poetic justice, with him being something of a robber himself.

Other of the plant hunters, such as Thomas Drummond who gave us lisianthus, escaped injury from hostile natives only to succumb to disease instead—that being mental disease in the case of Joseph de Juissieu who discovered heliotrope. So we gardeners owe a large debt to the men and women who risked their lives and even their sanity to make our world more lovely.

In Memoriam

I remember how excited I was, back when I ordered from Silverhill, to have discovered species that were entirely new to me. I don’t think many of them did well in my colder and soggier climate, but the anticipation of seeing how such exotics will turn out is almost as thrilling as the flowers themselves. And some of us always will be grateful to the Saunders for that.

In fact, the Pacific Bulb Society dedicated their Spring 2018 issue to the couple. It reports that the Saunders had been in the process of photographing all the gladiolus species in South Africa at the time they disappeared and had only one more to find. That’s why I’ve decorated this article with photos of African gladioli from the Dave’s Garden PlantFiles.

Gladiolus orchidiflorus

Former employees of Silverhill are soldiering on with the company and friends of the Saunders still hope to publish the field guide to South African gladioli which the couple had planned. They probably would prefer that we remember them, then, not for the ugly way they died, but for the beauty they contributed to the world while they lived.


Photos: The Gladiolus caeruleus photo is by BGBulbs and the other photos by AnniesAnnuals, all from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles.