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The Beauty of Botany


Perlman holds purple-flowered plant.
A new recruit for the National Tropical Botanical Garden's herbarium (collection of dried plants), this Cyanea hardyi grew at the base of cliffs on Kauai.

Dangerous duty
Plant conservation can be risky work, and not just because it could fail -- you could also get yourself killed. As we've said, since the rarest plants tend to live in areas that pigs and goats can't reach, a lot of cliff-hanging can be required.

We asked botanical collector Steve Perlman, one of those high-flying botanists, why he spends time dangling from cliffs, with only a 10-millimeter rope and a tinny hard-hat between him and sudden death. He told us his motivation may represent a form of respect for elders: "Ancientness is a reason for me to preserve. This is the last stand of a species that may be 30 to 70 million years old."

And it's not just the plants, but their network of relationships that must be preserved, Perlman stresses, since plants by themselves are nothing but museum pieces.

Perlman credits his passion for plants and outdoor work to Boy Scouts, when he hiked the woods and paddled the rivers on the Mainland. "I remember making a conscious choice of careers -- I wanted to do something that would embellish the Earth."

Botanist rear end, with his head and shoulders plunged into stream.
Cooling off after a hot walk along Kauai's Napali Coast, plant collector Steve Perlman uses his trademark "in for a nickel, in for a buck" head-dunk.

Got no walkin' blues
Perlman began collecting snakes during long hikes in California, and by the time the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) opened in 1970, he was already in Hawaii, collecting plants. There, he fell under the spell of Derral Herbst, a botanist who specialized in native plants, especially endangered ones. Herbst taught the budding collector rare species and plant locations on Kauai, the oldest and botanically richest of the major Hawaiian islands.

Another influence was Harold St. John, whom Perlman calls "the grandfather of Hawaiian botany. He worked at the Bishop Museum until he was 98 years old. I sent him all my plant collections for 15 years, and he named about 30 species that I sent him."

Perlman, who had worked in nurseries before moving to Hawaii, decided to get a mid-career Master's degree in horticulture and botany at the University of Hawaii. After returning to the NTBG, he resumed spending his days doing what he does best, collecting plants and cataloging their diversity.

Why hasn't Perlman, at age 52, gotten trapped in an office, collecting paperwork rather than plants? Because, he says, he's followed his star: "My main passion is still collecting. A lot of people who get into this work end up ... working at a desk or at the cellular level. I always want to be able to hike and collect -- this is the niche I fill. It's very easy to get pushed into an administrative job, but life is short, there are lots of areas left to explore. I'm really thrilled to be out in the field all over the Pacific."

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