RBGE botanist honoured with Fairchild Medal

One of the world’s leading authorities on tropical rhododendrons, RBGE Research Associate Dr George Argent, has been named the 2013 recipient of the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration. In an announcement from its headquarters in Hawai‘i, the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) acknowledged Dr Argent for his contribution to tropical fieldwork, exploration, and conservation, focusing on Southeast Asia.

Throughout most of Dr Argent’s four-decade career in tropical botany, including 26 years at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), he concentrated on the collection, research, and preservation of Ericaceae (the heather family) which includes approximately 4,000 species of berries, azaleas, heathers, and rhododendrons. He is considered to be the world’s leading authority on Vireya rhododendrons, a sub-tropical flowering plant found at high elevations in Southeast Asia from Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and Borneo. Roughly one-third of the world’s 850 species of rhododendrons are Vireyas.

The Fairchild Medal will be presented at a black-tie dinner on February 1 at NTBG’s Florida garden, The Kampong, the former estate and private garden of the award’s namesake David Grandison Fairchild. During the evening’s festivities, Dr Argent will speak on ‘Extreme Plant Collection’. A scientific symposium has been scheduled for the following day, featuring Argent as the keynote speaker, presenting a talk on the role tropical rhododendrons can play in education and conservation.

Praising Dr Argent’s contribution to plant exploration, NTBG’s Director and CEO said, “Recognising that the overwhelming majority of the world’s biodiversity, both discovered and undiscovered, is in tropical areas, and that life on earth hinges on this biodiversity, the importance of Dr Argent’s work becomes quite evident. He has contributed immeasurably to a deeper, broader understanding of plant life.”

Upon learning of his selection to receive the Fairchild Medal, Argent said he was humbled to be honoured for doing what he enjoys most, “especially when so many people have supported me in my many expeditions.” He added, “I am filled with pride and gratitude that the selection committee of NTBG should think me worthy to put my name forward.” Additionally Dr Argent thanked fellow field staff and supporters, local people in the places he has worked, and his family.

The selection of Dr Argent for the medal was made by a committee of NTBG’s management and scientific staff and board members, which includes Dr. David Rae, who serves as RGBE’s Director of Horticulture. Dr Rae made the nomination, calling Argent “a natural field botanist who loves nothing more than sharing his knowledge.” He said Argent “embodies the ethos of the David Fairchild Medal,” adding “through a life devoted to the study of Vireya rhododendrons, [Argent] has done more than anyone else to study them in the field, collect them, promote their cultivation, and publish the definitive account of their classification. Dr Argent’s legacy at Edinburgh is not just the wonderful collection of Vireyas, but all the staff he has influenced and encouraged through his fieldwork.”

Dr David Fairchild, one of the greatest and most influential horticulturalists and plant collectors in the United States, devoted his life to plant exploration, searching the world for useful plants suitable for introduction into the country. As an early “Indiana Jones” type explorer, he conducted field trips throughout Asia, the South Pacific, Dutch East (Indonesia) and West Indies (Caribbean Islands), South America, Egypt, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), China, Japan, the Persian Gulf, and East and South Africa during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These explorations resulted in the introduction of many tropical plants of economic importance to the U.S., including sorghum, nectarines, unique species of bamboo, dates, and varieties of mangoes. In addition, as director of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the early 20th Century, Dr. Fairchild was instrumental in the introduction of approximately 75,000 selected varieties and species of useful plants, such as Durum wheat, Japanese rices, Sudan grass, Chinese soy beans, Chinese elms, persimmons, and pistachios. Fairchild and his wife, Marion Bell Fairchild, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, purchased property in South Florida in 1916 and created both a home and an “introduction garden” for plant species found on his expeditions. He named the property “The Kampong,” the Malay word for “village.” The tropical species he collected from Southeast Asia in the 1930s and 1940s are still part of the heritage collections of The Kampong, which operates today as part of the not-for-profit National Tropical Botanical Garden. NTBG has five gardens and five preserves in Hawai‘i and Florida and is dedicated to conservation, research, and education relating to the world’s rare and endangered tropical plants. The institution, which is non-governmental, is supported primarily through donations and grants.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)