Flower Power

Nearly 900 botanists are working to chronicle our biological heritage. And boy are they a wacky bunch.

Tom Croat's hands are thick as steaks and streaked with scratches. Mushrooms of bulbous flesh cap the fingers of his deformed left hand, the result of an accident in a Volkswagen Beetle nearly 40 years ago while scouting goldenrods in a Kansas field.

"They found me burned, sitting in the driver's seat. My bones were sticking out!" marvels the 66-year-old botanist.

Doctors punctured four holes in Croat's gut and jerry-rigged a skin graft by stitching his fingers to the flesh. For six weeks he drove to the University of Kansas, where he was teaching biology, by shifting with his right hand and steering with his left knee. "After some time, you know, rotting flesh starts reeking," he says with a chuckle. "I was always wondering if those students could smell it."

Jennifer Silverberg

Tom Croat has collected 94,000 plants and racked up 
countless misadventures along the way.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Croat has collected 94,000 plants and racked up countless misadventures along the way.

Botanists are notoriously bad drivers and love recounting the countless crashes they've survived while distractedly roving the globe, trying to spot new plants. And Tom Croat is Exhibit A.

"One of the reasons I'm a successful collector is I'm not afraid to do things a lot of people wouldn't," he boasts. "If you're afraid to climb a tree, you're obviously not going to collect what's in the tree. If you're afraid to walk out on a cliff, you won't get anything there. If you're a real scaredy-cat, then you're not gonna be a good collector, 'cause you won't put yourself in any situations that allow you to get things. You'll just be kind of a pansy."

Croat discovered botany in college and soon found the botanist's galloping lifestyle to be the perfect antidote to his humdrum upbringing on the family farm in Iowa. Last year he spent four months roaming South America and Asia and bagged 3,600 plants in the process. When Croat took a job at the Missouri Botanical Garden 37 years ago, just three cabinets of the garden's pressed flowers stood sentry outside his office. Thanks in part to his rapacious collecting, today there are dozens.

Croat's colleagues call him "a wild man." With a mix of envy and pride they repeat his oft-told stories of near-calamities driving through raging rivers or into orange groves or, as the Croat tale goes, straight into a gaping canyon.

On that particular misadventure, back in the late '60s, Croat's wife and kids had joined him on a collecting expedition. They were living in Panama at the time and had hauled their mobile home to Costa Rica. Suddenly Croat's hood went head-to-head with a logging truck, and the road caved away beneath them. The camper tumbled several hundred yards down the canyon and got snagged by a boulder dangling above the Rio La Paz. Everyone escaped with minor injuries, but that went down in the books as the Croat family's last "plant vacation."

"Yeah, I have a very bad reputation," he says playfully.

A tall, muscular fellow, Croat is possessed with an urgent need to know South America and Asia -- why, the whole world if he could -- from root to branch. This is the guy who begins his Christmas cards by revealing the number of new species he's named during the year, the seasoned scientist who has collected 94,000 plants, just 6,000 shy of his lifetime goal. Croat stops short of saying he'll do anything to wrap his mitts around a flower. He likes illustrating his obsession, not analyzing it.

Recently, though, a request from Croat's undergraduate alma mater got him thinking. An e-mail from a member of Simpson College's publications department asked, "What drives you?"

"Some would call it insanity, I guess," he replied in a letter. "I don't enjoy any of the things that the normal man enjoys (sex excluded), such as sports, hunting, or normal forms of entertainment. I have never taken a vacation in my 30 years here. I work about 60 hours a week with my research, and I need that much time and more, since I am always behind in my commitments. It makes me very nervous to be in a situation where I am just wasting time. I don't recall ever missing a day of work because I was sick. I even went back to work after I came out of anesthesia for an operation on my ankle. I get these silly little letters from the Director's Office each year congratulating me on 'perfect attendance.' What I would really like is more help!"

Croat's dedication would have thrilled Henry Shaw, founder of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Shaw arrived here from England in 1819, made a fortune trading everything from cutlery to fur and, in 1851, began designing the garden. Shaw wished for St. Louisans to enjoy a botanical paradise like those he grew up around, but he also wanted the institution to become a nexus of botanical investigation. To that end, he purchased a 62,000-specimen herbarium, or dried-plant collection, to lure researchers.

Today the herbarium contains more than 5.5 million specimens, making it the second largest in the nation with a research division of 46 Ph.D.s. Most of them are taxonomists, botanists who identify and name plant species according to their basic characteristics. They are modern-day explorers -- Quixote-like, one might say, willing to march into fields for a heavenly cause.

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