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How Home Gardeners Help Save the World

Asia-Pacific Tropical Homes

By Sonja Anderson

Alan Carle and his wife Suzi want to help conserve an ever-wider selection of endangered plant species around the world by promoting their use as an ornamental home and garden favourites.

Asked whether he has ever actually discovered new plants that have become ornaments, Alan replies, “First we must define ‘discover’. If it’s new to me, then I ‘discover’ it. If it’s new to science, then it’s quite special. Much of what I find is either new to me or to horticulture. Most are known to science, although some are not.”

Alan has either ‘discovered’ or been part of a team that has discovered, among others, new heliconias and gingers. He’s even had plants named after him, including a naturally occurring heliconia hybrid. “It’s called Heliconia hybrid (H. Psittacorum x H. spathocircinata) ‘Alan Carle’. And I have named other trade or cultivar names, such as the heliconia hybrid ‘Hot Rio Nights’ and ‘Fireflash’ (Heliconia densiflora).”

Moving from discovery to widespread ornamental cultivation, even on the best account, takes time. ‘Fireflash’, a great success, took about five years to multiply (without tissue culture) from a single plant to as many as a million. “It’s now found in many tropical countries in all hemispheres – north, south, east and west. Other plants take a lot longer. Some tropical fruits take 20 years; others will never become widespread.”

Among the gingers with ornamental potential he has discovered, one was designated a new genus, and is thus very important: “I was responsible for introducing a new ginger to taxonomists Kai Larsen and Joh Mood. It as actually found by an old friend of mine (now deceased) in a Thai market, and given to me. I recognised it as something different, and sent it to the experts. It was identified as Caulokaempferia aurantiflora, and is a very ornamental tropical potted plant and ground cover that goes dormant.”

Other success stories will likely follow soon. Alan believes that a new wild hybrid of Zingiber spectabile collected this year has good potential as a cut flower. To the best of his knowledge, it has never before been seen by anyone. “I’m speculating that it’s actually a hybrid,” he say, “but without detailed study of the flowers, I’m still a bit unsure.” In all, Alan has discovered a few new varieties of ginger in Asia and one or two in Africa. He has also found a new species of two of heliconia that have not yet been named by the taxonomists.


Some of the world’s favourite ornamentals were once unknown or else familiar only to a few scientists or horticultural enthusiasts. Today, they’re everywhere. What better way to conserve rare or endangered plant species that to turn them into standard home and garden items of the future? Alan and Suzi are enlisting the home gardeners of the world in the noble (and effective) enterprise.

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