Hugo Curran on the Cheng Ho Expedition
Hugo Curran with a specimen of the Oncosperma palm, collected at Gorontalo, Celebes.
Hugo Curran holding a large bunch of Musa lolodensis, a newly discovered species of wild banana found growing on the banks of the Soasio river in the Loloda Islands.
By Janet Mosely
“We’re sorry, but we can’t pay you anything...you’ll have to go just for the love of adventure.” (Hugo Curran in an interview, Sept. 29, 1984, with Bert Zuckerman)
It was that invitation from Dr. Fairchild which enticed Hugo Curran, then 24 years of age, into joining the Cheng Ho expedition as Plant Collector. Hugo was already an experienced forester with a degree in Forestry from the University of the Philippines. He was the son of Prof. Hugh M. Curran, then Director of the Makiling Arboretum in Luzon, Philippines. Both men were held in high esteem by Dr. Fairchild who considered them “…among the best trained and hardiest of the jungle foresters.” (Garden Islands of the Great East, p. 39)
Being well-trained and hardy served Hugo well as he did find adventure on the expedition and afterwards when war engulfed his world. Ned Beckwith’s photos of him show a tall, confidant young man who appears able to handle whatever the trip held in store; whether it was a 21-foot python, ship board fires or getting lost overnight in a mangrove swamp.
Although there was some collecting done by other members of the expedition, it was Hugo who did the lion’s share. He trekked through forests, up mountains and volcanoes, through swamps and mangroves to find the plants Dr. Fairchild so eagerly sought. He brought him seeds and cuttings from such “new” treasures as the Clerodendrum minahassae and the Cyrtostachys lakka. In all he collected approximately 500 different plants. Hugo was tireless in his searches and his native guides would declare him “a wild man; that he even walked while he was eating lunch.” (Garden Islands of the Great East, p. 223)
After the outbreak of WWII in the Philippines brought the expedition to a foreshortened end, Hugo stayed in the area. He took a research position with Del Monte’s The Philippine Packing Company and moved to Mindanao. When the Japanese invaded Mindanao, he was taken prisoner and spent the remainder of the war in internment camps. While at the camp in Davao, he met and married his wife Marie in June of 1943. They had a hard time of it; but, with Hugo’s knowledge of local plants and fruits were able to survive.
After the war, Hugo returned to work for The Philippine Packing Company in their agricultural research division. In 1979 he joined the Peace Corps in the Philippines and was with them until 1982. With Marie, he moved to Norwalk, Conn. and remained there until his passing in 1995.
The story of Hugo Curran is woven through the story of the Cheng Ho expedition as told by Dr. Fairchild in the Garden Islands of the Great East and in Ned Beckwith’s private journal which is available to read online as a daily blog (chengho.fairchildgarden.org/). To see more photos of Hugo and the expedition you can visit Flickr at www.flickr.com/exploreplants.
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Unless otherwise stated, all photographs on this page property of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Center for Tropical Plant Conservation
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tel. 305/667-1651, ext. 3424