Searching for Palms in Colombia

The Second Fairchild Tropical Garden Expedition

By Janet Mosely

In 1946, World War II was finally over and Dr. Fairchild was eager to resume collecting plants for the garden. When he learned that Mulford B. Foster planned a collecting trip to Colombia he commissioned him to collect palms. Foster, a landscape architect well known in the Orlando area, was a famous expert on bromeliads as well as orchids and was a seasoned plant explorer. His wife, Racine, traveled with him and shared in the hardships and hard work of plant collecting in the tropics. In a March 14, 1946 letter to Foster, Dr. Fairchild wrote: “I am excited a bit over the coming expedition that you two old vetrans [sic] are undertaking. The event reminds me of days long ago when Frank N. Meyer was starting off for China where he spent many years and of Wilson Popenoe’s expedition after Avocados to Colombia and Guatemala in 1916.”

The correspondence between the Fosters and Dr. Fairchild gives insight into the extensive planning necessary to organize a plant collecting trip. Apart from the obvious travel arrangements there were in-country contacts to establish and special customs permits to be arranged. Letters concerning the machinations necessary to successfully mail any seeds collected through the labyrinthine bureaucracies of Colombian and American plant quarantine make for interesting reading.

The Fosters were in Colombia from late June until early December 1946. Possibly the highlight of what proved to be an arduous trip was finding “Palm Paradise” in the high mountains of equatorial Colombia. After several frustrating, unfruitful trips taken on temperamental mules, the Fosters found an almost untouched forest full of many old growth palms. They counted approximately nineteen species and were able to collect seeds from thirteen. “We went palm wild—there were millions of them…” (Letter of October 7, 1946)

The Fosters wrote wonderful letters detailing their adventures and misadventures. Exploring for plants in Colombia led them from very hot humid areas to very cold areas and they were always either sweltering or freezing. In discussing this and other aspects of plant collecting, Racine calmly writes “but that is what happens to “palm nuts” looking for palm nuts.” (Letter of November 2, 1946)

Dr. Fairchild’s “palm nuts” were able to collect approximately 2,000 palm seeds from species then new to the garden. It was one of the largest collections of palm seed ever received by Fairchild Tropical Garden.


Mulford Foster Copernicia santae martae
Mulford Foster with palm inflorescence The Copernicia santae martae (syn. C. tectorum) found in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. “Will probably prove to be excellent palm for Miami areas—taking wind and salt…” (Foster’s field notes)
Racine Foster Racine Foster with stilt palm

Racine Foster. Dr. Fairchild was impressed with her stamina and skill in collecting and cleaning palm seeds. She and her husband were equal partners in their expeditions.

Racine Foster with stilt palm.

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Please contact:
Nancy Korber
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Center for Tropical Plant Conservation
11935 Old Cutler Road
Miami, Florida 33156 USA
tel. 305/667-1651, ext. 3424
fax 305/665-8032