Exploring for Plants on the Utowana

Before the Cheng Ho, there was the Utowana. In a shipyard in Gothenburg, Sweden, Armour had the cargo ship Utowana outfitted as a state-of-the-art plant collecting laboratory complete with library and greenhouse. 
Changing flat tire
Marian Fairchild photographs Graham and Dr. Fairchild changing a flat on the road to Marrakech. The Dodge car, affectionately known as QQ, was brought from the States by Dr. Fairchild for use on the trip. April 1925.
Allison Armour

Armour with his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Frank Whitehouse. Le Pena Castle, Cintro, Portugal. April 9, 1927.

Marian Fairchild and Morton Wheeler

Marian Fairchild and Dr. Morton Wheeler, Harvard Prof. of Biology, who accompanied the expedition to study ants.  On the sand dunes of Mogador. June 1925.

By Janet Mosely

 “Some of the greatest things that have happened to me have happened on boats.” (The opening line of David Fairchild's book, Exploring for Plants)

David Fairchild was blessed with a gift for making friends and inspiring others with his passion for plant exploration; and it was on a houseboat moored off Coconut Grove in 1924 that his then new acquaintance Allison V. Armour invited him to go exploring.  Armour, a patron of scientific exploration, reminded Fairchild of his other great benefactor and friend, Barbour Lathrop. As Fairchild later recalled in The World Was My Garden, Armour was “…an expert traveler and a great gourmet who was interested in furthering the cause of plant introduction…” (p. 473) 

Thus were born the Allison V. Armour Expeditions.  From 1925 to 1931 eight expeditions aboard the Utowana were made throughout the Mediterranean, North and West Africa, the Canary and Balearic Islands, Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, Mexico, the Gulf of California, Central and South America and the West Indies.  Under the auspices of the US Department of Agriculture, Kew and Harvard, Dr. Fairchild’s main goal was to collect living seeds and plants for the Office of Foreign Plant Introduction.  They succeeded in bringing approximately 2,000 new species and varieties to the US.  They also provided seeds and plants to institutions in the countries they visited. In 1931, Armour received the Frank N. Meyer Medal for Foreign Plant Introduction in recognition of the importance of these expeditions to the field of agricultural and horticultural plant introduction. 

From 1924 to 1927, Dr. Fairchild and his family travelled aboard the Utowana with Armour and other scientists through Europe, Morocco, the Canaries and Balearics, southern Spain, Portugal, Sumatra, Ceylon and Java.  He recounts their exploits in Exploring For Plants which was published in 1931.  There are some 3,000 photographs, as well as scrapbooks and correspondence relating to these trips in the Fairchild Archives.  Currently, the photos are being digitized by Archive volunteers.  A sampling of which can be seen here. 

"I think these were some of Allison's happiest days, for he felt he was helping 'the Scientific Johnnies' get seeds and specimens which would have a bearing on the future of his country." - David Fairchild

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Unless otherwise stated, all photographs on this page property of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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