The Panama Orchid Hunter
Today is the birthday of the Panama Orchid Hunter and son of Lincoln, Nebraska, Abel Aken Hunter, who was born on this day in 1877.
In a biography of his older brother, it was mentioned that all the kids in the Hunter family were "born naturalists, for they knew all the birds and many of the plants and insects around Lincoln, [Nebraska]."
When Hunter was just 15 years old, he was appointed to the United States Postal Service. It was a career choice that would supplement his collecting efforts all through his life.
Hunter was like many Plant Collectors; he worked his regular job with the post office for almost 30 years while pursuing his passion for botany on the side.
Hunter attended the University of Nebraska to study botany. Hunter was appointed botanical collector for the University of Nebraska in 1899.
In 1905, when Hunter was promoted to mail clerk, he was making $58 a month. Eighteen months later, Hunter transferred to the post office in Gorgona in the Canal Zone in Panama. The move was an excellent one for Hunter; his pay jumped to $1,250 a month, and he was smack dab in the middle of a botanical paradise.
1910 brought a fateful friend to Hunter. The amateur horticulturist Charles Powell was a nurse, and he had been transferred to Gorgona. Although he was two decades older than Hunter, the two got on famously. They shared a mutual passion for fishing. Early on in their friendship, while they were fishing, they spied an incredible sight. Hunter is recorded as saying,
"Look, Powell–orchids! Oodles of orchids! Treefuls of orchids! Let's get some of 'em."
Needless to say, that day, they literally brought home a "boat-load of orchids," and the orchids made their way to collectors across the globe.
A year or two later, the Canal work in Gorgona wrapped up, and both Hunter and Powell transferred to Balboa. From that point on, the two men would coordinate their vacation requests so that they could go on botanizing trips together in Panama. Powell created a special relationship with the Missouri Botanical Garden after he gave them 7,000 plants. In return, MOBOT established a Tropical Station in Balboa, Panama. Powell was its first director, Hunter was his successor, and the Station became a jewel in the crown of MOBOT.
By the mid-1920s, Hunter was collecting with MOBOT experts like George Harry Pring. They once traveled to a remote part of southwest Panama to hunt for orchids where Pring recalled the perilousness of their quest and the natural instincts of Hunter. He said,
"To obtain varied genera and new species it is necessary to climb the 'barrancas' [steep, rocky slopes], ford streams, cut one's way through the jungle, and hunt for the coveted orchid, and it is truly a hunt. Hunter's sharp eyes detected almost everything within range."
A week before Thanksgiving in 1934, the Director of Mobot sent a party of three researchers, including Paul Allen, down to work with Hunter; their primary mission was to find where the Sobralia powellii orchid originated. Hunter's gut told him it would be near the headwaters of the river they were exploring. For three days, they made their way through rapids and a tropical rainstorm. Nothing was going their way; they were ready to give up. They were standing at the edge of a natural pool of water near the crater of an ancient volcano when Allen decided to jump in for a swim. As he climbed out, Allen's journal records this fantastical moment:
"Climbing out [of the pool] on the opposite side my astonished gaze was met by a plant with great milky white buds nearly ready to open. The long-sought prize, Sobralia powellii, had been found. Its native home was no longer a mystery."
Allen called this area "a garden of orchids" and would not disclose the exact location. Allen and Hunter found hundreds of small orchids in this spot; incredibly, many were new to even Hunter. It was a veritable orchid treasure trove.
This trip was everything to Hunter. He had been diagnosed with intestinal cancer. It was his last run. When it was clear he could not go on, Allen brought him to a hospital in Panama City, where he died on April 6, 1935. Allen finished the expedition alone.
After his death, Hunter's wife, Mary, operated the station at Balboa for 18 months until, fittingly, Paul Allen was appointed Director. Allen went to Balboa with his new bride, Dorothy. They had been married for ten days.
As for Abel Aken Hunter, many orchids have been named in his honor, including the Coryanthes Hunteranum, or the Golden Bucket orchid.