The National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) has announced that Dr. Jan Salick, Senior Curator Emerita at the Missouri Botanical Garden, has been named as the recipient of the 2020 David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration. The medal has been awarded annually since 1999 to individuals who have demonstrated service to humanity in exploring remote areas of the world to advance plant discovery, the cultivation of new and important plants, and the conservation of rare or endangered plant species.
The Fairchild Medal will be presented to Salick on February 7 at an (optional) black-tie dinner at NTBG’s historical garden, The Kampong, in Coconut Grove, Florida, the former residence of plant explorer Dr. David Fairchild. The following day she will present a public lecture entitled “Neither Man Nor Nature.”
An intrepid and indefatigable ethnobotanist, Salick has devoted much of her career to biocultural plant collection, the study of tropical and alpine ecology, agroecology, and researching the ties between traditional knowledge and empirical science. After beginning her career in her home state of Wisconsin, Salick quickly embarked on fieldwork in Indonesia and Malaysia before expanding her research to Central and South America.
Over the last quarter of a century, much of Salick’s ethnobotanical research has focused on the Himalayas, specifically Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Yunnan Province, China. In recent years, Salick has begun working with the Wampanoag and Narragansett American Indians in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to better understand how climate change is threatening plants vital to both tribes’ cultures. Currently Salick is assisting with the Narragansett Tribal Food Sovereignty Initiative, as well as with efforts to reconstruct lost elements of the Wampanoag language.
In addition to examining the effects of climate change on indigenous people and the plants upon which they rely, Salick has published studies on subjects including the contemporary Tibetan cosmology of climate change, the distribution and ecology of termites on the Malay peninsula, sustainable management of non-timber rain forests in Nicaragua, and the relationship between biodiversity and useful plants on Borneo.
Salick has devoted much of her career to challenging the status quo and common assumptions about ethnobotany and crop domestication. In one instance, Salick discovered how the South American crop cocona (Solanum sessiliflorum) defied widely held beliefs about the domestication process. Salick has also conducted research on the roles gender and age play in how people interact with plants, environments, and agricultural systems.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Salick’s parents instilled in her a sense of curiosity for the natural world, and a deeply-rooted respect for human and environmental rights, preparing her for a fruitful career in ethnobotany.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1971), Salick went on to earn a Master’s of Science degree from Duke University (1977), followed by a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University (1983).
Salick has held a number of esteemed positions including post-doctoral (1983-86) and assistant scientist (1986-89) at The New York Botanical Garden and assistant and associate professor at Ohio University (1989-2000). For the last two decades Salick has held positions as curator (2000-2007), senior curator (2007-2019), and senior curator emerita (2019 – present) at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Spanning her career, Salick has also taught botany, ethnobotany, evolution, and ecology.
Upon announcing Salick as the 2020 Fairchild Medal recipient, NTBG CEO and Director Janet Mayfield said, “As only the second woman to receive the Fairchild Medal, Dr. Salick embodies the ideals of plant explorer David Fairchild. She is a renowned ethnobotanist and her research on the effects of climate change on plants and indigenous people directly aligns with NTBG’s vision of biocultural conservation. Dr. Salick is an inspiration and role model for aspiring young women in the field of plant exploration.”
British botanist Professor Sir Ghillean Prance praised her as “one of the most experienced ethnobotanists of today,” adding, “Dr. Salick has become a leading expert on the effects of climate change on the vegetation and peoples of alpine regions. I am delighted that she will receive the Fairchild Medal.”
When she learned of her selection, Salick expressed surprise. “I was overwhelmingly pleased and astounded by being offered the medal,” she said. “It was wonderful and came just as I was retiring so it was even nicer.” Salick said she was deeply honored to join the ranks of past Fairchild Medal recipients including former colleagues and associates such as Dr. Ruth Kiew, the first woman to receive the medal in 2002.
The David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration is named for one of the most influential horticulturists and plant collectors in American history. Dr. Fairchild devoted his life to plant exploration, searching the world for useful plants suitable for introduction into the country. As an early “Indiana Jones” type explorer, he conducted field trips throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, South America, the Middle East, and East and South Africa during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
These explorations resulted in the introduction of many tropical plants of economic importance to the U.S., including sorghum, nectarines, avocadoes, hops, unique species of bamboo, dates, and varieties of mangoes.
In addition, as director of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the early 20th Century, Dr. Fairchild was instrumental in the introduction of more than 5,000 selected varieties and species of useful plants, such as Durum wheat, Japanese varieties of rice, Sudan grass, Chinese soy beans, Chinese elms, persimmons, and pistachios.
Fairchild and his wife, Marian Bell Fairchild, daughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, purchased property in South Florida in 1916 and created both a home and an “introduction garden” for plant species found on his expeditions. He named the property “The Kampong,” the Malay word for “village.”
The tropical species Fairchild collected from Southeast Asia in the 1930s and 1940s are still part of the heritage collections of The Kampong. The property is the only U.S. mainland garden owned by NTBG, which has four gardens and five preserves in Hawai‘i. The organization is dedicated to conservation, research, and education relating to the world’s rare and endangered tropical plants.