Self-Made

August 14, 2015

Dream Jobs: I Hunt The World’s Rarest Plants

Seijun Nishihata gets paid to travel the world and hunt down its rarest flora. He talks to Amuse about life in the field

  • Written by Danielle Demetriou
  • Photography by Shimpei Hanawa

I believe that plants have the power to make people happy: being a plant hunter feels a bit like magic.

I was born into a 150-year-old wholesale plant business. I represent the fifth generation, and when I joined 13 years ago we were importing two tons of plants a year from three or four countries. Today, we annually import 200 tons from more than 30 countries and territories across the world – from Socotra, for example, an archipelago of four islands 250 miles off the coast of Yemen known for its exceptional flora.

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Our company, Hanau Co supplies flowers and plants to professional gardeners, hotels, developers, florists, traditional ikebana flower arranging masters, and temples. When anyone is looking for a particular or rare species they order from us.

“I started searching for other plants in the wild, bringing them back to Japan and delivering them to clients.”

Even though I grew up surrounded by plants, when I was younger I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what people meant when they said flowers were beautiful. That changed when I was 21-years-old. I was on Borneo climbing Mount Kinabalu, which is more than 4,000 metres high, and it’s here that I encountered an example of the world’s largest recorded pitcher plant, the nepenthes rajah – which is insectivorous with this variety reaching some 40cm high. Seeing this plant growing on the mountainside was a life-changing experience: it touched something deep in me. It was then that I realised how romantic plant hunting could be. Shortly afterwards I started searching for other plants in the wild, bringing them back to Japan and delivering them to clients. I’ve worked with flora ever since.

To be a plant hunter first you need experience. Secondly you need technical knowledge; you need to understand plants and how to treat them properly. Lastly you need a heart – you need to really love plants. After committing to my newfound fascination I did not seek out any formal training from my family. Instead I travelled across Japan to learn from different masters . I learnt from the best Bonsai master and about flower arranging from an ikebana master. But I learnt the most from nature.

“To be a plant hunter first you need experience. Secondly you need technical knowledge. Lastly you need a heart.”

Today I spend a quarter of my time in my hometown, Kawanishi, a city in Hyōgo prefecture. Here, we have a family farm with a greenhouse containing 3,000 plant species. It’s an area rich in native plants and trees, where humans and nature exist close together. Of the 20 staff at Hanau Co., I’m the only family member, now that my father has retired.

I also spend time in Tokyo, where I set up a company, Sora Botanical Garden Project, three years ago. The company supplies professionals in the plant industry and works with a wide range of government and media organisations and private companies. The rest of my time is spent travelling and hunting for plants both overseas and closer to home.

“There is a global network of plant hunters and we share information; so I may get a message from someone in Argentina that they have a silk cotton Palo borracho.”

Before I go into deep forests abroad to look for rare plants, I always do plenty of research and establish contact with someone that knows about the local vegetation. Local knowledge is indispensable – there is a global network of plant hunters and we all share information. I may get a message from someone in Argentina saying that they have a silk cotton palo borracho, so I’ll say “ok” – and then arrange a visit.

Sometimes plant hunting is dangerous. I was looking for succulents in Yemen during the Arab Spring uprisings -there is a big market for these in Japan. I was staying in Taiz, a tiny Highland village south of the capital, when suddenly thousands of people rushed out of their homes, gathered in the village centre and started shouting. I just waited in my hotel until everything calmed down then carried on plant hunting. It was a very successful trip – the plants there are extremely rare, but plant hunters can’t visit now as it’s too dangerous. I have also been plant hunting in Costa Rica, Dubai, China, Indonesia, Taiwan and Spain. Now I’m just about to go on a slightly different trip – taking Japanese tourists on a botanical tour of California to find the world’s biggest, oldest and tallest trees.

Among my projects is a space in a tucked-away Tokyo complex called Yoyogi Village, which I filled with more than 100 plant species from all over the world. I was given a lot of artistic licence and I settled on the concept of diversity in harmony – the idea that humans and nature can coexist.

Working with plants brings me total happiness: I don’t feel the same way about animals or shoes or handbags. Nothing else works for me and I’m not sure why. When plants surround me I feel full of energy.

I have a one-year-old daughter and I am teaching her all about plants. She is a nature baby. She can already say “happa”, which means leaf in Japanese – it was her fourth word.

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