Plant Diversity & Symbiotic Relationships

Crystal Stevens
Monday, 17th August 2015

Joseph Simcox, the 'botanical explorer', travels the world finding rare and even new plants. He believes that plants are our future, and passionately teaches universities, children and adults the importance of symbiotic relationships between us and plants for us to live well on this planet.

Joseph Simcox, 'The Botanical Explorer' is a seasoned ethnobotanist who has an intrinsic fascination with inherent wonders in nature. One of the keynote speeches Joseph has given, entitled; 'Cavemen, Kings and Cannibals' highlights some of the ways in which civilizations before us held reverence for food, speaking not only of the nutritional components of food, but also to the multitude of other historical relationships of humans to food, including food as power, food as a status symbol, food used as a tool for influencing others, as well as the roles food play in extravagance, spirituality, ritual sacrifice and survival. One could spend hours listening to Joseph’s stories of adventure and world travel. He speaks candidly of his trials in tracking down rare seeds, and they were not limited to linguistic barriers!

Searching and asking questions is second nature for Joe. He grew up in an ambiance where his parents fostered his inquisitive disposition from a very early age. Joseph was no ordinary child. His early life was immersed in science, exploration, and books. Rather than play with toys he found greater solace exploring the world around him. He grew plants, searched for stones, cataloged seashells and insects. His passion for insects intensified his love of plants as he realized the mutualism between the two. A budding botanist by the age of 12, he took pride in his impressive anthology of orchids, begonias and African violets. He lived vicariously through his specimens imagining the astounding places they must have come from resolving to one day see them in their native lands. Unbeknownst to him at the time, these collections would later define the very essence of his life’s work… to ultimately increase awareness and appreciation of biodiversity of the plant kingdom by traveling the globe to identify, collect, grow and distribute seed from some of the rarest species known to man. 

Joseph lives in gratitude of and has an overwhelming passion for the natural world and the symbiotic relationships that thrive in nature. His insatiable quest for tracking down plants and promoting languishing species keeps him searching by way of land, sea and sky. The great majority of plants are fascinating to him, but some shout out louder than others. All plants deserve respect he says, and some more viscerally than others. Joe has been humbled by the sheer deadliness of some - he has been poisoned, blistered and scarred by their toxicities. 

When he is not travelling, he continues to study. Joseph is enchanted by the myriad of untold secrets veiled within nature and in awe of the delicate beauty and intricacies within the anatomy of plants. Joseph contends that plants are our future. That we must learn how to create symbiotic relationships with them in order to live well on this planet. He invites us all to strengthen our affinity toward plants, to take part in repopulating dwindling species, to plant native species to attract pollinators, to grow and save seeds from rare fruits and vegetables to reduce our reliance on large corporate farms, and to spread the word to others on a daily basis.

His fearless dedication to ecological preservation fuels his unwavering ambition. Joseph is a steward of our earth in its truest sense. He dedicates his existence to bring awareness of the marvels of the plant world to as many people as possible. He hopes that by communicating his message he can incite a paradigm shift that changes the way we see and live with plants. Joseph holds onto the notion that, “The world is a lot more resilient than we believe it to be.” He believes that plants hold the keys to so many unanswered questions and that if we look to nature for solution based models to follow suit, the world hunger issues would be few and far between. There are endless examples from his expeditions ranging from food producing plants that grow in barren sandy soil in hot deserts to frigid rocky mountain tops. The biodiversity at our disposal for eventual food production is so immense, they obliterate the arguments touted by corporate industrialized agriculture for feeding the world.

Joseph’s response to Monsanto’s claim to feed the world is; “These institutions manifest a scenario that benefits the corporate and economic systems they helped create… that has very little to do with real and legitimate strategies for creating a food secure world.”

Joseph speaks at conferences all over the world. His talks range from the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Corporation in Shanshua, Taiwan to the Central Tuber Research Center in Bhubaneswar, India, to the California Rare Fruit Growers Annual Festival of Fruit Conference to the ECHO conference in Fort Myers, Florida. He is a guest lecturer at universities, with this year’s itinerary including the likes of Trinity College, Harvard and the University of Hartford.

Joseph is also a leader of botanical expeditions that span the globe. His work represents history in the making as he changes the way the world perceives botanical diversity and how we stand to feed humanity in the not so distant future. Joseph’s lively and exuberant presence captivates audiences wherever he goes. His passion is infectious. He speaks to people and conveys equally well to children and professors. His passion is heartfelt and contagious.



He and his brother Patrick, also a botanical explorer have been fortuitous enough to discover several species of plants new to science…they are still waiting to be named! The brothers maintain a personal photo archive of almost 200,000 photos of edible plants from their travels, one which must rank among the largest self-acquired of its kind in the world. 

Joseph is co-founder of The Rare Vegetable Seed Consortium, which has a collection of rare species of food producing plants that is one of the largest private collections in the world numbering now over 15,000 accessions. According to Simcox, “The Rare Vegetable Seed Consortium works to actively promote season to season cultivation, seed saving and sharing of its holdings of rare, non GMO, heirloom genetic material”.

Joseph is also the founder of the Gardens Across America Project which works with gardeners in North America to promote seed preservation and encourage special seed grow-outs. In this project, individuals or organizations can apply to be a host site for a few varieties of rare seeds in which they would grow, harvest, save the seed and return half of the saved seeds to Joseph and his team for further promotion. 

On Joseph’s team is his strategist Irina Stoenescu, brother Patrick (botanical explorer), daughter Alicia (botanical explorer), brother-in-law Jason Piper (logistics), sister Susan (, photographer and videographer Anthony Rodriguez and Chief of Staff, Christine Chiu.

His latest expedition to the Amazon was in search of rare fruits and vegetables native to the Peruvian rainforest. Filmed by Anthony, it will be edited and condensed into several short films and a 45-60 minute documentary narrative about food plant diversity in the Amazon.



Joseph’s work will be featured in Seed: The Untold Story, to be released in late 2015.

When asked to name his favorite plants from various world expeditions, Joseph says that it is a tough question to answer. I had the opportunity to pin him down on this and he shared some of the following:

In Asia & Oceania

– Amorphophallus in Borneo (below)


– Pandanus connoideus, red fruit found in S. Central New Guinea

– Prainea limpato, a gorgeous edible tart and sweet fruit found in Malaysia, Borneo, and New Guinea

– Willughbeia elmerii, a rare fruit found in the jungles of Borneo


– Lewisia species, Bitterroot in the northwestern mountain states

– Oplopanax horridus, Devil’s Club in the Pacific Northwest 

– Solanum gilo, the scarlet eggplant from Brazil

– Dendroseris litoralis, the cabbage tree, is a perennial flower in the Asteraceae family that has been revived from near extinction. It is native to the Juan Fernandez Islands near Chile

– Diospyros texana, a black persimmon tree native to Texas and the southwest United States

– Peniocereus greggii, a cactus native to the southwestern United States, has a root that weighs more than eighty pounds. These cactuses only bloom for one night each year, typically in June or July

– Opuntia basilaris a spring flowering cactus in the Mohave Desert

– Lomatium latilobum, Desert Parsley in Moab

– Pholisma sonorae, a rare perennial herb called sandfood in the Sonoran Desert (below)



– Gnetum africanum, a vining plant with medicinal and edible properties found in Africa and farmed in Cameroon

– 'Oromo dinich', a mint family tuber bearer in Ethiopia

– Monodora myristica, a fruit tree in Cameroon

– Coccinia abyssinica a nutritious tuber bearing plant in the cucumber family in Ethiopia

– Cucumis humifructus, the rare aardvark pumpkin which grows underground, one of the only plants with subterranean fruits, in Southern Africa

– Cucumis metuliferus, the African horned cucumber found in the Kalahari Desert

– Tylosema esculentum, the Maramba bean found in the Kalahari Desert (below)


– Acanthosicyos horridus, the Nara melon only found in Namibia

– Telfaria pedata, the Oysternut found in Africa

– Dolichos fangitsa, an edible root that tastes like a watermelon found in Madagascar


– Russian Taiga berries, Hippophae rhaminoides (below)


– Cynomorium coccineum, a parasitic flowering plant that has been used historically for its medicinal benefits (found in Europe and Asia).

His present Holy Grail, one he has spent the last decade searching for and yearns to track down, is the Hydnora africana, with ripe fruit. This plant lacks chlorophyll and does not perform photosynthesis. It is unique in that it takes upwards of two years for its fruit to ripen with the fruits growing underground. Finding this would allow him to add yet another marvel to his 'have eaten it' life list, a list which already numbers in the thousands. If only for what this man can tell us about food plants, Joseph is an individual we can all be fascinated in while listening to, because he knows it (food) like few of us ever will.

For more information about Joseph and his adventures, visit

Crystal is the assistant head-farmer and communications specialist at La Vista CSA Farm where she manages the greenhouse, designs and updates the website, and writes for the newsletter. 

Find out more about La Vista CSA Farm at

Crystal blogs for Mother Earth and her personal blog, 

Further resources

Around the World in 80 Plants

Amazing moringa: medicinal, edible & easy to grow

Watch: Replicating nature's systems


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