Speaking of quests, what if you find the Holy Grail and nobody cares?
"The only person to respond so far is The Washington Post," the achiever said.
"Well, it's a beginning," a Post reporte said, concealing his annoyance about "only The Post."
Pat DiGiaro is a 31-year-old commercial credit analyst who works in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn. He's an amateur gardener, sort of, and in his small bit of land grows tomatoes and things "mostly to eat," and once took a flier on pumpkins and is thinking of maybe pole beans. But he is not one of your fanatical gargeners, though fate has led him to an enthusiasm for Welwitschia bainesii, and that's where complications started:
"I got to thinking, what's the rarest plant in the whole world? Botany is my interest.I asked the New York Horticultural Society and an old gentleman told me Welwitschia bainesii, so I said where can I see one.
"He said not on this coast, and I said that's not fair.
"Why don't we have welwitschias at our botanic gardens? Not at the Bronx, not at Brooklyn, or Farmingdale or Carey or Planting Fields or Stoonybrook. (And not at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, either.)
"The upshot is I got seeds from Africa but welwitschias are not plants you can just stick out in your garden, they have very special requirements." The plant was raised, for all that, and now DiGiaro has offered it for sale for $10,000 in The Wall Street Journal.
The plant is excessively rare, native to southwestern Africa where rain rarely falls. They had one at Kew, the Royal Horticultural Society observed in its great encyclopedia, which also says the plant consists of only one species of one genus of one family that is akin to no other member of the plant kingdom.
"A remarkable plant of no beauty but unique character," the encyclopedia says, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder and since when, for God's sake, did everybody have to be Clark Gable?
Mount Everest isn't all that beautiful either, but guys are on fire to climb it, and not everything has to be pretty for a human to get all excited about it.
Once DiGiaro got the seeds, there was the problem of raising them. The plant itself forms a sort of obconical trunk a few inches high, from which sprout two leaves, and eventually (it may take 20 years) a cyme of little cones with inconspicuous flowers.
The American Journal of Botany (April-May 1953) included articles by Robert J. Rodin of California Polytechnic on seedling welwitschias, and there is a reasonable amount of information in botanic literature about them. But they do require highly skilled and specialized care.
It is "unlikely to prove anywhere easy to cultivate," as the Royal Horticultural Society points out in its book. On the West Coast, however, they have flowering old specimens, and it is believed there are some at Montreal and other botanic gardens.
DiGiaro began asking about and in time was directed to Longwood Gardens, the celebrated botanic collection at Kennett Square, Pa.
"Novice that I was," said DiGiaro, he went to a number of botanic gardens, none of which seemed in the least interested in him or his rare seeds. gHe thinks he "turned off" some botanists and was in turn turned off by them.
"Maybe it's because you aren't a botanist and aren't used to the way big botanic gardens work," it was suggested.
"Right," he said, "I was an outsider."
But at Longwood, he said, he was received kindly by Dr. Robert Armstrong, who already had two welwitschias in the collection (they are in experimental greenhouses not open to the public, by the way).
"I try to be nice to all the people who come," Armstrong said, "but I am unhappy about this. DiGiaro may not understand what we understand here, the critical importance of Longwood's image in the public mind. Since DiGiaro gave us the seeds, we offered him a plant from seed we raised. But we don't want people thinking the Longwood collection is for sale or that we readily raise seeds for anybody that drops in."
But this was hardly like DiGiaro taking zinnia seeds to Longwood and asking them to raise them for him. The seeds are uncommon, and Longwood coule use them, so what was more natural than that DiGiaro would be given one plant from his own seeds? What's the problem? Armstrong said:
"Usually we exchange plants with another botanic garden, or with botanical collectors and no price is set on plants. We do not put monetary value on rare plants. If DiGiaro had simply taken his gift plant home and sold it, fine. But the plant is still here, and I don't want it to appear in any way that Longwood plants can be sold by somebody running an ad somewhere.
"The plant is not all that rare -- it's rare, but there are plants rarer. What if somebody thinks our welwitschias are worth $10,000 and tried to steal them? I'd like Longwood kept out of this completely, simply because it looks as if Longwood is somehow involved in a purely mercenary scheme. We feel a little bit used.
"We sprouted the seeds and have grown them along successfully for four years and offered DiGiaro a plant, as we would offer to another garden or a cooperating collector. But not for some mercenary scheme, not at all."
Armstrong was asked:
"Do you think DiGiaro's ad was not so much to raise $10,000 selling his plant as to sort of celebrate the success of his project -- acquiring what he had been told was the rarest plant in the world?"
"I think he's honest in his thought. He sort of rushes in without thinking how it looks," Armstrong said. "When he phoned me to say he'd placed the ad in The Wall Street Journal I guess I lit into him -- I'd been having a session with real estate people and was not in the best humor when he called."
"But since there was nothing unusual about Longwood raising rare seeds and giving the donor one plant, what harm can have been done?" Armstrong was asked.
"It's just not the way it's done -- the tone is all wrong," he said.
Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, DiGiaro said:
"For me it was a personal quest. I learned about the welwitschias and corresponded and got the seeds, then I went to botanic gardens and found Longwood would talk with me and actually grew the plants. And now I think Dr. Armstrong is mad. Sometimes I feel bad -- there've been a lot of good things connected with it."
So the quest is finished. At the moment, a few ruffled feathers perhaps. At the moment, a few doubts whether the quest was even worthwhile?
Come to think of it, who now remembers even the name of the fellow who found the Grail, or what happened to it? But everybody remembers the quest was undertaken.