Future Minded: An Interview with Richard Ke’aumoana Chung

By Stacey Flowerdew

Richard smiles with a hill filled with orange CA poppies behind him. He's wearing a green tshirt, denim shirt, and glasses.
Richard Chung at Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve

Richard Ke’aumoana Chung, MS, ND, is an ethnobotanist, naturopathic doctor, and lifetime member of CNPS. In February 2020, he returned to California after living in New York for six years and Seattle for 15 years. Even as a state expat, he decided to take the step to include CNPS in his estate plans three years ago. We caught up with him a few days after a marathon U-Haul trek from Seattle to Los Angeles to move back into his childhood home.

The California Floristic Province is a place of really amazing biotic, floristic, and cultural diversity, and I have always been interested in humanity’s sustainability.

When did you first become aware of CNPS?

I was a UCLA geography student and I began volunteering, and eventually became employed, with the El Segundo blue butterfly habitat restoration project. That is 200 to 300 acres of endangered species habitat between LAX and Dockweiler Beach. I started volunteering to restore the habitat of this federally listed endangered butterfly, and they had a nursery to restore the historic coastal dune scrub vegetation to this area. One of my managers on that job belonged to the local LA/Santa Monica Mountains Chapter, Irena Mendez, and I basically followed her!

What spurred you to join CNPS?

Years ago Conservation International came up with a list of places around the world that are biodiversity hotspots, and I happened to grow up in one! The California Floristic Province is a place of really amazing biotic, floristic, and cultural diversity, and I have always been interested in humanity’s sustainability. These hotspots are cradles of plant diversity, and that in turn is a foundation of raw materials for our crops, agriculture, pharmaceutical drugs, and herbal medicines. I think it’s really important to preserve the floristic and biotic diversity of our world just for our own sustainability as humans.

That’s a really holistic answer.

(Laughs) I mean, I really like how CNPS is working to keep track of the status of rare and endangered plant taxa in the state. We have so many relatives of economically useful crops that grow in California. A major food oil is sunflower, and we have a close relative, Helianthus exilis A. Gray, that is endemic to the state of California. That’s not even counting all the plants that sustained Native Californian First Nations for millennia that could very well someday feed many cultures!

I like how you turn it all back to the human realm.

Well, I’m an ethnobotanist, though I did my ethnobotanical research in Guatemala with Kaqchikel Mayan people. All ethnobotanists are really concerned with how there are thousands of human cultures and how these cultures have relationships with hundreds of thousands of plant species. I went into ethnobotany because I was interested in trying to keep our world sustainable for humans. I would like humans to exist if possible — because I am one! In my opinion, I would like humans to continue existing sustainability.

What would you tell someone about why you decided to make a provision for CNPS in your estate plans? Why did you take that extra step to commit at another level?

There are a couple of reasons. One is that I don’t have family any more; I’m the last one, at least for now. I would like the money I inherited to go toward the sustainability of our species, humanity, and the survival of our relationship with our food plants and herbal medicines. I am making an investment in the survival of our species and our relation- ship with the ecosystems. The negative reason is that I don’t have heirs, and the positive reason is I believe in CNPS — it does really important work for humans, our future, and the planet.

That’s really great! Is there anything else you want to say?

I’m still really tired because I just drove 1,360 miles. Last week I vacated my apartment in Seattle, put everything in a U-Haul, my textbooks from my years of school, took the scenic route, unloaded the U-Haul at my new house, returned the U-Haul, and I’m really tired! One thing that really hits me though, hotspots really did something to me. I’m not a member of Conservation International, but I feel that CNPS does something very concrete for our biodiversity hotspot here in California. As an ethnobotanist, the relationship between human cultures and California native plants is fascinating; it’s really important, and it’s really motivating. It compels me.

Thank you so much. Get some rest and welcome back to California.

Thank you!

One Comment

  1. It’s a hard time for ethnobotanists and people like myself who are ethnohistorians (although more books for us as opposed to people). It would be great to work with Dr. Chung (maybe work out some sources and references for his studies) Bill

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