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Joey Santore examines an Asclepias prostrata flower. (Photo: Courtesy Jesse Will)
Adventures in Audio

How a Vigilante Botanist Became a Cult Icon

Joey Santore examines an Asclepias prostrata flower.

An ex-punk and former train engineer who is self-taught in the sciences, Joey Santore does not fit the mold of the stereotypical botanist. He has lots of tattoos and no college degree and is known for illegal tree-planting projects. Then there’s his voice: a native Chicagoan, he can sound like he’s on an SNL skit about Da Bears. Maybe all this explains why his YouTube channel, Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t, has more than a quarter-million subscribers. We join Santore on a peyote hunt in the South Texas scrublands to try to understand how he’s getting so many different kinds of people to geek out on plants.


This episode is brought to you by Visit Mississippi, a wonderland for outdoor lovers. Learn more about all the adventures to be had across Mississippi at visitmississippi.org.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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[Episode begins]

Maren Larsen (host): From Outside magazine, this is the Outside podcast.

Joey Santore: I don't know why you're taking that kind of stance with me. All right. I'm not trying to harass you. I just don't think what you're doing is safe behavior. I think it's kind of risky. Okay. 

Larsen: Allow me to introduce you to Joey Santore. Joey is standing in the middle of a road in Central California, filming with his phone as he has a heart-to-heart with a very distressed looking Northern Pacific rattlesnake. 

Santore: I thought you was a gopher snake at first. You're ob-, obviously a NorPac. Okay. don't you dare rattle that fucking thing at me. Listen to me. I don't want to hear that. Okay. No, it's not like that. All right. We're, we're keeping it civil. Okay. You got to get out of the road. 

Larsen: Using a stick that does not seem nearly long enough to me, Joey herds the snake out of harm's way as it flicks its tongue ominously, seeming to tolerate -- just barely -- this loud, swearing man trying to save it.

Santore: Being, uh, important members of the natural ecosystem, you know, you don't want to see them, uh, get, get smacked. That's a Crotalus Organus NorPac. I believe Northern Pacific rattlesnake. Take it easy, buddy. Sorry.

Larsen: This video went viral when Joey posted it back in 2019, but venomous snakes are not his typical beat. He has rather unexpectedly earned a bit of internet fame due to his passion for a far less adrenaline-inducing subject: plants. On his YouTube channel, Crime Pays But Botany Doesn't, which has close to 260,000 subscribers, the vast majority of his videos have him giving half-hour-plus-long lectures on topics like plant morphology and evolutionary relationships in his ... very distinctive accent. It's botany 101, mashed up with expletive-laced tirades about consumerist, car-based American culture.

Consider this your heads-up that there are going to be quite a few curse words in this episode. 

Santore: You got your coryphantha, you know, and it all just coming up in the dappled light, the understory of, of the thorn scrub, which of course is getting cleared away at an increasing rate to make room for the fucking Panda express uh, tumor of modern society. Kind of a bummer!

Larsen: I first learned about Joey a few years ago, in a video titled "Guide to Illegal Tree Planting," which was sent my way by a friend familiar with my affinity for both botany and what's known as "guerilla gardening." It starts with Joey on a rideshare e-scooter that a friend of his had hacked using some kind of computer chip he bought online. 

Santore: Anyway guys, here we are once again. And I, my friend's pilfered scooter. Well, he's not pilfered. He's just borrowing. He's gonna, I'm sure he'll return it once he's done. 

Jesse Will: Basically he stole the scooter or somebody handed him the scooter and that's your intro to the whole video, which just seems like appropriate.

Larsen: This is journalist Jesse Will, who profiled Joey for Outside Online. As Jesse points out, what makes Joey's videos different from so many of the strangely popular educational personalities found on YouTube, is that we rarely see much of Joey himself. Usually, we just see his hands, which are covered in tattoos. Behind the camera, the 39-year-old doesn't dress the part of your typical field scientist, instead opting for Oxfords, carpenter jeans, and a baseball cap. But it's his voice that's the real star of the show.

Santore: So today I'm going to show you a little project that I've been engaged in for about the past. I don't know, six or seven years give or take. I just been planting trees, sometimes with permission, mostly without, uh, because the city I live in kind of dropped the ball so hard on their, uh, uh, public beautification efforts

Larsen: Joey made "Guide to Illegal Tree Planting" when he was living in Oakland, California, where a project to enhance the extra-wide median of parkway left him a bit ... uninspired.

Joey: You know, and I kind of like seeing trees. It makes sense. It makes the nausea a little bit easier to deal with. Makes the turd of, uh, uh, life in modern society easier through a swallow, helps it go down easier. 

Larsen: Joey took matters into his own hands and began slowly replacing the non-native, water-sucking ornamentals the city installed with an assortment of plants he grew himself from seed.

Santore: They planted a lot of these roses, which are dying and they planted a bunch of trees that are native to the Eastern U.S. Uh, where you get summer rain. We don't get that here. Of course. So a lot of them just kind of look like shit, right. Let's see. I bet a bunch of illegal tree planting. That's one of mine. And then, uh, of course these are a couple of mine as well. Grew these both from seed. You got a Tecate Cyprus, a Santa Cruz Cyprus, and a Guadalupe Cyprus. 

Larsen: This blend of well-informed science, minor lawbreaking, and humorous rants about the ills of society is what draws people to Joey's YouTube channel, as well as his Instagram account, and his podcast. His appeal is all about sounding nothing like the stereotypical botanist.

But, about that voice. Joey was born in Chicago and yet --

Will: When you speak to them in person that accent gets dialed way back down. it's still there. and he says that accent as a joke, like it just makes him laugh. but I think there's other things happening there it's like in this time that we're in, which is like pretty, anti-science he's getting across these scientific ideas by not sounding like he's shouting at you from the ivory tower, right? He's on your level. He's shooting the shit. And maybe you have a better likelihood of accepting. What he's talking about, if he's speaking directly to you. 

Larsen: Which is to say: sometimes what it takes to get us to give a shit about the natural world is a foul-mouthed amateur scientist. A few months ago, Outside dispatched Jesse Will to tag along with Joey on a field trip to the backroads of South Texas. 

Santore: I'm getting welcome to Mexico texts, we’re so close to the border.

Larsen: Jesse's assignment was to cover Joey's search for a local plant called lophophora williamsii: otherwise known as peyote. Because what better way to understand the guy who created "Crime Pays But Botany Doesn't" than to join him on a hunt for a plant that's a schedule 1 controlled drug? 

Will: It's the oldest psychedelic substance known to man. Right. And, and when I talked to him on the phone, he's he's like, yeah, I know where some populations of that are, you know, I'm going to go look for some new ones. Come along. But he also had this aside at the time, that was like, I get it, yeah of course you had to pitch the psychedelic angle. 

Larsen: And they did find some. Here's Joey pointing out a colony of the quarter-sized gray-green buttons in the video he made about the day. 

Santore: Oh, what's going on here? You gotta, you gotta peyote, a peyote, a lophophora, whole shit tons of peyotes. ‘Nother payote right there, doing that thing they do, just blendin' in with the gravels that have been deposited over the last, I don't know, 300,000 years by the, uh, meandering channel of the Rio Grand-ee.

Will: But it ends up just being a very minor part of the day, hunting down this peyote. and the majority of the day, we're looking for this rare milkweed Asclepias prostrata. 

Larsen: Milkweed is a favorite of many botanists because of its critical importance to the endangered monarch butterfly. But Joey has his own reasons for loving the plant, chiefly its incredible diversity -- there are hundreds of species of milkweed in North America alone -- and unusual flower morphology, laden with abundant nectar and distinctive pollen structures. And it clearly has a special place in Joey's heart, based on a t-shirt he sells.

Will: Uh, he has one that says plant milkweed or get fucked. 

Larsen: As it happens, the particular species of milkweed that Joey wants to find here in South Texas is especially rare. It was recently proposed for the Endangered Species list, and is only observed a few dozen times a year in a handful of locations near the Rio Grande. 

Asclepius prostrata, the prostrate milkweed. Real banger right there. You got those undulate leaf margins with the slightest hint of anthocyanin pigments produced in the red on a leaf margin right there. You got the damn opposite leaves looking at it. You got a fuzzy stem, you got a fuzzy stem. You like the fuzzy stem. another adaptation to that, uh, aridity that, that dry climate.

Will: It looks like a weed. I mean, on some level it looks, it looks like a weed. It's this squat plant. 

Larsen: But Joey doesn't see a weed. Joey sees an integral and resilient piece of an ecosystem. This plant has adapted to lie dormant in its underground rhizome for years until conditions are right. And conditions are tough here, and getting tougher: high heat, poor soil, little rain. Add to that the threat of invasive buffelgrass, which is fast outcompeting this important little weed. To find enough real estate to survive, these prostrata often end up finding their home in the middle of the road. And this is a problem. 

Santore: The biggest population of it keeps repeatedly getting cleared by a well-intended, albeit somewhat oblivious, road grader. I don't know why they got to keep grading the road, but you know, you give a man a machine and you tell him, go do this, give him a mower, give him a road grader. He's going to take that opportunity to, uh, go drive the vroom vroom around and what the shit, you know, let's keep going.

Larsen: Joey's video from South Texas has some 50,000 views and counting. He undoubtedly spurred people who'd never heard about milkweed to give a damn about the plant. Which brings us to a big question: If Joey can get thousands of people invested in the fate of a scraggly weed, what kind of impact can he have on science and conservation at large?

That's coming up … after the break.

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Larsen: Joey Santore's path to becoming an unlikely YouTube star really is one of the most winding journeys you could imagine. 

It starts in Chicago, where he was raised by a single mother who was an elementary school teacher. Joey was interested in science and growing things from an early age: he recalls trips to the Field Museum and propagating elm trees in his backyard. 

But as he told Jesse Will while they traveled around South Texas, once he hit his teen years he tended to get into trouble. 

Santore: I've been breaking relatively unimpactful laws my whole life.

Larsen: He was kicked out of military school and got into graffiti and the punk scene. He tried going to college, but while he enjoyed learning, it seemed like a waste of time and money since he didn't yet know what he wanted to do. 

Santore: And then I realized, I didn't know anything about the country I lived in and it was a big ass country, so why not travel? 

Larsen: Joey had always liked railroads. So he decided that he'd see the U.S. by... hopping freight trains. 

Santore: I like the ambiance of railroads. I associate them with a place to like get away from people and, kind of open air playground. 

Larsen: Riding the rails, he got an up-close tour of the geologic time scale exposed by railroad cuts: layers of rock dating back millennia. This rekindled his love for the sciences, but it wasn't until he found a used astronomy textbook that he really started to get obsessed. 

Santore: So I found this astronomy textbook and then was reading it on a train once. I remember reading about spectroscopy there and that was what really blew my mind was how you could take the light that's reflected off of a star or a planet and put it through a prism and then you'd get a spectral signature of whatever the atmosphere was composed of or whatever the star was composed of.

That was just the revelation then that God, I don't know shit. And it's it's, uh, that kind of grated me. I was like, I feel like an ignoramus. I want to learn how this stuff works.

Larsen: In a move akin to an art thief becoming a museum security guard, train-hopping Joey Santore applied for a job with Union Pacific and was hired on as a brakeman. Along his routes, he would stop at libraries and gain free access to academic papers with the help of pirate websites. First he delved into various sciences and then focused, increasingly, on botany. Specifically, trees. And even more specifically, conifers. He would print out papers to read during downtime on the trains. Soon, he was in deep. 

Santore: The way my mind works, I just obsessed on fix that on something I probably got fucking add or some sort of neurological disorder, you know, that at one point served our species of evolutionary benefit. But is now just kind of leftover. Like I just got really excited when I would read about this stuff. I don't know why. Just imagining the possibilities of like planting something that would get bigger or, you know, dwarf your lifetime and your physical size.

Larsen: Off the clock, Joey began growing rare conifers from seed. First in his backyard in Oakland, and then, as he ran out of space, at the median park close by that became the star of that illegal tree planting video. Many of those unauthorized trees now are more than 30 feet tall.

Over the course of 13 years with Union Pacific, he worked his way up to an engineer, reading about the latest updates in the field of botany whenever he could. But when you hear him talk about what drew him to the science, you get the sense that Joey turned to plants because he was sick of humans. 

Santore: I kind of joke humans have like the king might've shit touch, you know, everywhere we go, even if the intent is good, there's enough of us. We're going to turn it to shit. It's just the way it is. 

Larsen: But you also get the feeling that botany gave him a way to make sense of the world, and of humans' place within it. 

Santore: It's an idea of the bigger picture, you know, instead of this human myopia, where I'm just I'm just concerned about, I view everything through the lens of my own life. And I have no context for anything outside of it. Suddenly I'm able to zoom out and see how the world around me works and how I fit into it and, and observe these relationships that different organisms have with each other. It's totally fascinating stuff, man. And especially where we are now as a species with our understanding of science and the world and all this technology that we have.

I mean, I want to get more people excited about it cuz there's a lot of dark shit coming our way and you know, we're going to need this kind of awareness of ourselves and of the world to be able to deal with it.

Larsen: In other words, as the ecosystems around us erode under humanity's touch, understanding the ways they fit together is more crucial than ever. A knowledge of the relationships between living things and how we have all evolved to survive over time is a coping mechanism and a glimmer of hope in the age of increasingly dire predictions about the progress and effects of climate change. And despite his cynical-seeming exterior, Joey finds beauty in all of this, too. 

Santore: It's, it's like this, recently born into consciousness, species of primate is now able to figure out the world, dissect the world around it and figure out how it fits in. It's just, there's something so inherently beautiful about that. 

Larsen: And so, an ex-punk, former-train-hopper-turned-engineer who doesn't have a college degree is getting hundreds of thousands of people excited about botany using just a camera and his voice. According to Jesse Will, Joey's subscribers don't fit any kind of mold. It's everyone from dope growers to amateur science geeks to viewers who just stumbled onto his YouTube. 

Will: It's a real weird cross section of people that are watching this stuff, it's like people that are propagating weed and they got like maybe a little bit more interested in plants than just weed, you know, they want to know more about it. So they kind of enter this wormhole that's talking about a whole universe, of natural life. Then there are people who got sucked in because of one of those viral videos. That's just the funny accent

you're seeing people that comment and say things like this, guys, the reason why I got interested in plants.

Larsen: But Joey's influence goes beyond just getting laypeople to care about the things growing in their neighborhoods. While some scientists bristle at Joey's swearing or his abrasive politics, most professional plant lovers recognize that his approach is having an important impact. 

Will: Every academic botanist that I talked to was super stoked on his work. Just to get more voices into the fold to invite more people to care about this stuff, because any interest that they get is, is a good thing. 

The fish and wildlife service posted their proposal to put Asclepius prostrata, the plant that he was searching for the day that I shattered him on the endangered species list. And, uh, Joey Sentore is like mentioned, you know, in terms of this plant. So it's like kind of a full circle moment, right? Like the most unofficial citizen scientist possibly you could think of is now one of the researchers,being noted on the, the government paper of record on this stuff. 

Santore: Look at that beautiful bastard, not flowering yet may not flower this year at all. Might just be cooking up carbs, storing it in that tuber and then going dormant for a while. You know, maybe not being seen for, for God knows how long, 

Larsen: Asclepias prostrata is just one species, native to one relatively small ecosystem. We don't know what would happen if it disappeared completely, but Joey says that he doesn't want to find out. And that's why he's lovingly bullying it out of the road, just like he did that rattlesnake. 

Santore: There's something to be said for keeping something like this around, you know, it's, it's a part of this, this interwoven fabric that supports it, supports the life that's been here for millions of years and is part of the bigger picture.

So we shouldn't start trying to, we shouldn't, we shouldn't burn down the library before we understand what's in it, you know,

Larsen: After hearing Joey talk about milkweed, I'm personally in the mood to go plant a whole shit ton of it ... maybe even in places where I'm not supposed to. And Jesse's with me. 

Will: Well, hopefully people will hear this and, you know, chase down this stuff. And maybe they'll look at the plants in their backyard in a different way, or maybe they'll yank out some of those plants and replant something.

My yard now looks a little different from the neighbors next thing you know, it's going to be all milkweed.

Larsen: Oh, yeah, there we go. There's another one just coming up right in the middle of the road, it's a goddamned big prostrata. It's doing pretty good. Every time it feels like an apocalyptic story with this plant. You see it get wiped out, you know, but then of course, you know, they're just hiding. They just hide. So maybe it'll be okay. You can follow Joey Santore on his YouTube channel, Crime Pays But Botany Doesn't, or on his instagram and podcast of the same name. 

This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen:, and edited by Michael Roberts. Jesse Will interviewed Joey Santore. You can read Jesse's story on Outside Online. 

This episode was brought to you by Mississippi, a wonderland for outdoor adventurers. Learn more about all the fun to be had across the state at visitmississippi.org. 

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at outsideonline.com/podplus. Also, we're offering new members a 25% discount. Just enter the code pod25 at checkout. 

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.