The Plant Hunters

Augustine Henry

I have never understood why Hollywood has not produced a film called The Plant Hunter – correct me if I missed it. Picture the intrepid Scot, battling against all odds, suffering all manner of deprivations and loosing half his staff to disease or head-hunters. There’s action, intrigue, political manoeuvrings and who knows, maybe sex, all to bring a new flower to the gardens of England or a new crop to a far flung corner of the Empire. It used to happen all the time of course and even in this age of GPS there are RHS and Kew sponsored botanists, beavering away in the most unlikely places looking for new species before they disappear from their native habitats. Their stories are a source of endless fascination for me and I enjoy linking plants to their country of origin and those who brought them back for us to enjoy. The clues are often in the name and I was astounded to discover that as a royal gardener in Windsor Great Park I was working in the same establishment as George Forrest junior, whose Father was the Indiana Jones of the plant world. One of the most productive of the plant hunters, introducing 1200 new plant species from western China up to his death in 1932.

On my desk sit two books; Wanderings in China, a 1847 leather bound original by Robert Fortune was given to me on my eighteenth birthday by my Grandmother. She tucked in a number of Central Reserve Bank of China bank notes dating back to 1940 when my Grandfather, an architect in Shanghai, was caught up in the Japanese invasion in the early stages of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The second book is brand new: In the footsteps of Augustine Henry and his Chinese plant collectionsby Seamus O’Brien and published by the Garden Art Press.

The Metasequoia Valley, Hubei province

Fortune was a Scot who served an apprenticeship at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh and went on to become Deputy Superintendent of the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick. At the end of the Opium Wars (Britain has been selling Indian opium to the Chinese in exchange for silver and went to war when the Chinese tried to put a stop to this illegal trade) the Horticultural Society were quick to exploit the new opportunities that a more open country provided. On behalf of the Society (now the RHS) Fortune undertook a series of trips to China from 1843 until his retirement in 1862. He was responsible for the introduction of Tea to India and Ceylon for the East India Company when in 1851 he arrived at the port of Calcutta with 2,000 young plants and 17,000 germinating seeds. He also introduced numerous fine plants to UK gardens including many we take for granted these days and Buddleja lindleyana, in flower this afternoon in my own garden. The tone of his book shows him to be as patronising and zealous as only a British colonial can be.

Augustine Henry was Irish (though born in Dundee in 1857), the son of a grocer and flax merchant, who had also tried his hand in the goldfields of America and Australia. A brilliant scholar, Augustine had degrees from Galway, Belfast and Edinburgh in natural science, philosophy and medicine. In 1881 he joined the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, an organisation run by Europeans for the Chinese government, based in Shanghai on the Yangtze River and his employer for nearly twenty years. While Fortune risked his life in many of his clandestine plant hunting exploits, Henry was an employee of a service with stations throughout China and as such had access to the most remote corners of the empire.

Xiang Xi River

Collecting plants for scientific study in his spare time, Henry long felt that a professional should be dispatched from the UK to exploit the rich sources of plant life he was discovering. Eventually in 1899 the nurserymen James Veitch and Sons sent E.H.Wilson to find ornamental plants for them and in this Wilson was standing on the shoulders of the scholarly giant who had opened up the opportunities before him. Wilson was specifically tasked to bring back seed of Davidia involucrate which Henry had collected and described ten years earlier.

Plants of the three gorges region were collected by both Henry and Wilson. The flooding of a vast area by spanning the Yangtze to create the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric barrier, would result in the loss of many unique plants and animals. The goal of Shamus O’Brien was to explore this region, following the routes used by Augustine Henry, before the flooding obliterated everything. The book describes Henry’s plant hunting expeditions in some detail, giving us a real feel for the enormous amount of effort which went into locating and recording the plants he discovered. The results of just one 6-month trip were 27,300 meticulously collected, tagged, recorded and preserved herbarium specimens. O’Brian himself has catalogued the full 158,000 specimens collected by Henry in China.

A Three Gorges native - Lagerstrroemia indica in our own garden

The book recounts the setting up of O’Brian’s own expeditions to Sichuan and Hubei provinces in 2002 and 2004, visiting Henry’s old haunts in the region. Full of enticing detail, it is the ideal botanists travel adventure book, switching backwards and forwards between the original and contemporary expeditions. There are huge lists of plant names but also fascinating descriptions of specimens as they were found. Henry’s thoughts on the location and characteristics of each plant and explanations of how they are used locally or might be used in our gardens make enthralling reading. The current situation is well observed, describing the cities, towns and villages they passed through and comparing them to the accounts from Henry’s time. Photographs of the countryside, plants and people encountered are liberally distributed throughout the book, together with a number of pictures from archives of Henry’s visits.

This is a big book in every sense, exciting to read and one to be dipped into again and again. One of the early cities visited was the provincial of Wuhan, just 25 miles from the dam, where I have landscape design clients. Here, assistance was sought from Botanical Garden staff, who guided around the Three Gorges region. Luscious plant descriptions continually remind the reader of the debt we owe this region and those who introduced native plants to our gardens. We can be grateful too for a book of such massive scope, which puts it all into context by retracing the footsteps of Augustine Henry.

The book is available from the Garden Design Academy bookstore.

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