Primulas and the Planthunters.
by Ken Beeken.
It was over 40 years ago. I was living in a somewhat isolated part of New England at the time. Every fall the sugar maples, sweet gums and sumachs sounded their clarion call that heralded another winter with a mantle of vivid red which contrasted sharply with the yellow hue of the birch leaves. There could be epic winters too with a virgin white snowscape, the surface of which was scarred here and there with the tracks of mysterious wild-life creatures. The utter evening silence combined with the white clad terrain and star studded sky was mesmeric. When spring briefly burgeoned into summer I particularly recall a glade where the sun filtered through the canopy and reflected on the surface of a rill whose cold, crystal clear water swirled around mossy rocks and disputed the fern clad banks. I suppose trilliums, jacks-in the-pulpit and many other woodland treasures grew there, but alas, I knew nothing of their existence then - to my profound regret ever since. Some years pass and the scene changes to a brand new garden in Wales. But what on earth (if you'll forgive the expression) does one do with a green field site? I began by reading voraciously and it seems in retrospect that those early days had released a safety catch which merely awaited some slight pressure on the trigger to fire the imagination. David Douglas (1799-1834) provided this stimulus, his expeditions to E. and N.W. America and what is now British Columbia held me in thrall. It was so easy to identify in my mind's eye the territory through which he trekked, that I became irretrievably hooked upon the stories of the plant collectors and their era.
We must leave the North American continent here, for it is, arguably, not noted for its primulas. For them, in the context of this story, we must go beyond the northern bounds of India to Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, North Burma, China and Japan, because that is where this intrepid band of men largely, but not exclusively, operated. Europe, therefore, plays no part in these events.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, botanizing was restricted mainly to the occasional forays of colonial or consular staff, or by employees of merchants (such as the Dutch East India Company) operating within the confines of designated trading areas. The outlook for botanizing in these regions was bleak. China's borders were implaccably closed to the "foreign devils", Japan was no better and the hostility of the Tibetan monks frequently matched its climate. In view of this, it is astonishing how many plants were discovered and even introduced during the period before China's borders were opened to Europeans. All the florist flowers of China (chrysanthemum, moutan paeonia, azalea and camellia) were introduced during the earlier period and quite soon varieties of chrysanthemums, far superior to the original introductions, were being developed here.
One of the problems of these early finds is illustrated by the tender Primula sinensis. It was introduced in the early 19th century, but plants did not survive the journey home and seeds failed to germinate, so it had to await Charles Maries, working for the famous firm of James Veitch & Sons, who sent viable seed in 1895. The Wardian case and improved techniques were to enable a much better survival rate for both plants and seed.
When China first opened its doors particularly after the Opium war of 1860 French
missionaries were quick to take advantage, although a few had gained acceptance earlier because of their scientific knowledge: this newly found freedom of movement was always relative and precarious and some were murdered. Abbe Soulie, who discovered P.polyneura and is commemorated by P.soulei was caught by the monks of Petang during this period of Chinese/Tibetan friction, tortured and finally shot. His colleague Bourdonnec was killed some months later together with his successor. Pere Dubernard (P.dubernardiana), who had been of help to Forrest, was murdered during the same period, and Forrest himself, who was in the vicinity, had to
flee leaving all his equipment and belongings. He was hunted remorselessly before finally making his escape.
Robert Fortune had difficulty persuading the Horticultural Society to provide him with firearms. They did so somewhat reluctantly at the last moment with fortunate (no pun intended) consequences. While travelling by small boat along the China coast his party was attacked by pirates. Fortune, a dour steadfast Scot, told his companions to get out of sight, waited until the last moment, then cooly raked them with gunfire and drove them off to the extreme relief and gratitude of the crew. But taking everything into consideration it is astonishing how many collectors survived unscathed. Much of the missionaries work involved collecting herbarium material, and they did find some wonderful plants. Among the primulas Pere David is credited with P.heucherifolia, but Pere Delavay found many of the primulas that were subsequently introduced by others, such as PP forbesii, malacoides, sinopurpurea, poissonii and sonchifolia.
Turning to Japan, described by "The Garden" in 1883 as the England of the East. The first 17th century European missionaries were received with much kindness, but they (Spanish and Portugese) repaid it with cruelty and intolerance which resulted in Europeans being banned for over two hundred years. The Dutch and the Chinese, who had sent no missionaries, were allowed limited trading concessions at the port of Nagasaki. As the 19th century progressed, the Japanese began to realise that their isolation was leaving them behind Western developments, but it was not until 1853 when the American Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with an alarming show of force, yet without making one single aggressive act, that the policy was changed and the country was more or less opened up.
Of that earlier period, when Westerners had such a tenuous toehold, we might perhaps select one man whose work is of particular interest to us. He was Dr.Philipp von Siebold (1791-1866), the son of a Bavarian doctor who had graduated as an eye specialist before being appointed physician/naturalist to the Dutch East India Company. The Japanese were prone to eye trouble (cataracts), which resulted in Siebold being in great demand and for some time he was in a very privileged position with access to the mainland. His story is told more fully by Alice M. Coats in The Quest for Plants, (Studio Vista 1969.), and he was responsible for introducing P.sieboldii in 1862. If ever we can call a plant enigmatic then this primula is certainly it. Clarence Elliott professed an intense dislike for it and would not grow it, Roy Green (Asiatic Primulas) claims he cannot grow it, yet this member of the wide ranging cortusoides section is not all that difficult, (or so I find). We are told that it is the Japanese equivalent of our show auricula with many named varieties some of which are reputedly of great beauty. I think I detect an increasing interest in it and some nurseries are currently listing named varieties, so maybe it will find a wider popularity in the future.
Once the flood-gates were opened, the botanists poured in, among them Robert Fortune (1812-1880). He was one of the earliest of the recognised plant collectors, probably his main interest was in that plant of economic importance-tea. However his brief sojourn in Japan did bring forth P.japonica. I would like to write of an arduous search for it, but I am afraid an enterprising Japanese brought it to his door (it seems they were enterprising even in those days) so in this rather mundane way another garden worthy primula reached our shores. Fortune called it the "Queen of Primroses" with its 2' spikes of rich magenta, but he did exaggerate a bit as there are poor colour forms so it is probably safer to stick to named varieties or the best strains that are available.
John Gould Veitch of the nursery firm was in Japan at the same time (in fact Fortune met both him and Siebold) and during his short tour introduced Primulas amoena and cortusoides. Coats says he also introduced P. japonica although most authorities attribute it to Fortune, but as it was fairly common no doubt both brought back plant material/seed. Over the next half century Japan was the target of many collectors, but we must gloss over their activities in our pursuit of primulas.
It is helpful to have in one's mind the social and economic conditions which provided the impetus for the planthunters. The English landed gentry had a penchant for improving their estates, "exploring the genius of the place", as it was contemporaneously put, John Evelyn (1620-1706) of "Silva" fame being an early example. The English landscape period of Wm. Kent, Capability Brown and Repton followed mainly during the 18th century. The industrial revolution, while spawning ugly urban sprawl and the rape of much beautiful British countryside, also saw the emergence of a nouveau riche class, sometimes with more money than good taste (witness the Victorian love of formality and the garish carpet bedding craze), but, it must be admitted, attractive estates were also developed and there were many more gardens to fill. Nursery firms such as Veitch and individuals like A.K.Bulley (1861-1942), a wealthy Cheshire cotton merchant who established Bees and whose garden (Ness) is now administered by Liverpool University, were ready to exploit these opportunities by sponsoring or taking shares in the expeditions- which were in effect gardening syndicates. Private patrons played a significant part in supporting the planthunters backed by botanical gardens such as Kew.
If it appears that this account refers mostly to British collectors, it is neither horticultural jingoism nor a detraction from the work of the many European and North American botanists, it merely implies that the right social and economic conditions came together simultaneously in this country to encourage their work and provide an eager and receptive market for their discoveries. Also, despite a period of Victorian formality, much of the planting was of an informal nature and the primulas of Asia found a ready home amongst the many tree, shrub and hardy plant introductions. There is one other point; we have a maritime climate, which in spite of its vagaries, enables us to grow a wide range of plants. In the vastness of southern Asia, much of the climate is tropical or subtropical and totally different to the temperate zones. Some areas are subject to desiccating winds blowing from Central Asia and the Tibetan plateau. Also high ranges form water sheds so that one side may be arid the other enjoying a higher rainfall and indeed, to complicate matters even further, especially during monsoon seasons, some districts may experience constantly dripping conditions. Thus altitude in these circumstances may not always be a reliable guide to hardiness and we know how intractable some primula species seem to be on account of these factors. On the other hand bog/candelabra primulas have taken to our gardens like natives. Our expertise in growing European primulas helps us to cope with the truly alpine species which are covered in snow for some months of the year and we can tell from our own shows that some members of the petiolares section are being increasingly exhibited, which is an encouraging sign. Many species still remain intractable, particularly those with over-wintering resting buds, which do not readily survive outdoors in this country, especially in the south. In his book Cox covers this question of climate and states that the main areas for collecting were the Himalayas, North Burma and in China, Szechuan, Yunnan, Kansu and Hupeh.
Now we come to what has often been described as the golden age of plant hunting and to the men who were
mainly responsible for introducing so many primulas to our gardens. It profits ordinary gardeners little to know that a species is adequately described in flawless botanical Latin, ably supported by an excellent dried specimen reposing between sheets of paper in some musty herbarium, if we cannot appreciate for ourselves the beauty of the living plant. This then is the extent of our indebtedness because they not only discovered new primulas, but introduced or re-introduced so many others that had been found earlier, thus enriching our gardens immeasurably. This period of peak activity lasted more or less from the late 19th century to, say, the death of Frank Kingdon-Ward in 1958. Several were not particularly associated with primulas, among them E.H.Wilson (1876- 1930) and Joseph Rock, but Wilson, who made six expeditions altogether, first for Veitch and then for the Arnold arboretum of which he became keeper before being tragically killed in a car crash in America, did introduce PP. cockburniana, veitchii, vittata (secundiflora), and wilsonii, which bears his name. It is said that his travels resulted in 30,000 plant species being described of which 1000 were new discoveries, but I have not been able to obtain a list of primulas attributed to him. Rock, who was born in Vienna, worked for the US Dept of Agriculture and covered much the same ground as Forrest and Ward, both of whom he met. He found P.rockii (section bullatae) in the mountains of S.W.Szechuan, but Green says it probably is not in cultivation now. Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) needs no introduction to primula lovers and writing about him covers well trodden ground. What is pertinent to this story, however, is his two expeditions to Asia in 1914 and 1919. He had previously visited Japan after leaving Oxford and had taken the Buddhist faith. He now joined William Purdom (1880-1921), a north country man who had been collecting for the Arnold Arboretum and Veitch. A stranger pair never met. Farrer, a stocky figure in khaki shorts and shirt, faded topee and old boots with stockings around his ankles, tireless, volatile and full of enthusiasm. Purdom, shy and retiring was the very antithesis, but the two gelled immediately. Farrer, not the easiest of men, thought so highly of Purdom that his two books about the expeditions, On the Eaves of the World (two vols 1919) and The Rainbow Bridge (1921) were dedicated "to Bill" whom he termed " an absolutely perfect friend and helper". Purdom later took an official Chinese forestry post (1915) and spent the remainder of his life living in a railway car in remote areas. He died in the French hospital in Peking following a minor operation. He is commemorated by P.purdomii, which he collected in 1911 and was shown at the Primula Conference in 1913. It is doubtful if it is still in cultivation and the same comment applies to P.farreriana (nivalis) which was found in Kansu. Farrer chose the Kansu border with Tibet because he thought it had not been worked thoroughly by other collectors, but it was not the best area for non-woody plants being influenced by the Tibetan plateau and cold prevailing winds from the N.W. It is also mountainous with barren rocks. It is doubtful whether many of the primulas
collected by Farrer and Purdom are in general cultivation today. In fact from the 29 separate species I extracted from the index of the two books I have mentioned, only P.polyneura (listed as lichiangensis) and P.wardii (syn yargongensis, see also Forrest) are offered in the seed exchanges of the alpine societies plus a few type species from various primula sections. In 1919 Farrer went to Burma with Euan Cox. Cox, having to return, left Farrer to press on into more remote regions in continuously wet conditions. He became ill at Nyitadi and died. He was buried at Konglu in N.Burma where a neat brass tablet records "In loving memory of Reginald Farrer of Ingleborough, Yorkshire...he died for love and duty in search of rare plants." Another collector who suffered a similar fate was George Forrest (1873-1932). A tough Scot, born in Falkirk, he was ideally suited to life on the mountains and in the forest (again, no pun intended). His calibre can be gauged by the fact that before the turn of the century he had used a small legacy to visit relatives in Australia, subsequently enduring the pioneering hardships of the goldfields, which broke many a man, before sampling life on a sheep farm.He returned to Scotland via South Africa in 1902. His interest in botany brought him into contact with Prof. Balfour at the RBG Edinburgh together with a minor post in the herbarium, which led to an introduction to A.K.Bulley. Bulley was the sponsor of his first two trips, though between 1904 and 1932 he made six expeditions, operating mostly in N.W.China and Tibet. Like Ward he was one of the first to explore that vast mountain system that is the source of the great rivers of India and China. Here again, many of his introductions can only be the milder parts of the U.K., if at all. Unlike Farrer and Ward he trained and used native collectors with the result that he sent home as many botanical specimens as Wilson, plus a vast amount of seed. His primula collections rank with that of Ludlow and Sherriff, but he worked over much of the ground previously covered by Delavay. Delavay collected little seed concentrating upon herbarium material, so of the 154 primula species and sub-species Forrest collected, 84 were originally thought to be new, but this was halved when 42 had to be reduced by synonymy. Forrest hoped most would prove amenable to cultivation in Europe, but he was over-optimistic although many remain, among them the magnificent candelabras. It is clear that an article devoted to Forrest alone could be written, so we must select just a few examples of his energy and enterprise. Primula serratifolia was located on the Tali range in 1905 and flowered by Messrs. Bees. Primulas beesiana and bulleyana were discovered on the Li-Chiang range in 1906 and were in cultivation three years later. Primula helodoxa from the streams and marshy meadows of Tengyueh was gathered in 1912 and gained an award of merit for Wallace of Colchester in 1916. Primula anisodora (which is very similar to P.poissonii and wilsonii) came from the Chungtien plateau in 1913 flowering here also in 1916. Primula aurantiaca of the moist alpine meadows on the Chiench'uan-Mekong divide was flowered in 1923 just one year after its introduction. Apart from P.serratifolia, all were new species. PP beesiana and bulleyana are very similar though Forrest claimed there was no close association in the wild, their ranges do overlap however. There was less success with the nivalids he collected, 17 in all, of which 10 were new species. Most have not flourished as they grow under moist conditions during their active period and have a protracted, un- interrupted winter rest, so they cold season. Forrest found P.chionantha in the extreme N.W.Yunnan in 1913 confined to alpine meadows and this has proved more amenable. He also introduced P.sinopurpurea, found by Delavay in 1883 and it still persists in gardens (with me it has died), but seed is regularly offered in the exchanges. Forrest also introduced PP.nutans (flaccida) and vialli, both of which tend to be short-lived, however the primula which bears his name was found in 1906 on the Li-chiang range and was flowered in Britain in 1909. He described how "the plant specially adapted to the situation in which it is commonly found; ie the crevices of dry, shady limestone cliffs, in having long extremely tough rootstock 2'-3' in length.... the plant is almost pendulous for the full length....Judging from the length of the rootstock, allowing two whorls of leaves for one year's growth- a liberal estimate- some plants much reach the age of 50-100 years." The story of P.yargongensis is interesting; A.E.Pratt (P.prattii) a zoologist collected a few plants almost incidentally while exploring in far West China. He first discovered it near Tatsienlu in 1880. Veitch raised the first flowering specimens from seed sent by Wilson under a synonym. Then Forrest made another collection in 1913-14 as P.wardii on the Yangtze bend and it has proved one of the most amenable of the farinosae section, setting seed freely. And so we could go on, but if readers can beg or borrow (I draw a line at the third option) a copy of George Forrest- Journeys and Plant Introductions, published jointly by the RHS and Oxford University press in 1952 there is a truly fascinating account of his primula collections and it is estimated that about a third of the species he handled remain in cultivation. In 1930 he set out on what was to be his last trip before retiring with the intention of rounding off his previous work in Yunnan. All his collectors were out in the field and in one of his last letters he wrote " Of seed such an abundance.......Primulas in profusion, seed of some of them as much as 3-5 lbs.....if all goes well I shall have made a rather glorious and satisfactory finish to all my past years of labour." How prophetic! On January 5th 1932 George Forrest died while out shooting a few miles from Tengyueh. It is also a great shame that he never found time to write of his experiences apart from sundry articles and letters. He was probably saving that task for a retirement that never came.
We come now to someone who could be classified as the most complete collector of all. A man who was a geographer, ecologist, botanist and writer, who gave his address to Who's Who as "No fixed abode" and who certainly put the action where his pen was by leading a semi-nomadic life. He was, of course, Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958). He seemed to have little interest in worldly possessions and it is said he didn't even have a complete set of his own books of which there were 24. He was never financially well-off and his writing didn't appear to bring him the sort of return he deserved. Kingdon-Ward was the son of a professor of botany at Cambridge and he himself was educated there. He became a teacher in Shangai, which led to visits to the interior. Bulley sponsored the first of his 25 plant hunting trips in which he covered Tibet, N.Burma, moving into China from time to time. Like Farrer he preferred to work alone, seeing the plants for himself before recording and collecting his specimens and seed, usually living frugally off the land with his porters and on more than one occasion suffered semi-starvation. He possessed original ideas about geography and the extent of the Himalayan range, several of his smaller books reflecting his interest in non-botanical subjects. Even so, he did have an intuitive eye for a good garden plant, though working in isolation did mean he could cover less ground than Forrest with his bulk collecting using subordinate native workers. The initial journey in 1911 through Yunnan, Tibet and N.Burma resulted in his first book "The Land of the Blue Poppy" (1913) in which 12 primulas are mentioned. I will quote one passage from it:- He and his porters had crossed a cold stream by means of a tree trunk, climbed through bamboo thickets before crossing a snow bridge beneath which the torrent had cut its way, thus reaching the head of the valley. Before them rose the snow clad rock wall of the Mekong- Salween watershed, "The alpine flowers spread out at our feet were magnificent- the Thalictrums, Caltha, Anemone, Primula watsonii, and higher up the dwarf blue P.bella with Soldanellas, Azaleas, Columbines and many more forming sheets of colour. Every rock and boulder supported a small garden of Saxifrages and tufted alpines, every marsh displayed masses of some rare flower such as P.souliei with sedges, Gentians and spagnum." On the basis of this there is little wonder that plant-hunting got into the very bones of this man. Like Forrest, the primulas associated with him are too numerous to list (even if I had a complete one), but he will always be associated with the magnificent P.florindae, found on both sides of the Tsangpo river (and named after his first wife) and P.alpicola, which he dubbed "Joseph's sikkimensis primula" because of its five varietal colours. He said it formed a "herbaceous border along the forest paths". P.sikkimensis originally found by Hooker during his1848-9 Himalayan journey, he called the "moonlight primula". It was abundant in the Tsangpo gorges. During the Hitler war he was in Asia teaching the armed forces jungle survival techniques and afterwards seeking crashed aircraft for the American government. By now he was 60 yet he went back to the hills of Assam and Manipur. But the world was changing and for his final expedition to N.Burma he had to go to Rangoon (a place he disliked) to get permission from the bureaucrats of a now independent state. He died in 1958 having returned to London. Even then it is said he was planning another expedition. Inside my copy of his last book Pilgrimage for Plants (1), printed two years after his death, I have the leader page from the Gardeners Chronicle dated Dec.10th 1960, which is devoted to this book. Let me quote the last paragraph. "Twice Kingdon-Ward had the opportunity to abandon his way of life and enjoy the security of an official botanical appointment at home. Both times he refused. In his last book he looks back on his career and asks himself the question "Forty five years holiday? Or forty five years hard?? I'm not sure which. But - well yes both." And we believe he was right." We will probably never see his like again, this man who was known in N.Burma as NAMPAN DU WA – flower chief. If Kingdon-Ward was the last of the truly great individual plant collectors there remains one pair of "heavenly botanical twins" as Coats called them, in the forms of Frank Ludlow (1885-1972) and Major George Sherriff (1898-1967). Ludlow studied natural science with an emphasis on botany (under Prof.Ward, Kingdon-Ward's father) and after graduating took an appointment in Karachi.
After the first World-War he became an inspector of schools in India and later headmaster of a European type school in Lhasa. Thus he learned to love the eastern Himalayas. After retiring to Srinagar he visited Kashgar in 1927 where he met Sherriff with whom he was destined to make seven expeditions with a particular emphasis on primulas and meconopsis. Sherriff was born in Stirlingshire, but was educated at Sedbergh and the Royal Military Academy. After the 1914-18 war, where he served on the NW Frontier, he entered the consular service before joining forces with Ludlow in 1932-33. Like Farrer and Purdom they were an oddly assorted pair yet sharing a close harmony of views in many ways. In a Quest of Flowers ( Edinburgh University Press. 1975), Sir George Taylor, former director of Kew, who wrote the introduction to this book about their exploits said that they could never bring themselves to call each other by their christian names, always their surnames. Both returned to political duties in India during the Second World War, Ludlow becoming "our man in Lhasa" in 1942. Strangely enough he was relieved by Sherriff. Their first trip in 1933 was to NE Bhutan and lasted five months. Of their first six discoveries, four were primulas, the initial one being gracilipes, which had been introduced in 1886 under the name of P.petiolares var.Nana. Number 2 was P.denticulata, which had flowered in Britain 130 years previously. The others were the closely related PP griffithii and tanneri respectively. Comment was made on the beauty of the former with its deep purple yellow-eyed flowers. Both have hybridised and neither are widely cultivated particularly in the south. Sherriff found the beautiful dwarf P.kingii (section amethystina) the first time recorded in Bhutan. It is barely in cultivation but it is a jewel with its rich claret pendulous flowers. They found P.eburnea (soldanelloidea) at 16,200 ft under rocks sheltered from wind and rain, but in sun. They called it the gem of the eastern Himalayas with a head of six to twelve ivory-white funnel shaped flowers. It was originally discovered by Cooper in 1915 and when Bulley flowered it for the first time in 1919, it received an award of merit from the RHS. It seems to need the importation of fresh seed to keep it going. 1934 saw them in Tibet and E. Bhutan where immediately they found two new species, P.sherriffae, named in honour of Major Sherriff's mother, and P.ludlowii, both growing in moss, the latter having very little horticultural merit. Primulas waltonii and bellidifolia were located, both being available via the seed exchanges, the former usually in a hybrid and therefore more amenable guise. At 14,000ft they saw about 30 acres of fields chock full of P.sikkimensis, which must have been a remarkable sight with its pale yellow flowers. In 1936 they were back in the same general area, when to their dismay they learned that Kingdon-Ward had just left. However, after Ludlow had contacted him he sent details of his itinerary which avoided covering the same ground and Kindon-Ward even made suggestions where they might profitably botanize. At one point near the Choling La pass (10,000ft) they located P.gracilipes growing alongside what they took to be a blue form. They came to realise it was quite distinct especially with its beautiful resting bud and overlapping mealy scales. It was similar to P.whitei (which Sir Claude White had found in 1905), yet there were botanical differences. Ward also found the same plant and by agreement all round it was called P.bhutanica. Later it was reduced to the limbo of synonymy by being lumped with P.whitei. In 1936 they introduced it into Britain by air-freighting living plants. As the journey progressed the primula season burst upon them and Sherriff wrote:" I have never seen more of any primula (the royal purple, golden-eyed P.calderiana) except sikkimensis when going down to Maygo. In places the grassy hillsides were covered for areas of nearly 100 yards square. But the prettiest sight was when it was in masses in parts of the forest"...."some of the plants were magnificent"...."I counted on one particular plant with one stem no less than 48 blooms. Of these nearly half had petals in place of stamens." P.calderiana (petiolares) was first collected by Hooker in Sikkim in 1849. Sherriff also found P.ioessa at 14000ft in bare open hillside. He describes it as a striking sikkimensis type with hanging fragrant bells pale madder pink within and almost white with meal outside. It is, of course, successfully cultivated and received an A.M. when exhibited by R.B.Cooke of Corbridge in 1957. In July, Sherriff also collected the scented pale blue violet P.hyacinthia so very like P.bellidifolia, but usually with white farina on the lower sides of the leaves. It was literally all over the hills at 12,500-16,000ft. It is readily available from seed exchanges and in the trade. In 1937 the pair were operating in central Bhutan using Chendebi as a sort of base. Primulas were everywhere and P.whitei was in such profusion as to cover large areas of the steep slopes of the rhododendron forest with delft or pale blue -violet.
"Every time I see that primula I think it is the prettiest one I have ever seen and always I feel elated, however many times I see it." In 1938 they were in the Tsangpo river area of S.E.Tibet accompanied by Sir George Taylor. This was their last journey until after the war, but sadly most of the primulas, beautiful though they were, did not survive in cultivation. In 1946-47 they returned to the same region and marvelled once more at the sight of Primulas whitei, gracilipes, atrodenta and pumilio all flowering in winter at temperatures of -5 degrees Fahrenheit.. They saw P.chungensis in masses, this being another candelabra species for which seed is readily available and they continued to collect many of the species found before the war. Their expedition to Bhutan in 1949 saw the discovery of P.bracteosa (petiolares) at 12,500ft on the Tseli La . They returned to Britain in 1950, Ludlow to spend the remaining years of his life working on the collection at the British Museum, Sherriff and his wife Betty to farm in Angus, where his home in Ascreavie (a wilderness) was transformed into a Himalayan paradise. Thus ends this narrative about some of the men who went out to search for the many wonderful plants that grace our gardens today. One thing remains to be said: the rapidity and ease with which we can now reach hitherto remote areas should give us some cause for concern. The last wild frontiers (if any still truly exist) are disappearing as quickly as a raindrop on a hot tin
roof. One has merely to read the adverts in the weekend press and the publications of some of our reputable horticultural societies to see what is meant. Exciting "getawayfromitall" holidays with trekking and seed collecting now and goodness what else later. For example I saw an Indian tourist official on V reminding us they have a long northern frontier with the Himalayas and skiing facilities would not be a problem. Now there's a nice oneupmanship idea for you. Never mind the distance, feel the exoticism. We already have a litter problem in the region due to junk left behind by some thoughtless climbing expeditions, now we have the prospect of ski-lifts and all the paraphernalia of modern outdoor leisure activities. The small strategic states of the area will surely be unable to resist the seduction of tourism (thus garnering backsheesh, rupees or whatever), but can they control the effect upon their environment of erosion caused by tramping feet and the egregious result of western influenced development. We have only to witness the effect all these have had on the habitat of our European flora. As a lad, nurtured on Kipling and Conrad, and weaned on Maugham, some place names seemed to hold a romanticism and mystique all of their own, due in part no doubt to their over-the-horizon inaccessibility. Rangoon held such an aura for me in those days (shades of the Road to Mandalay perhaps?).
Then one day I found myself standing on its quayside looking at the swirling muddy waters that had swept out of the mouth of the Irrawaddy. I should have been imbued with a sense of inner excitement. Was I really standing in the steps of F.Kingdon-Ward and others? Unfortunately the filth, squalor and neglect of several decades of repressive, military centralised control exorcised any romantic notionsI might have had. (2). But the planthunters heading north through Burma would almost certainly have taken the train via Mandalay to the railhead at Myitkyina. Then they really were on their own. It was "indian" country with a vengeance in the lands of the Shan, Lashi, Lutzu and Minchia tribes, to name but a few. Today's jets fly you to the most isolated places in just about the same time as it would havetaken a 1930's steamer to reach the Bay of Biscay or thereabouts. Nowit's Katmandu in less than 48 hours and no problem. However we have a duty as a specialist society to try to maintain some of the more recalcitrant primula species in cultivation. Given that our climate does not change adversely, a few generations of home bred seedlings might just make them a bit more amenable. Unfortunately, some of the more difficult and beautiful sections of primula require fresh seed (sown in the green in fact) to ensure success as viability reduces so rapidly. One sees the comment "seems to require the importation of fresh seed to maintain in cultivation" all too often, but a strict balance must be struck, otherwise there is a danger of species dying out in the wild, especially those with a limited distribution. Of course, even the old planthunters frequently collected too much seed (Forrest in particular) and much was wasted. I read quite recently of one old gardener who worked at the R.B.G. Edinburgh. As a lad he remembered George Forrest who, when "on leave", would visit the garden daily to enquire what had germinated. He was never told that he had provided so much seed that they just could not cope with it and a great deal had to be thrown away. A balance between conservation and cultivation must be struck. Our seed exchange is a step forward, so let's hope it prospers. Once a species is extinct, it is extinct and it cannot be resurrected. Then all you are left with is a dried specimen reposing between sheets of....... but somehow I think we've been here before.
(1). Two books have recently been published about F.Kingdon-Ward, The Last of the Great Plant Hunters (John Murray 1989) and Himalayan Enchantment an Anthology by John Whitehead (Serindia 1990). The first is by far the better book.
(2). The next day I had a meeting with a key Govt. agency. In walked a full-blown major, impeccable Oxford accent and almost Sandhurst type bearing, with a revolver strapped to his waist. He was flanked by two aides who nodded when he nodded and shook their heads when he did. A week later (elsewhere) I was told there had been no need to worry, it was only when he placed the revolver on the table, business end pointing my way, that I had to sit up and take notice. My colleagues, who were of Chinese origin, roared with laughter when they told me this- and I thought the Chinese were supposed to be inscrutable.
In a truncated account such as this it is not possible to cover many of the fascinating stories that relate to plant collecting, but some of the writings of Fortune, Kingdon-Ward, E.H.Wilson, Farrer, etc. are now available in paperback form, while E.H.M.Cox's account of Plant Hunting in China was re-issued by Oxford University Press in 1986 and may still be available. Cox accompanied Farrar on his last fateful journey and wrote a book about it.
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