The Intrepid Mr. Ward and his plant-hunting adventures

When I read of the plant-collecting adventures of Frank Kingdon Ward (d. 1958) in A Gentle Plea for Chaos, I knew I had to track down some of his writings. A quick search of Wikipedia yielded much information. Mr. Ward had written some 25 books about his expeditions to Tibet, India, Burma and China from 1910 to 1956.

By happenstance, I discovered a volume of Ward’s collected writings, In the Land of the Blue Poppies, (2003) at my local library. Part of the Modern Library Gardening Series, this volume has given me a glimpse into Mr. Ward’s spell-binding world. He has a wonderful writing style that recreates his surroundings so vividly that it is almost as if one is travelling alongside him.

An introduction to the book, written by Tom Christopher, sheds light on the life and times of Mr. Ward. We learn that Mr. Ward was the top plant hunter of his time.

While he is most famous for bringing back the first seeds of the Tibetan blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), he also introduced many new species of rhodondendrons, primulas, lilies and alpine plants. According to Christopher’s calculations, Ward brought back twenty-three thousand live and pressed specimens.

By all accounts, Ward was not particularly communicative and could go for days without speaking. Yet his writings are filled with astute observations about his fellow travellers and his surroundings. He gives us an interesting look into life in different Tibetan communities and monasteries in the early part of the twentieth century. His topics range from infant mortality and polygamy to Tibetan justice. His droll sense of humour shines through his writings. While discussing the type of mules suitable for climbing mountain paths, for instance, he makes the following comment:

It is better to use three mules to carry 360 lb. safely, than to employ two and watch them fall over a cliff. They never do it when you happen to be looking, and unfortunately are rarely able to repeat the performance.

For those of us who love plants, Ward’s writings about his plant collecting techniques are of great interest. One thing which I had not given much thought to but which Ward talks of is the two distinct phases of plant hunting and seed collecting. First, collectors have to see the plant in flower and second, they must make a return trip later in the season to gather seeds. This might not seem like such a big deal until one considers the vast and often dangerous terrain that Mr. Ward explored. As he recounts climbing through scree,

… it is when we get higher up on to finer and finer gravel that it becomes difficult. Here the earth slips and slides; it is difficult to get a footing; added to all there is the ever-present fear of bombardment from the cliffs above, fierce, swift and overwhelming. With clogged feet there is no time to run, to duck, to hide. There is no cover. To be caught means death – death – death, a brutal, shocking, mangled death, as the singing rocks bludgeon the life out of you, and hurl you stunned and crushed and dripping down the slope.

The two most important things about collecting seeds, Mr. Ward tells us, is that they need to be both ripe and dry, for “to dry them in a hot sun is often fatal, especially with small seeds; they must be dried in a breeze in the shade.”

But those are only two things that the collector must keep in mind. We learn that,

Slugs and larvae play havoc with them. Tragopans and other birds eat them. Rain washes them from their capsules, wind scatters them; and some are mechanically propelled from their capsules. Even those which survive all these perils may be buried under a blanket of snow.

Another peril for the seeds which Ward was not expecting was mice. He discovered that his seeds were not safe even once they were in his room and packed for, “mice continued to haunt my room, sometimes running over my face at night.”

Mr. Ward’s descriptions of his surroundings are breathtaking. Take, for example, this description of ascending a woodland path:

Up, up the valley we climb, past the meadow where the tall swamp Primulas clustered, past the stony bank where the Cremanthodiums curtsied to us as we greeted them, and the red pokers of Polygonum Griffithi smouldered, and so to the wind-swept pass, strewn with the gravid corpses of Meconopsis, Primula, Pedicularis, Lilium, Phlomis, Incarvillea …. we find ourselves tripping over a taut network of Rhododendron, through the meshes of which peep up more flowers – Codonopsis, Lloydia, Aster, and Morina.

What shines through these pages is Ward’s incredible breadth of botanical knowledge and his love of plants. He seems particularly fond of plants growing in alpine scree. He writes that they,

… are the waifs of the alps. They grow on the scree because there is nowhere else for them to grow. They are homeless. Amongst this small but select band of hardy warriors several types of vegetation are met with, all more or less adapted to this desperate mode of life.

Here is how Ward talks about what he considers the ‘most enchanting of alpine plants’ Cyananthus incanus, var. leiocalyx. (pictured here, by Bob Skowran)

Not till July does it announce itself on the limestone scree, by unfurling its leaves. The crimped foliage, all grey white with soft downy hair, forms prostrate mats, which spread and sprawl in every every direction. Then in August the flowers open, – large shining corollas of glossy silk, till presently the green mats are smothered under a glut of icy blue salvers. The throat of each is at first plugged with a pompon of white hairs; but as the petals spread out more widely, the pompon too resolves itself into five crests, or beards, one to each petal. The five-rayed stigma is also disclosed in the centre of the tube, like a yellow star.

As I was reading of Ward’s plant collecting, I felt as I was in the midst of a wonderful mystery book. The lengths to which he went to locate and collect a plant specimen were astounding. He seemed to be as equally well versed in finding plants on treacherous cliffs as he was in finding them in open meadows. He was a man on a mission and he stopped at nothing to reach a plant.

Ward recounts many hair-raising experiences on his quest to nab a coveted plant. I found myself holding my breath as I read on … would he be successful and arrive back to his camp unscathed?

We never quite know when he is about to encounter a group of hostile people or a pack of wild dogs. We are not quite sure if he will reach his destination or if he is able to discover where a group of monks found a bright rose red Primula.

Not only did Ward collect the plant and its seeds but he also took careful note of the conditions where each plant grew. He was aware that his plants would need hospitable surroundings in order to survive in England. Ward allows an interesting glimpse into the collector’s mind and there we discover the doubts that lurk within:

Are there any plants worth bringing home, or are they all ‘kag’? Will the seeds germinat
e? Will the plants be admired, or sneered at, or worst fate of all, ignored? Or will they be received with howls of acclamation, which, as the years pass and the plants fail, dies down to a timid whisper? Will they be thrown on the ash heap and burnt at the stake, or will they receive an F.C.C. at the Chelsea Show?

In spite of these doubts, I suppose this is why, besides earning a living and paying for his travel, Mr. Ward pursued plant collection:

If, as it seems, cliffs are the last resort of many rare animals, still more is this the case with plants. Thus there is always present the feeling that any moment you may come upon an unknown and beautiful flower; beautiful at any rate, and new or not, the joy is the same.

If you have time and an opportunity, pick up a copy of In the Land of the Blue Poppies. I have a hunch that I will soon find myself ordering some of Ward’s books through Amazon.com.

2 thoughts on “The Intrepid Mr. Ward and his plant-hunting adventures

  1. Kylee says:

    I have a packet of blue poppy seeds sitting here, waiting for warmer weather so I can plant them. They are my challenge this summer. I loved them from the moment I first saw them and hopefully, I’ll manage to grow one or two through to bloom.I have to have this book, of course!

  2. Kate says:

    It is a wonderful book – you will enjoy it!Good luck with the blue poppies… I hop.e they grow for you

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