cholera, poor food, appalling accommodation, dust, humidity and enervating heat, they were met with the uncompromising response to ‘send more plants and make sure that they are packed correctly’.
Although plant collecting was a job, the constant and even outlandish demands of paymasters, plus the extreme hardships in the field (of which more later), meant that there had to be something more in it for the individuals. Perhaps this is best identified by Frank Kingdon Ward, who said in his book Pilgrimage for Plants: ‘Plant hunting has always seemed to be a romantic occupation – and romance must be a part of life, or people would not cling to it so irrationally, even when the pursuit of it gives so much unease . . . no sooner was one journey finished . . . “thank heavens that’s over!” and assured myself “never again” than all troubles and difficulties fell away, were forgotten . . . and I began to long for the hills again.’ In the introduction to the 1926 edition of Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges, Sir Francis Younghusband wrote: ‘Captain Kingdon Ward is happy in his vocation and happier still in his choice of the field in which to fulfil it. His object in life is to collect plants. And not merely dried plants suitable for the herbarium, and to be described in mechanical fashion in the dead language of Latin would he collect, but living seeds, also seeds of the most beautiful plants and most suited to our English gardens so that beauty upon beauty might be added to our already lovely land. This is Captain Ward’s vocation.’
The big nurseries were not the only sponsors of plant-collecting trips. Although much less publicized, botanic gardens did so too. The best known of these was the 1938 expedition to Bhutan and Tibet by George Sherriff and Frank Ludlow. On that trip was a botanist, George Taylor, who had a track record as a plant collector in Africa. He went on to become Keeper of Botany at the British Museum (Natural History) and then Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Taylor became a very influential supporter of plant-collecting trips, even if they were not sponsored by the museum.
One of the beneficiaries of Taylor’s sponsorship was Tony Schilling. He worked at Wakehurst Place (now rebranded ‘Wakehurst’), an out-station of Kew Gardens, from 1967 to 1991. He went on his first plant-hunting trip to Nepal in 1965 and became passionate about the Himalayan region. His extensive seed-collecting trips brought back many plants that grow at or above the tree line and so are well suited to the British climate. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his imaginative plantings after the Great Storm of 1987, when Wakehurst lost twenty thousand trees. He created a planting plan that mimicked the high Himalaya to ensure that such devastation would not occur in the future.
Frank Kingdon Ward was known as the last of the great plant hunters and the golden age of collecting ended with his death in 1958. Why was that? It is no coincidence that the majority of plant hunters during the golden period
14 • MODERN PLANT HUNTERS