The Assam Botanical Expedition
Many American Rhododendron Society members were very much interested in the expedition to Assam proposed by Mr. and Mrs. Peter A. Cox and Mr. Peter C. Hutchison as outlined in a previous Bulletin. Several Chapters and a number of individuals purchased shares, or parts of shares, in the expedition. Word was received some weeks ago that the expedition had gone to India but was unable to gain access to the particular areas in which collecting had seemed most promising. Some collections were made but it is our understanding that the principals were quite disappointed and offered to make refund of money advanced by American share purchasers. In a number of cases, at least, those who had put up the money felt that everything possible had been done by the Coxes and Mr. Hutchison, and that the money should be retained by them in order to help defray the expenses which they had incurred in all good faith.
A very interesting mimeographed report was made and it is our understanding that a special article will appear in the R. H. S. Rhododendron and Camellia Yearbook. We are hopeful that we can print more of the report in the A.R.S. Bulletin as it is an interesting record of a modern plant explorer's difficulties in getting to promising collecting areas. The following excerpts are given here to indicate some of the problems involved. We hope to publish more pertinent rhododendron information in a later issue.
At Shillong once more there were delays while we waited for word from Delhi. When the permit finally arrived it contained the unpleasant shock that we were only to be allowed to collect on the ridge to the South-East of Zero. This was most unsatisfactory for our purpose as this ridge only reached a height of some 9750 feet. Furthermore our photography was restricted to the flora and our cine camera was entirely forbidden. The photographs we did take had to be submitted to the NEFA Authorities for approval. None of these restrictions had been mentioned in all the correspondence and interviews we had had with the Ministry of External Affairs.
Shortly after we had arrived back at Zero our fears were confirmed. We received a telegram informing us that we were to be restricted to the southeastern area that we had just visited and all the most promising high country to the west and north was forbidden. After this there seemed little point in remaining at Zero so after a little more collecting around our base we regretfully left this most attractive valley, the Coxes for Shillong where they could look after the plants which had been collected, while Peter Hutchison went on from there to Delhi in a last attempt to get the authorities to change their minds.
In Delhi a meeting was held with the department head at the Ministry of External Affairs at which it was pointed out that we had repeatedly made our purpose clear and that when permission had been given to collect in Subansiri Division the Ministry had known perfectly well the altitudes at which we needed to make our collections. It was also pointed out that our restriction to the south-east ridge had at no time been mentioned, even during the various discussions we had on our way through Delhi, until the whole party had arrived in Assam. But no progress was made, in spite of appeals on our behalf from various influential quarters. Not only was the rest of Subansiri division disallowed, but suggestions that we might be allowed to collect elsewhere in NEFA were turned down. After allowing us this tantalizing glimpse, it appears that the North East Frontier Agency is once more a closed land.
Since that time we have learnt that the whole Himalayan area has in the last few months become more difficult, even for relatively open territories such as Nepal. Undoubtedly a variety of political factors have had their effect; border troubles with both East and West Pakistan, the unsettled state in Kashmir, rumblings from the Chinese, and not least, indiscretions by those who have been allowed into frontier areas. After this refusal Peter Hutchison left for Britain as had been agreed to prepare for the arrival of the plants taken up from Shillong.
We had a brief stay back in Shillong to pack up the plants before setting out for home. These were packed tightly in small baskets surrounded with polythene, which were then wired into larger baskets. Considering that many of the plants were in full growth, they traveled surprisingly well with not much damage. This was largely due to the great help from our agents in Calcutta, who met us off the plane, made arrangements with the health authorities and saw that they were air conditioned. Thanks are also due to Kew who handled them in London. This may be the first time that a quantity of rhododendron seedlings have been collected in their natural habitat then flown home in the growing season.
While the trip was in many ways disappointing, this was partly because it could have produced so much if all had gone according to plan. The area we were able to visit proved to have a fascinating flora but of course the majority of it too tender for cultivation in Great Britain and North America. An idea of the richness of it is given in the fact that a first examination of the herbarium material indicated that we may have found two if not three new species of Rhododendron and altogether some sixteen species of this genus were found in the limited area that we were able to visit. It is indeed frustrating to think of what might have been found had we been able to visit the higher country to the west of Zero which the authorities had led us to believe would be permitted. We came to the conclusion, however, that mainly for political and security reasons, the authorities in Delhi were prepared to accept very little at its face value, however innocent the motive.
Nevertheless we do feel that the trip was in many respects fruitful and it was certainly an unforgettable experience to have visited and collected in an unknown corner of the Himalayas.