Kingdon-Ward's Last Rhododendron
Hadley Osborn, El Cerrito, California
Reprinted from Pacific Horticulture. Vol. 39 No. 3 Fall 1978.
At an age when others capitulate to retirement and the contemplative life, Kingdon-Ward was exploring little-known territory to find his finest rhododendron. Frank Kingdon-Ward is many gardeners' favorite plant collector. First, because he wrote so frequently and well about his explorations and discoveries, sending dispatches from the field to the Gardeners' Chronicle and then, when back home, writing thoughtful books while preparing for his next expeditions. Also, he collected from a horticultural viewpoint. Almost always he first explored in the spring and summer, tagging the very best plants or populations or simply committing them to his remarkable memory. Then in late fall after seed had ripened he would rush through the chaos of mountains on slippery tracks that barely clung to cliffs, occasionally crossing heart-stopping chasms on decaying strands of rope that were the only bridges. The timing had to be precise; late enough so that seed had ripened but had not been shed, and early enough to escape the first blizzards. Time after time Kingdon-Ward gambled with winter and won, collecting seed from only the finest plants. If there were outstanding different plants of the same species in one population, he would collect from several and send seed home under one number. Thus when a gardener received a packet of Kingdon-Ward seed, he could raise a range of the most ornamental forms.
As a boy Kingdon-Ward had been enchanted with pictures of tropical forests found in Schimper's Plant Geography and always retained a love of tropical plants. However his British sponsors wanted hardy plants and most of his first expeditions were to western China and Tibet. Increasingly he adopted northern Burma and Assam as his special territory. Travelling north he could enjoy the subtropical forest before climbing into botanically unexplored areas where many of the plants would be cold-hardy. From 1910 until 1939, when World War II intervened, he made seventeen expeditions. During the war he instructed armed forces in something he knew better than anyone - how to survive in the Burmese jungles. After the war he was employed to recover personal effects of airmen who had crashed when flying over the Burma hump. Even on these unpleasant missions he kept a sharp eye out for plants, finding several rhododendrons and introducing Lilium mackliniae to cultivation. The lily was named for Jean Macklin whom he married in 1947 when he was sixty-one years old and who accompanied him on all his later expeditions.
In 1950 he and his wife were the closest western observers to the great Assam-Tibet earthquake. Unable to stand, they and two porters lay prone and reached across the explosively surging earth to clasp hands and maintain human contact. By the barest chance they were not in one of the river valleys buried by sliding mountainsides.
KW 21976, Mount Victoria
Having maintained a schedule of an expedition at least every other year, Kingdon-Ward last went back to Burma in 1956. By then he had undertaken twenty-one plant hunting expeditions during a period of forty-five years. He was over seventy years old, and a life of retirement and honor awaited him in England. So he went on his twenty-second expedition, this time going to country that was new to him, the Chin Hills of southwestern Burma. This long arc of hills stretches peacefully north to south for hundreds of miles before disappearing into the sea. They are among the least botanically explored areas of the world. Aerial photos reveal alpine rhododendrons on the peaks of the ridges, but they've never been collected or introduced, and the upper temperate slopes have never been trod with an eye to their rhododendrons. Kingdon-Ward himself had earlier gone to the slopes of Mt. Sarameti 300 miles to the north and had there collected KW 7724 and KW 7725, surely the most famous consecutive collections in rhododendron history, for from the first came the magnificent yellow-flowered Rhododendron macabeanum and from the second the blood-red form of R. elliottii.
Of the many mountains named Mt. Victoria by nineteenth century Englishmen, this one in the southern Chin Hills must be the least spectacular. It is merely the highest point (just over 10,000 ft.) in a broad undulating ridge. Ascending into the pine forest of the middle slopes the Kingdon-Wards noted many ornamentals including Lilium wallichianum, Hedychium gardnerianum, three different species of Iris and a number of climbing plants and orchids. Above 6,500 feet, mist is almost constantly present during the seven month rainy season and epiphytes become common. On the last 1,000 feet of open slopes three woody plants are dominant: Quercus semecarpifolia, Pinus insularis, and a magnificent red-flowered rhododendron related to Rhododendron arboreum. Kingdon-Ward was puzzled that there were no more rhododendrons and from that point of view the expedition was a little disappointing. He did find a very large flowered form of R. cuffeanum (KW 21909), and from KW 21921 a range of remarkably variable and fine forms of R. burmanicum were raised. Then there is the last rhododendron he introduced,1 the unusual relative of R. arboreum, KW 21976.
Rhododendron arboreum, itself, was introduced to cultivation in the nineteenth century and created not only an instant sensation but led to the creation of the hybrids we know so well. 'Pink Pearl' and all its familiar brethren are descended from R. arboreum. Plants of KW 21976 vary in the size and shape of their leaves, in their growing habit, and in the quality of their flowers. Kingdon-Ward apparently collected from selected representatives on a 2,000 foot altitudinal range. The best of them are simply superb garden plants. Some are quite dwarf, with shining, crisp little leaves that remain appealing at all seasons. The bright red flowers open in late January and by February become a splendid garden valentine. Though variable, plants raised from KW 21976 are instantly recognizable and distinct from other forms of R. arboreum in the small size and stiff texture of their leaves, in details of their indumentum (a hairy covering on the branchlets, underside of leaves and petioles), and in the absence of a blotch or spotting in their pure red flowers. They are perhaps closely related to R. delavayi, the western Chinese relative of R. arboreum.
|R. arboreum 'Doctor Bowman'
Photo by Monty Monsees
KW 21976 is everything a garden shrub should be but frequently isn't. If you would like to see just a small part of Kingdon-Ward's monument, take a pilgrimage to Bed 28 in the Strybing Arboretum in February. There on the slopes of Heidelberg Hill (so named because it was the site of a beer garden during the 1894 Mid-winter Fair) a dozen different forms of KW 21976 are planted underneath Magnolia campbellii, also flowering in February, and alongside a range of other more typical forms of Rhododendron arboreum.
Like most rhododendrons, KW 21976 appreciates well-drained soil with organic matter in it and likes some afternoon shade. Growing with oaks and pines in the wild it particularly appreciates a mulch of leaves from these trees. Fires are frequent even on the upper slopes of Mt. Victoria; the natives hunt and clear land for cultivation by burning. KW 21976 apparently has grown used to the high potassium content of ashes and appreciates more potassium than most rhododendrons. The flowers look their best if planted so that they are frequently seen with the sun shining through them from behind. Many rhododendrons are like this and it has been said that the late Lionel de Rothschild used to time garden tours at Exbury carefully so that his visitors would see flowers when the afternoon sun was illuminating them. If the party got a little ahead of schedule he would take an abrupt detour or find some cause for delay. Both the flowers of R. delavayi and R. arboreum blaze with almost iridescent flame when struck by the late rays of the evening sun.
1Kingdon-Ward had been in Ceylon before his death in London in 1958 and might possibly have collected Rhododendron zeylanicum, but I know of no material in cultivation.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Kingdon-Ward's own account is "A Sketch of the Flora and Vegetation of Mount Victoria in Burma," Ada Horti Gothoburgensis 22:53-74. An offprint of this and several other books by Kingdon-Ward are available in the Helen Crocker Russell library in Strybing Arboretum. An especially useful summary and bibliography is contained in Kingdom-Ward's Pilgrimage for Plants.
Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland
Reprint of letter by D.F. Chamberlain
12 Feb. 80
Dear Mr. German,
KW 21976 is indeed a spectacular plant. I have seen seedlings from the original seed batch in flower both at Wakehurst and here. While its horticultural merit is beyond question I'm afraid that its taxonomic status is not. In my opinion it lies between ssp. arboreum and ssp. delavayi so it clearly does not merit specific rank. The deep rich red flowers and small light truss are typical of ssp. delavayi but the white more or less compacted indumentum is more like that of ssp. arboreum. For the horticulturalist the problem is that ssp. delavayi is only marginally hardy, hence it is rare in cultivation. He therefore is unable to make the necessary comparisons. Anyway some forms of it only differ in their buff, more spongy indumentum and are closer to it than var. cinnamomeum or ssp. zeylanicum are.
So if a cultivar name (or two) are required then I would suggest that they/it be registered under R. arboreum, possibly with some reference to 'Victoria' or 'Mt. Victoria'.
Note: the plant has been registered as R. arboreum K.W. 21976 'Doctor Bowman'.