QBARS - v29n3 Frank Kingdon-Ward

Frank Kingdon-Ward
Helen Moodie, Mercer Island, Washington

What makes a plant explorer? What special qualities does he possess? Certainly he must have physical stamina, an ability to forget creature comforts when the sense of curiosity is strong, and an enduring patience.
What sets of circumstances sent Wilson, Forrest and Kingdon-Ward plant hunting in Asia? These three men spanned over 50 years of traveling in areas that were the scenes of border skirmishes and massacres, banditry and encroachment of communism. This alone made travel politically difficult. But the land itself and the weather made travel physically difficult.
The great river systems usually provided the access into the interior. From the plains through the foothills into the rugged mountains and on to the high plateaus sounds simple. However, the steaming jungles with their attendant mosquitoes and leaches are not fit for animals such as mules, ponies and yaks. Here all transport must be done by humans. The foothills and mountains offer narrow, treacherous paths across cliff faces that are no protection from falling rocks and boulders or where the mules insist on hugging the right side. As Kingdon-Ward said, "It takes a little time to get accustomed to the idea of riding along with one's leg hanging over the edge of a precipice, whence a sheer drop could land one on the tree-tops hundreds of feet below."
At last in the high country where the passes may be at 13,000-15,000 feet and the snow, wind and wetness makes a hot cup of tea a tremendous pleasure, the big problem is keeping oneself and the herbarium sheets reasonably dry. During the monsoon season, May through September, when it isn't raining, the heavy mist so saturates the air it is almost like being under water.
Timing is all important in these areas. One must get to a base camp or final destination before the rivers start rising in late March and early April. Many rope and bamboo bridges are lost to high water and even the difference between morning and afternoon river heights makes early morning travel imperative.
Sounds miserable doesn't it? But moments such as the one on Doshong La that Kingdon-Ward describes seem to make it worth while. "It needs only a flash of sunshine to turn the steep mountain side into a cascade of red-hot lava, from which dart little white, pink, yellow and lilac flames. But sunshine on the Doshong La is as rare as nuts in May."


As the son of the head of the botany school at Cambridge, Frank Kingdon-Ward came into the world of plants naturally. Born in 1885 he attended St. Paul's school and then entered the University of Cambridge, taking honors in natural sciences and doing a three year course in two years.
Influenced by books and the men who visited his father, he grew up with a desire to see the tropics. Consequently, instead of waiting for a university appointment he jumped at the chance of going to Shanghai on a teaching post as being that much closer to his dream.
Two letters from two strangers changed the course of his life. The first, in 1909, invited him to accompany an American zoologist on an extended tour through China collecting birds and animals. This he accepted immediately, getting out of the last year of his three-year teaching contract. The second letter came from Mr. A. K. Bulley, founder of the nursery of Bees, Ltd., offering a one-man plant hunting expedition to take Forrest's place. That was in 1911 and was only the start of over 20 expeditions in the next forty-five years.
Ward said, "I became a botanical explorer partly by chance and good luck and remained one wholly by choice." Twice he was offered permanent posts, once after a very disheartening trip and once after a triumphal tour when he could have rested on his successes, but plant hunting had become his way of life.
Not wishing to encroach on Forrests' territory he made the areas of Upper Burma, the ranges between Burma and Assam, Southeastern Tibet and the Assam Himalaya his own stamping ground, so to speak. This is glaciated country. Originally high plateau, ground down by ice and rough-cut by water, its upper valleys are U-shaped and its precipitous gorges are deep V's extending into the earth for thousands of feet. This is a land of heavy weather. Ward described it as, "Eight months of wet and four months of damned wet."
The villages were isolated and there was limited grazing for animals. The people were extremely poor and not much food could be purchased from them. It was necessary therefore for Kingdon-Ward to carry a large supply of basic foods with a few niceties for special occasions. A half bottle of champagne for medical purposes turned into the finest of vintages at 15,000 feet.
One two-year trip required two tons of baggage carried by 80 porters. However, most of this would be left at some base camp to which he would return at several month intervals. He must have been very conscious of costs and lived very frugally on his journeys. According to the obituary in the New York Times, his costs for a two-year trip amounted to only $5,600.00.
One year he lived almost entirely on milk. If you're going to drink milk in Tibet it is necessary to clamor for it before milking time and then use your own utensils. Tibetans do not use it fresh but only as sour curds. Their utensils which never seem to be washed but are filthy with the "clotted cream of ages" would immediately sour anything fresh. On the other hand, Ward says, "fresh Tibetan butter is excellent, though combined with a good deal of hair, from being made by the simple process of kicking milk around in a yak-skin bag." If you're in China, don't ask for milk or butter because the Chinese consider it disgusting to milk cows.
Some of the other food he could buy was not always extremely desirable. He wrote, "The Mishmis really did not want to sell us eggs at all. They preferred to hatch them. Therefore they left them under the hen. But if nothing happened when the time was ripe, and we wanted eggs, why not turn an honest penny by selling them to us? So we got the farmyard failures, and I am afraid we usually ate them, though we were saved from sudden death once when an egg detonated out loud while being lifted gingerly from a Mishmi's bag. It was a well-hatched plot".
Once settled at a base-camp, Ward traveled very lightly. He would usually have two or three men or boys who would act as cook, plant press and photographic carriers and then use small groups of local porters to move his camps from place to place. He would see every plant for himself and when the time was right would go back and get the seed. One disadvantage of depending on different porters - sometimes he would have to wait until after a particular planting season or harvest before enough men were available to him.
On August 15, 1950 this waiting for porters was indirectly responsible for saving his life and that of his wife. They were situated in the upper Lohit valley in eastern Tibet, waiting to be moved to a camp several thousand feet higher. That night a great roar and rumbling noise sent them outside their tent where they were thrown down on the ground. For the next three or four minutes it seemed that the "very foundation of the world were breaking up under them".
Fortunately, their camp was spared in what had been the most violent earthquake covering thousands of square miles. It took them three months to get out. Whole mountain sides came down, rivers were blocked and then flooded, bridges torn down and trails destroyed. Drinking water became scarce and they shared what food they had with the villagers who had been wiped out. Their camp had been 25 miles from the epicenter of the quake which registered 8.6. Had they been higher in the mountains they very likely would have perished.
Kingdon-Ward must have had a compelling need to share with people his experiences and impressions, because the volume of his writing was tremendous. Twenty-five books and many articles for geographic as well as botanical journals, along with a daily diary, fully documented his travels and plant collections.
He had a romantic turn of mind and a definite flair for word pictures: "glutinous heat"; "a froth of yeasty clouds"; "an ethereal milk-white mist was gradually dissolving like silver from a photographic plate". In speaking of R. keysii , "the flower power is in fact concentrated, till the shoots glow all up their tips like hot iron bars".
His writings also showed his love of geographical exploration. In fact, he thought more of the medals he received as a geographer that his gold medals from the horticultural societies. He said that though his profession was collecting seeds and dried specimens, his hobby was "to explore unknown mountain ranges, and find out some thing about their past history, the distribution of their plants, and any other secrets they are willing to reveal."
"Plant Hunter in Manipur", published in 1952 has a dedication which reads, "For Jean who enjoyed every day of it". This is Jean Macklin, his second wife whom he married in 1947. A trained botanist, she shared with him his love of journeying for plants. She also wrote a book "My Hill So Strong" about their trip to Assam in 1950. Her book reveals some more things about Kingdon-Ward. She tells of his fear of heights. This caused him extreme mental torture but he never gave any indication except by the whiteness of his complexion how hateful these precipices were for him. This fear did not keep him from struggling through almost impossible places, slipping and sliding down snow covered rock chutes in order to recover one or two capsules of precious seed.
His physical stamina and endurance remained with him throughout his life. After having taught jungle survival school in India through the Second World War, he was asked by the Americans to use his vast knowledge of the Burmese Alps to help locate graves of downed airmen flying the hump. This was grisly work but he used the opportunity to continue collecting plants, often wearing out his G. I. companions and covering double the ground they did. His 71st birthday was celebrated on 10,000 foot Mt. Victoria and even shortly before his death in 1958 he and his wife were planning another trip.
There are exciting stories in his books of first sightings of special rhododendrons - R. concatenans , which he called Orange Bill; R. patulum , nicknamed Rock Rose; and R. imperator or Purple Emperor. There were also rhododendrons which he collected "blind" - finding seed capsules without ever having seen the bloom, but familiarity with the series giving him a clue as to what they be like. R. auritum , whose leaves "looked as though they had a film of electroplating upon them" has the advantage of growing better and being hardier than R. xanthostephanum , though not quite so bright a yellow. This was the only one Kingdon-Ward ever saw, and Ludlow and Sherriff in two years of wandering only found it once.
Another was a dwarf plant growing on a rugged ridge. It formed twiggy tuffets, eight or ten inches high and a foot through, with small, pointed leaves, rather crimped by the cold. It had been covered with solitary, erect flowers. Ward collected every capsule he could find. 'Thus in due course, R. pemakoense , named after the Tibetan province of Pemako, came into cultivation. R. leucaspis , venator , and exasperatum were just a few others collected blind on this winter trip. He once estimated that he had discovered nearly a hundred species of rhododendron, but they only formed part of his tremendous collection of rock garden plants, bulbs, trees and shrubs.
The story of Meconopsis speciosa , the prickly blue poppy, is interesting in that though Forrest and Ward never met in the field, there was a certain amount of rivalry in their discoveries and introductions. When Ward wrote a long description of this beautiful plant to A. K. Bulley, it was thought to be the same as a rare poppy which Forrest had recently discovered in Yunnan. Forrest didn't seem to think that Ward had discovered the same poppy but finally resigned himself to the fact. When Ward got back to England he found that the poppy was not yet in cultivation, hence Forrest's dismay "when I butted in and threatened to introduce it first."
Ward's luck was no better for the seedlings did not thrive. Once more both Forrest and Ward tried to introduce it into England but the seedlings were always lost the second year. Just another of those that "fell by the wayside."
One comment made by a book reviewer about Kingdon-Ward was that "here was a plant hunter who has found time to think and think clearly". Ward had definite opinions but his thinking on natural hybrids seems to have come full circle. Early in his travels he considered hybrids extremely rare, then by 1927 having found what he considered hybrids in two instances between R. thomsonii and sanguineum and between chryseum and a plum-purple flowered species, he evidently changed his mind. However, once again in 1949 he says, "Nevertheless, hybrids, so easy to make in the garden, appear to be very rare in nature, and I cannot recall for certain ever having met with one, though they should not be difficult to recognize. Either they do not occur at all, or they are liquidated as dangerous before they flower." Possibly this change of thought came about from the taxonomists having called his former hybrids only variations of the type.
Kingdon-Ward was outspoken in his likes and dislikes. Japanese gardens and the use of double flowers in the rock garden were not to his taste. He found that changes in England after the Second World War were discouraging. The heart and spirit had gone out of the big gardens when they became publicly owned and he deplored the fact that "rhododendrons had been so unhappily compromised by fraternizing with camellias in the new deal type of year book."
In looking ahead to the future however, he could visualize the time when travelers would fly to Tibet just to see the miles and miles of alpine rhododendrons blooming. As he said, "They form seas of sulphur, carmine and rose pink; rivers of purple lapponicum flow into lakes of brick-red, lemon and snow-white anthopogon ; clumps of merry little pouting campylogynums , pink and plum-purple, are plastered like swallow nests against the grey cliffs, and pools of canary yellow trichocladums glow from the brown grass slopes."

Kingdon-Ward, Frank, The Land of the Blue Poppy, 1913
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, From China to Hkamti Long, 1924
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, Plant Hunting on the Edge of the World, 1930
Kingdon-Ward Frank, Plant Hunting in the Wilds, 1931
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, A Plant Hunter in Tibet, 1934
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, The Romance of Gardening, 1935
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, Plant Hunter's Paradise, 1937
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, Assam Adventure, 1941
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, Plant Hunter in Manipur, 1952
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, Return to the Irrawaddy, 1956
Kingdon-Ward, Jean, My Hill So Strong, 1952
Kingdon-Ward, Frank, Pilgrimage for Plants, 1960
Rhododendron Society Notes, Vol. III Part 111, 1927 - Address by Capt. Kingdon-Ward
Cox, Peter A., Dwarf Rhododendrons, 1973
R. H. S., The Rhododendron Year Book, 1949
Urquhart, Beryl Leslie, The Rhododendron - Vol. 1, 1958
Urquhart, Beryl Leslie, The Rhododendron - Vol. 11, 1962.