JARS v63n3 - Per Wendelbo: a Norwegian Plant Hunter

Per Wendelbo: a Norwegian Plant Hunter
Ole Jonny Larsen
Aalesund, Norway

There are not many famous Norwegian plant hunters. Our neighbours, Sweden and Denmark, have always been our big brothers in this matter. Two centuries ago the Swedes had their "forever famous" son, Carl von Linne, who sent his so-called disciples all over the world collecting for him while he was home working with his new taxonomy. Denmark, due to its colonial past, was for years motivated to send out expeditions to search for plants and more in their colonies. The famous plant collector Nathaniel Wallich (1786 - 1854) was also Danish.

Among Norwegians I guess very few, except for professional botanists, know the name of any Norwegian who has travelled the world hunting for plants. But one man should be known, at least among Rhododendron species collectors in Norway and elsewhere, for his reintroduction of two rare Rhododendron species in 1969. This man is Per Wendelbo (1927-1981).

Being a world authority of the flora of southwest Asia, Wendelbo's career is quite unusual for a Norwegian. From 1974 to 1976 he was even hired as botanical adviser of the then Ariamehr Botanical Garden in Teheran! This is a job few westerners would apply for today, nor would likely get, but this was before the Islamic revolution and the current days of the ayatollahs.

Wendelbo studied chemistry, history, geology and botany at the University of Oslo. At the end of his studies in 1950, he was asked to join a Norwegian climbing expedition to the Hindukush Mountains in the northern part of Pakistan, and his degree examination work was named "Plants from the Tirich Mir." From then on, Per Wendelbo had a lifelong interest in the flora of the Orient, here understood as the Middle East and the countries in Southwest Asia. He travelled that area several times over more than 20 years and described alone or together with others some 130 plant species and two genera, all new to science. Plant taxonomy was maybe Wendelbo's greatest skill. He revised genera like Dionysia , Eremurus and Allium , and he participated in publishing accounts for the great work "Flora Iranica" (covering N Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and highland Pakistan). Thirty-four plant species have "wendelboi" as part of their names and a whole genus, Wendelboa , is also named after him. He started his career at the Botanical Garden in Bergen, and for 16 years he was Director of the Botanical Gardens of Gøteborg, Sweden.

Per Wendelbo on the Sikaram
south slopes
Per Wendelbo on the Sikaram south slopes in subalpine forest.
Photo by Siegmar-W. Breckle

Per Wendelbo was first of all a botanist, but he was also a classic plant hunter who introduced several garden worthy plants for culture in the West. According to Jimmy Persson at the Gøteborg Botanical Garden, his most important introduction is the beautiful and easily cultivated Iris cycloglossa , but Fritillaria acmopetala ssp. wendelboi and Fritillaria sibthorpiana are also highly rated among bulb enthusiasts. Primula edelbergii is another Wendelbo introduction, and he is also credited with the introduction of several Dionysia species. Per Wendelbo paid great respect to amateur plant collectors, and he often shared his introductions with them in order to have them tested out in different gardens and climates.

For this Journal's readers, his two Rhododendron reintroductions may be of most interest. These are the rare species Rhododendron afghanicum Aitch. & Hemsl. and Rhododendron collettianum Aitch. & Hemsl. that Wendelbo, together with Ian Hedge from Scotland, Siegmar-W. Breckle from Germany and Wendelbo's Swedish assistant, Lars Ekberg, collected in 1969. The native student Mohammad Reshad Amani played a very important role as translator of the Afghan language. Without him, at least Rhododendron afghanicum may not have been found at all since its distribution is very limited.

Afghanistan is not known as Rhododendron country. In on-going war news, we are mostly shown a dry and sun-baked landscape with little vegetation at all. However, the monsoons influence the eastern parts of the country and give more rain, allowing several Himalayan plant species to reach their western limits there. It was in this area, along the border with Pakistan, that Afghanistan's two Rhododendron species are found. Both species were first discovered and collected in the Kurram valley by Surgeon Major J.E.T. Aitchison in 1879. R. collettianum flowered for the first time in Kew in 1888. Both R. afghanicum and R. collettianum were cultivated in several British gardens and collections prior to the World War II, but they both seem to have since largely disappeared from gardens.

Wendelbo's group visited the Safed Kuh area in Afghanistan in June, 1969. They were not looking just for rhododendrons, but since Wendelbo and Hedge were connected respectively to Gøteborg Botanical Garden and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, both known for their Rhododendron collections, they were both anxious to search for the two Rhododendron species that had then been lost to cultivation in Europe for around 25 years.

Rhododendron collettianum was found quite easily. The plants grew on a north-facing rocky slope, mostly limestone, and they formed a one metre (three feet) high, impenetrable thicket. The stand was quite large, but the distribution seemed very local. Mohammed Reshad then showed some local nomads branches of Rhododendron collettianum and asked if they knew of other similar plants in the area. The nomads claimed to know the plant and promised to bring samples, which they soon did. It was definitely Rhododendron afghanicum , but alas, it was collected on the Pakistan side of the border where the group had no permission to enter or collect. So near but so far away! But then another of the nomads said that he knew of a population of the plant on the Afghan side, and so led by two guides armed with rifles, Wendelbo, Hedge and the rest of the group were taken to a stand of Rhododendron afghanicum (those who have Peter and Kenneth Cox's book The Encyclopedia of Rhododendron Species can see one of Per Wendelbo's photos of the armed guides with the Rhododendron plant on p. 234). Later on the same expedition, Wendelbo's assistant Lars Ekberg found Rhododendron afghanicum in a new and until then unknown locality in Laghman province, northeast of Kabul. None of the plants they found had seed left from the previous year's production, but live specimens were, with lots of struggle, collected and brought to Gothenburg and Edinburgh where they were established in their collections.

The tent camp (3300m),
with our Pashtun guides
The tent camp (3300m), with our Pashtun guides, Ian Hedge
(on the right) and Moh Reshad Amani (middle), our student
of that time, asking people about Rhododendron stand locations.
Photo by Siegmar-W. Breckle

Rhododendron collettianum and R. afghanicum are not among the most spectacular species in the genus. R. collettianum (Section Pogonanthum ) can be showy in perfect culture, but it is hard to please and tends to be shy flowering and have yellowish leaves. A mature specimen can be seen in Edinburgh, and it is also found in other botanical gardens. R. collettianum is obviously not often grown among amateur collectors and never occurs on the major seed lists. I have grown this species for some years in my garden in Norway in a dry place next to a concrete wall. It grows slowly, but looks healthy and hardy and will flower during spring in 2009. My plant came from Glendoick Gardens, Scotland, who offer Rhododendron collettianum for sale in limited quantity. As far as I know, all plants in cultivation are from the 1969 Hedge & Wendelbo collection (W. 8975).

Rhododendron afghanicum is very rare in culture, even in botanical gardens. The Rhododendron Species Foundation (RSF) grows the species in their garden in the State of Washington on the North American west coast, and they also offer plants for sale now and then. This may be the only source in the world for those who want to buy Rhododendron afghanicum . What the RSF offers are plants propagated from the same 1969 collection (W. 9706). Gøteborg Botanical Garden grew Rhododendron afghanicum (W 9706) from this original collection up to a few years ago, but its single plant has since died. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh still has this number in cultivation, and their single plant came from Gøteborg Botanical Garden in 1985 as a self-pollinated seedling.

Rhododendron afghanicum
flower and buds.
Rhododendron afghanicum flower and buds.
Photo by Siegmar-W. Breckle

At the Logan Botanic Garden in southwestern Scotland, they claim to grow Rhododendron afghanicum collected by Werner Brockmann of Hamburg. He collected the material in September 1999 in Swat-Tal in the Kalam Region of Pakistan. However, in a personal letter (March 2009) and in an article in a German magazine (Brockmann 2005), he confirms that after seedlings from his collection flowered in his garden in 2004, the plant turned out to be Rhododendron collettianum . This was confirmed by Mrs. Westhoff at the Rhododendronpark in Bremen, and so that is also the plant at the Logan Botanic Garden.

Rhododendron collettianum
Rhododendron collettianum flowers on the Sikaram south slope
(Safed Koh, about 3600m).
Photo by Siegmar-W. Breckle

Some amateur collectors are known to have these species too. To my surprise, I have found out that ARS member Kurt Hansen in Denmark grows Rhododendron afghanicum successfully in his private collection. He bought his plant from the RSF about 15 years ago when imports from the US to Europe were still possible. He keeps it in a sheltered place in his garden and the plant flowers every year now and even sets viable seeds. It is late flowering, normally at the end of June or later. Collectors in Denmark and Norway have recently sown seeds from Hansen's plant, and there is a chance that they will spread Rhododendron afghanicum among local rhododendron growers in Scandinavia in the future. Kurt Hansen may be the only private person in Europe who grows a mature plant of Rhododendron afghanicum at the moment!

Will Rhododendron collettianum and R. afghanicum be re-collected in the future? With the present political situation in Afghanistan, this does not seem likely to happen soon. For westerners to go tracking in Afghan mountains today would be both dangerous and I suspect also almost impossible to arrange. The area on the Pakistan side of the border where these species grow is also quite hazardous to enter since Taliban guerrilla soldiers are likely everywhere in the area. I do not believe they would accept plant hunting as a good excuse for one to explore in their local mountains.

There is also another problem that can make establishing new collections difficult. Siegmar-W. Breckle, one of the persons collecting with Wendelbo in Afghanistan in 1969, wrote in an article in 2007: "On lower sites, at the tree line, the very rare Rhododendron afghanicum occurred, but is most probably extinct now." In a private email, he stated that Rhododendron afghanicum grows in forests with thick undergrowth, and threats come from deforestations and burning. Since there were very few plants even in 1969, he is convinced that they are likely all gone now. This is another reason to take care of and spread these plants in cultivation. I will strongly encourage everyone who has this species in their collections to take cuttings and collect seed to ensure that it is saved from extinction.

Rhododendron collettianum in the area of the 1969 collection is also, according to Brackle, likely to be threatened by erosion and grazing, but this species was more widespread, so the chance that it still exists in the wild is better than for Rhododendron afghanicum . Let us hope for a more peaceful future that can make life better, first of all for the inhabitants in Afghanistan, but also for plants and future plant collectors.

Rhododendron species collectors can thank Per Wendelbo and the rest of the team for the collection of these two rare species in 1969. Without their work, both species could have been out of reach for scientists and both public and private collections today. I hope this article encourages some of you to search for Rhododendron collettianum and R. afghanicum to make your Rhododendron species collections even more complete.

In 1981 Per Wendelbo was appointed Director for the Milde Arboretum in Bergen, the biggest Rhododendron collection in Scandinavia, and professor of botany at the University of Bergen. He looked forward to returning to Bergen and had lots of plans for the development of the gardens and collections. Sadly though, only three weeks after he had started his new job, he was killed in a car accident, probably caused by a heart attack, when he was only 53 years old. Norway had lost her most famous botanist and plant hunter of his time.

The author wishes to thank Per Salvesen; Per Magnus Jørgensen at Milde Botanical Garden, Bergen; Gerd Jørgensen; and Rolf Y. Berg at the Botanical Garden, Oslo, for information about articles on Per Wendelbo; Bjørn Aldén, Lars Brink and Jimmy Persson at Gøteborg Botanical Garden for information about Wendelbo's plant introductions; Richard Baines at Logan Botanical Garden and Rob Cubey and Janette Latta at Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh, for information about the status of Rhododendron afghanicum in their two gardens; Steve Hootman for information about Rhododendron afghanicum in the collection at the Rhododendron Species Foundation; Kurt Hansen for information about Rhododendron afghanicum in his garden in Denmark; and finally to Ian C. Hedge and Siegmar-W. Breckle, who both were part of the 1969 collection expedition in Afghanistan. They have kindly read through the article and given important corrections and information.

Ole Jonny Larsen
Ole Jonny Larsen is a Norwegian member of the Danish Chapter who has one of Norway's biggest Rhododendron species collections.