Written by Jo Woolf, Our RSGS Writer-in-Residence.
“We climbed great precipices in search of plants, the nicest of which always select the most abominable situations, and one day in a mist I was pursued by a bull yak, and on another occasion in the forest I found myself face to face with a black bear. Then we had a wedding, and the whole village got gloriously drunk; also a funeral, and they got drunker.” (Scottish Geographical Magazine, 1913)
On the evening of 17th December 1912, members of the Aberdeen branch of the RSGS settled down expectantly to listen to a lecture entitled ‘The Wanderings of a Naturalist in Tibet and Western China.’ Many of them must have been surprised by the comparatively young age of the man who addressed them. Frank Kingdon Ward, then only 26, had just returned from his first solo plant-collecting expedition in the Himalayas, and he certainly had some exciting stories to tell. When he wasn’t dangling over gorges in a bamboo sling, he was dodging arrest by Chinese soldiers or fending off violent attacks from his porters. By some miracle, he had emerged unscathed after the best part of a year; and even more amazingly, he had filled his case with over 200 beautiful plants, 22 of which were new to science.
It was Isaac Bayley Balfour, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, who had secured Ward his first prestigious commission. Balfour was a friend of Arthur Kilpin Bulley, the founder of Bees Seeds; Bulley happened to be looking for a new plant collector, and Balfour recommended the son of a botanist friend, an energetic young man who had inherited his father’s love of plants. In January 1911, Ward was teaching at a school in Shanghai, and was dangerously bored. An invitation to collect new plant species for British gardens was the answer to all his prayers. He scribbled a hasty letter of resignation to his head of staff, and started packing.
Britain’s craze for exotic plants had taken root in the Victorian era, and was showing no sign of abating. For seed suppliers and nurseries, whole fortunes rested on the success of intrepid plant collectors as wealthy gardeners keenly awaited the latest specimens for their rockeries and glasshouses. This was a competitive business, one that required expertise, dedication and a great deal of endurance. It also needed careful planning. Ward was not a complete novice, having been a member of the Duke of Bedford’s expedition in China in 1909. Now he was more than ready to take charge of his own. Travelling to Bhamo in Burma (now Myanmar), Ward hired porters and mules and set off for Yunnan, stopping in Teng-yueh (Tengchong) to obtain passports and advice at the small British Consulate. He could scarcely contain his excitement:
“There were monkeys to watch by day, and at dusk we listened for the barking deer, or the rustle of the sambur in the marshes. Then out of the dark forest to the bare hills on the threshold of the Yunnan plateau; now were were on the frontier of two Empires; behind us lay the golden land of Burma, before us, stretching its vast plains and mountain ranges far out towards the rising sun, the magic land of China.” (Scottish Geographical Magazine, 1913)
Very soon Ward had to face one of his greatest fears: heights. The plateau was scored by steep-sided ravines whose only crossings were terrifyingly makeshift affairs, ‘bridges’ of chain or rope that relied largely on faith and gravity. Because only one man (or mule) could be swung across at a time, the crossing of a river often took several hours. One one occasion, Ward watched in alarm as the bamboo sling carrying a mule travelled so fast along the rope that it began to smoke with the friction. Luckily the animal’s weight carried it down into the water at the other side, where the porters were able to scramble down and rescue it.
The Yunnan plateau was a botanist’s paradise. Entire hillsides were ablaze with crimson rhododendrons and pink camellias, and exquisite orchids bloomed in the damp shade. Unfortunately, Ward’s delight led him to wander away from the caravan, and it was only when he had walked several miles in the wrong direction that he realised his mistake. Retracing his steps seemed too simple: he forged ahead, chewing flowers and leaves in desperation as he became dehydrated, and eventually stumbling, hallucinating, into a village where he found help. Next day he caught up with the porters, although the experience did nothing to prevent him from doing the same again, whenever the will took him.
The task of identifying and collecting plants entailed quite a prolonged stay in a particular area, as the botanist would first need to see the specimen in flower and then return later in the season to collect the seed. Some of Ward’s contemporaries employed local people to gather plants for them, thereby increasing their haul, but Ward insisted on seeing and identifying all the plants himself. Having chosen a convenient village – A-tun-tsi – as his base for six months, he made regular expeditions up into the hills in pursuit of botanical gems. He was passionate about them all, but the tall spikes of blue poppies held a special enchantment:
“One specimen I noted was 20 inches high, crowned with 29 flowers and 14 ripening capsules above, with 5 buds below – 48 flowers in all. Indeed the plant seems to go on through the summer unfurling flower after flower out of nowhere.” (‘The Mystery Rivers of Tibet’)
Some of the new species that Ward brought home with him turned out to be impossible to grow commercially. Undaunted, he returned to the Himalayas in 1913 and many times thereafter, searching for hardier varieties. In doing so, he gave his name to a number of species, including Rhododendron wardii, a lovely pale yellow rhododendron, and Androsace wardii, a low-growing alpine with bright pink flowers. One of his major victories was Meconopsis betonicifolia, also known as Meconopsis baileyi*, one of several species of blue poppy that we can grow successfully in our gardens.
On all of his expeditions, Ward took a keen interest in the daily life and traditions of the local people, and was happy to accept whatever hospitality was offered to him. He cared little about what he ate: when he was served a local delicacy of fried mice, he not only sampled it but pronounced it to be very tasty. He had a natural ease which won him friends despite the language barrier, although his willingness to soak up the culture sometimes led to tricky situations. In 1913, in the company of some Chinese merchants, he found himself playing a rather risky after-dinner game:
“Presently the wine began to circulate… I say wine, but that is a poetic licence. It is called shao-chi or burning spirit; it is the colour of gin and tastes like methylated spirit… you must drink; to refuse would be a serious breach of etiquette. Moreover it is necessary to play for drinks three rounds with each guest at your table: a strange game, showing fingers and shouting a number. Every time you shout the number corresponding to the total of fingers shown, you lose – and drink forfeit. A rapid calculation assured me that I was in imminent peril of twenty-seven drinks; but happily I won several times.” (‘The Mystery Rivers of Tibet’)
Trespassing was another risk, one that Ward developed into something of an art form, because of course so many tempting species could be found across the border in Tibet. Getting there was a dangerous exercise: there was still a great deal of unease in the region after Britain’s disastrous Tibet Expedition of 1904, and Tibet was still fiercely protective of its boundaries. Blithely confident, Ward would just give suspicious soldiers the slip, or charm local officials with gifts, or placate them with a letter that absolved them of all personal liability for allowing him to go. Sometimes the danger came from Ward’s own porters, who often became violent when they were drunk. When one of them attacked him, Ward’s reaction was surprisingly effective:
“I held his thumbs Ju-jitsu fashion; in a moment he was on the floor. He was quiet enough so I let him get up.”
Out of preference Ward liked to travel alone, but on his 1924 expedition into the Tsangpo Gorge he was accompanied by a young Scottish aristocrat. Lord ‘Jack’ Cawdor, aged just 24, had partly financed the venture, and he was keen to take an active part in it. Ward put him in charge of transport and medical supplies, and Cawdor exceeded his part of the bargain, bringing hampers from Fortnum & Mason that contained jam, cakes, baked beans and paté. In Gyala, apparently still worried that they might run out of food, Cawdor purchased a sheep which he nicknamed ‘Homeless Horace’. The luckless animal accompanied the party until such time as he was needed for the pot.
Despite his enthusiasm, Cawdor was unprepared for the hardships. Plagued by sickness, he complained at the dirt and the discomfort, and got very little sympathy from his older companion. Ward would often retreat into his own silence, leaving Cawdor feeling miserable. It might have been easier if they had kept up a brisk pace, but plant collecting, as Cawdor soon discovered, was an activity that could not be rushed. “It drives me clean daft to walk behind him,” he complained. “If I ever travel again I’ll make damn sure it’s not with a botanist. They are always stopping to gape at weeds.”
Ward, to his credit, did name a new species after his impatient sponsor: Primula cawdoriana, which has bell-like blue flowers with deeply serrated petals. In the gardens of Cawdor Castle, Lord Cawdor raised many plants from the seed collected on the expedition, and in 1926 he himself delivered a lecture to the RSGS in Edinburgh.
The flowers of the Himalayas continued to beguile Ward for the rest of his life. He wrote many books in which he described the breathtaking beauty of the landscape and the excitement of new botanical discoveries. Like many visitors to the region, he could feel an attraction that went far deeper than the stony soils beneath his feet.
“We walked through lanes of yellow dog-rose (R.sericea) into billowy blue seas of Sophora, whose previous year’s seeds still lay scattered over the hard ground like a broken string of coral beads. Clematis montana, cool and virgin white in the sultry Jasmine-haunted air, trailed over every tree and bush.” (‘The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorge’)
Thanks to Ward – his persistence, his passion and his Ju-jitsu thumbs – we can adorn our gardens with a wealth of oriental colour. Nurseries continue to propagate many of the species he brought back, and a summer garden filled with flamboyant colour is perhaps the most beautiful legacy of all.
Frank Kingdon Ward (1885-1958) received the Livingstone Medal of the RSGS in 1936. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded him three Gold medals, the Victoria Medal of Honour and the Veitch Memorial Medal. He maintained a long association with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh which holds many of his specimens in its herbarium.
*Note on Meconopsis baileyi: This species was first recorded by Frederick Marshman Bailey, another RSGS Livingstone Medallist. Bailey brought a pressed flower home to Britain, but it was Ward who collected the seed. The species has now been merged with Meconopsis betonicifolia.
Quotes: (1913) F Kingdon Ward, ’Wanderings of a Naturalist in Tibet and Western China’, SGM 29:7; ‘The Mystery Rivers of Tibet’ by Frank Kingdon Ward (1923); Online biography by Ward’s grandson Oliver Tooley; ‘The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorge’ by Frank Kingdon Ward (1926).
Thanks to Harry Jans for allowing us to reproduce the beautiful photo of Primula cawdoriana.
In Jo’s latest book, The Great Horizon: 50 Tales of Exploration there is a chapter dedicated to the life and works of Frank Kingdom Ward.