Kew Guild

1981, Kim Sorvig, Expedition To China

Plant collecting around China’s highest mountain

By Kim Sorvig

No-one who goes to China, I suppose, really knows what to expect. After decades of closure to foreigners (just in recent history) it hardly requires poetic license to call China “The Land of the Unexpected”.

Recently, of course, China has been opening up, and the interest this has aroused is leading to further ‘chinks in the bamboo curtain’ (to quote a lecturer who claimed the pun was accidental). Despite this, the botanical expedition which I joined for the month of September 1981 had little information to go on. The area around Mt. Konka, lying between Szechuan Province and Tibet, has hardly been seen by foreigners at all; the one botanist to traverse the region was Joseph Rock, in 1929. Other than that, there have been two or three mountain climbing ventures: when it was first discovered, Minya Konka (or Konka Shan) was thought to be higher than Everest.

Even for Roy Lancaster, the botanical guide for the group, this was new territory. He had been to China twice before, and from his broad experience knew an impressive percentage of the plants we saw; when in doubt he could rely on other members of the expedition. Five Western countries were represented; collections of seed and herbarium material were made for Kew, Edinburgh, Leiden, and the Holden and Morris arboreta in the United States; a taxonomist from Wisley, a biochemist from John Innes Institute, and people with specialist interests ranging from alpines and bulbs to forestry, from bamboo to clematis, made up an excellent group. My first ‘thank you’ goes to them all.

For me this was an unbelievable opportunity to learn a few of the bewildering array of Chinese plants (the Flora I brought back, five volumes, contains 7,000 species, and that’s the student flora!), and to meet and work with botanists in the field. As important as this aspect of botany is to Kew, one gets very little direct experience of it as a student; I had scarcely ever pressed a plant or collected a seed before, The 125 taxa I collected have involved me in quarantine, seed-sorting, listing, accessioning, and recording procedures which would otherwise have remained ‘behind-the-scenes’. I thought that finding the specimens would be the end of it!

Our itinerary, after leaving one hyper-luxurious night in Hong Kong, involved short stays in Canton and Chengdu (capital of Szechuan), during which we saw a number of gardens and met Chinese botanists in both cities. After that, we travelled into the mountains by road, staying in communes, passing through Ta-chien-Iu (now Kanding), “The Gateway of Tibet” for E. H. Wilson and Rock. A long detour cut into our time, but one does not argue with ten miles of road which have fallen several hundred feet into a river. At one point on our return even the detour had demurred, and we were told there was no way out for a month. (Tune in next week for the hair-raising escape.)

Such excitements plus cold rainy weather meant that we made a base-camp and went on daily forays, rather than attempt a full circuit of Konka; disappointing, but prudent. We seemed to be on the drier side of the pronounced rain-shadow cast by most peaks in this part of the world; the vegetation on the other side would very likely have been different. The area in which we camped was dominated by Betula utilis on the NE-facing slopes; Quercus semicarpifolia on the opposite ones; shrouded with Usnea, and mixed with larches, pines, fir, and a good variety of shrubs, e.g. loniceras, Hypophae salicifolia, many berberis and rosaceous species. Gentians-were abundant to the point of being overwhelming; primulas, 20 species of clematis, Halenia, Codanopsis. . . The paucity of rhododendron species was surprising, and there was a complete lack of any bamboo at all (I asked in English and Chinese, and drew pictures for the Tibetans- no, two valleys over, first pass on your right, nothing like that around here, mate), which was a disappointment to me. But through friends from the trip I have met several more bamboo-fanatics on my return to England: one of the lasting side-effects of such a trip.

The political scene was very interesting, much more relaxed than one is led to believe; “old hands” felt it had relaxed even within the past two years. Armed with a bit of Chinese (and pictures), I managed to talk to several ‘unofficial” Chinese along the way. But politics and cultural anthropology are matters which international plant collectors ignore at their peril. 1 felt a considerable rapport with our Chinese guides, but the lack of the obsequious ‘yes Sahib’ treatment one might find in India led to some dissatisfaction among the group as a whole. Can one really expect it in a country aspiring to egalitarian communism? At the end of our stay, pressed specimens and any rooted ones were confiscated. We have since been told that a group of “tourists” trekking not far away had been caught smuggling rare plants. Considering the millions of pounds and dollars which Chinese plants have brought the horticultural trade in the West, without any recompense to China, it is in fact quite generous that the Chinese authorities have agreed to post our collections to us after inspection. It is a sad fact that ecological conservation, paradoxically bound to plant collection by our need for specimens to study, can itself be endangered by the subtleties of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

Obviously, I could go on at length: agriculture, industry, development, religion. . . but I have already taxed readers’ patience and editor’s space enough. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Kew Guild for its financial support, and likewise the Bentham-Moxon Trust, and my other sponsors, the Women’s Farm & Garden Association, many of whose members I am sure receive this journal. Thanks also to the Curator, Mr. Simmons, for his special encouragement, and to all those who supported what I myself often thought was an impossible and mad idea, this long-dreamed-of visit to China.


1980, Soo Tasker, Student Exchange, Leiden University Botanic Garden

Student Exchange to Leiden University Botanic Garden

1st to 20th September, 1980

By Soo Tasker

The city of Leiden is quite small, built inside a protective moat or singel, and dissected by many canals. It is a University town, rather like Oxford, full of many old and beautiful buildings most of which belong to the University.

The Botanic Garden of the University, the Hortus Botanicus, was founded on April 13th 1587 making it one of the oldest in Europe. It was laid out by Clusius (Charles de I’Ecluse) and some of his original plantings still remain. Since this time the garden has been enlarged several times, it now covers approximately 30 acres.

There are 19 glasshouses, mostly built in the 1930s, including a Victorian water-lily house and a Phytotron for the propagation and cultivation of tropical ferns. There is also an Orangery, which is still used as such; temperate plants are housed in it in the winter and moved outside in the summer.

The garden is composed of landscaped arboretum (the moat of the city forms the boundary on one side) with a rock garden, herb garden, systematic beds, rosarium, lily-pond, and the ‘voortuin’ the decorative entrance area. The Clusius garden is a replica of the original botanic garden, with beds of herbs and bulbs, paths of crushed cockle shells and a collection of bees in wicker bee-hives.

On my arrival in Leiden I was met by Mr. Bruinsma, the Curator, and his assistant, Miss Teune, with kindness befitting a visiting dignitary rather than a humble student. I stayed in the University Observatory, a picturesque domed building, and was able to have any meals I wanted at the nearby student ‘mensa’ or restaurant; everything was most comfortable and convenient.

During my first week I worked in the Clusius garden; in the second week I worked in the Seed Department, collecting and cleaning seeds, and in the third week I worked in the glasshouses. Although only a few of the 15 staff spoke English we got along very well, they were all extremely pleasant and anxious that I should have interesting work to do.

I spent a day at the Rijksherbarium; founded in 1829 and mostly concerned with the Malaysian Flora. There are 25 botanists and just over three million dried specimens; also a good collection of old books, and seed catalogues since the early 1800s. The Botanic Garden Archives hold a large collection of photographs and slides, as well as the plant records system.

During my stay at Leiden Mr. Bruinsma took me to visit the Botanic Gardens of Utrecht and the Vry University of Amsterdam, and to the flower market and experimental station at Aaismeer. At the weekends I visited Boskoop, Groningen Botanic Garden, Nijmegen, Delft, Rotterdam, Breda and Middelburg.

In all it was a most interesting and successful exchange; I should like to thank Mr. Pemberton and Mr. Simmons for arranging it for me, and the Kew Guild for helping to finance my visit.


1980, Neil Huck, Student Exchange At Les Cedres, France

Student visit to “Les Cedres”

By Neil Huck

During the summer of 1 980, I went on a working visit to Le Jardin Botanique” Les Cedres” in the south of France. My visit was arranged through Kew as part of the student exchange scheme.

The plant collection at “Les Cedres” was founded and is still maintained by the Marnier La Postolle family. Bromeliads and Cacti form the main part of this vast and world renowned collection. The cultivation of these groups of plants, many of them from South America, has proved very successful in the mediterranean climate at “Les Cedres”.

I was able to botanise in the nearby Maritime Alps during my visit. There I found many interesting plants including Lilium pomponium, Gentiana lutea and various Allium sp. Situated high on the rocks above nearby Monte-Carlo is Le Jardin Exotique. The large collection of Cacti there thrive outside all the year round. I was interested to see some very large specimens of Neobuxbaumia and Echinocactusgrusonii.

When my three weeks at ‘Les Cedres” ended, I toured Europe with the aid of a grant awarded to me by the Kew Guild. I was able to visit Lago Maggiore on the Swiss Italian border. There I saw the famous gardens at Villa Taranto. On the tiny island of Brissago, I visited a botanic garden set up by the Swiss government containing many exotic plants being grown as an acclimatisation experiment. Then I headed north through the Swiss Alps where I found spring flowers still blooming in the higher mountain regions in late August. While in Switzerland, I also took the opportunity to visit the excellent Cactus gardens in Zurich.

I found my visit extremely useful and enjoyable. The Guild Award made it possible for me to tour and see more than I would otherwise have been able to.


1979, Ian Hodgson, Student Exchange To Heidelberg & Munich Botanic Gardens

Student Exchange to Heidelberg & Munich Botanic Gardens

By Ian Hodgson

In July of this year I embarked upon a visit to the gardens of Munich and Heidelberg, situated in the heart of southern Germany. The purpose of my trip was to study the extensive collections of the respective gardens, my particular interest being of the extent of the succulent flora of Madagascar.

This branch of succulents pose particular problems with regard to cultivation and these techniques I also noted.

The trip was partly funded by a grant of £50.00 which was awarded by the Kew Guild. This grant system is a newly introduced scheme which allows monetary awards to be given to people who are embarking on a trip of a botanical/horticultural nature.


1977, Tim Vaughan, Study Tour, Canary Isles

Report on the 1977 Kew Guild Award Project

By Timothy Vaughan

Last June I had the good fortune to visit the Canary Islands, a visit that lasted four weeks taking in the islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife and La Gomera. The aims behind this sojourn were to study the plants, their associated communities and habitats, to see the recently constructed Jardin Botanico “Viera y Clavijo” on Gran Canaria, and to observe the effects that tourism, agriculture and increased urbanisation are having on a group of tiny islands. I was assisted financially by the Kew Guild Award Scheme. This was begun in 1974 to help finance worthwhile projects of a broadly horticultural or educational nature by members of the Kew Guild. The first award was made in 1976 to assist Kew Students to extend a botanical trip to Spain.

Lack of space precludes me from going into too much detail, so my report will be confined to activities and observations made on Gran Canaria, the island on which I was based. Gran Canaria has perhaps suffered more cruelly than any other island in this group from the axe of the woodman and charcoal burner. It is thought that less than 1 per cent of the original forest remains; the remnants of the once abundant laurel forests are confined to two narrow gorges on the north-west of the island, and a small area of Pine forest is still extant in the higher regions of the hinterland.

As with many nations, the Spanish have been extremely short-sighted over the destruction of this natural resource. Their forests were, and still are an important link in the water supply chain as they condense moisture brought in the form of clouds by the Trade Winds. On condensing, the water drips to the ground gradually and is soaked up, thereby replenishing underground reservoirs. When these forests are cleared, heavy rain runs off the slopes and is lost, causing severe soil erosion. This fact alone emphasises the need for preserving their wooded areas, though I feel that with population pressure and lack of interest by the government in nature protection, it seems unlikely that much will be saved.

Over half the land on Gran Canaria has at one time or another been under cultivation, and had a marked influence on the natural vegetation, both in the depletion of native species and introduction of alien elements. Two very serious weeds are Opuntia ficus-indica and Agave americana. The former is a relic from the mid19th century, when the Cochineal industry was returning the islands nearly one million pounds per annum. Owing to the invention of artificial colorants this trade suffered a severe decline and little is now cultivated though alas, instead of the cactus disappearing with the industry, it is now a pernicious intruder.

Perhaps the most important crops grown today are tomatoes and bananas although the latter is losing popularity owing to water shortages and competition from South America. Crops of lesser importance are potatoes, beans, vines and cut-flowers. Once profitable and now seldom seen are citrus and sugar-cane, it was from these islands that sugar-cane first went to the New World.

Tourism is big business on Gran Canaria and many acres of land, particularly in the south of the island are now occupied by vast hotels and innumerable holiday bungalows. Now besides the loss of agricultural land and areas of special botanical interest, the construction of these resorts has resulted in a very serious problem. With a transient population in excess of 500,000 people, all used to and expecting hot and cold running water, the island’s water consumption is far exceeding annual precipitation. Wells have been sunk in many places and in all mountainous parts water is collected and conducted through pipes for many miles to reservoirs for irrigation purposes and domestic use. The situation is becoming critical in Gran Canaria, with the ground water table steadily sinking, resulting in sea water seeping in, and unless this process is halted, Gran Canaria will dry up and die.

Despite all this the island still has an extremely rich and varied flora, the reason being that it is one of striking contrast causing an unusual diversity of habitats. A person with botanical leanings making a study trip to these islands would be wise at first to visit the botanical garden at Tafira Alta, just eight miles from Las Palmas. My hotel was conveniently situated five minutes from the gardens, and I spent much time during the first week studying there.

The garden, begun in 1952 through the foresight and enterprise of Dr Eric Sventenius, comprises some 60 acres sited in a natural setting in the valley of Guiniguada. It is primarily a collection of plants from the Canaries, Azores, Cape Verde Islands and Madeira, many of which are now endangered and difficult to find in the wild. Eighteen gardeners maintain the living collection and run the large nursery designed for the propagation of these indigenous species, whilst a small scientific staff is engaged in research on cytology, phylogeny and classification of the flora. Recently more land has been purchased for the expansion of these gardens;-a hill behind is being left to attain its former climatic climax; a cactus garden, designed by a former Kew employee is in the process of being planted; an area of land has been designated for the establishment of exotic plants from various regions of the world; plans for a glasshouse complex are under way as is a garden for medicinal and economically important plants. It appears likely then that this garden is to become a scientific and horticultural institute of international standing.

The four weeks passed all too quickly, and it was with a heavy heart that I left these islands for England. All in all it was an enjoyable and memorable stay, and I was loath to leave the many new friends that I had made there. I hope that this brief report is some justification for my receiving the award.