The plant hunters

THE PLANT HUNTERS

It’s no coincidence that the origins of tea are here in Yunnan, or that tea has such a complex chemistry that it offers over 100 wellbeing properties.

It’s no coincidence that the origins of tea are here in Yunnan, or that tea has such a complex chemistry that it offers over 100 wellbeing properties. The province is a major hotspot of biodiversity, with 17,000 species of high plants—more than half of all China’s species. Or, as the former director of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh put it, "as much flowering plant diversity as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere put together.” Flowering plants have inspired some extreme heroics to fulfil a widespread passion, particularly in Europe and particularly during the 19th century. The invention of the sealed glazed case by Nathaniel Ward in the 1830s made it possible to transport live plants halfway around the world. Using such Warden case, as they were known, two different botanical adventurers explored the area north and west of Lijiang and Shangri-La at the turn of the century, bringing back, among many, many others, Rhododendrons, Camellias, Magnolias, Primulas, Gentian and the famous and elusive Tibetan Blue Poppy.  Frank Kingdon-Ward was a professional explorer, also writer, photographer and botanical collector, and discovered hundreds of new species in the area around Mount Kawakarpo, Adong and the Nujiang Valley. George Forrest, a methodical and solitary Scottish collector worked in approximately the same area, and over 28 years took back to Britain 31,000 species as seeds. In the course of this he almost lost his life when he was hunted by Tibetan guerrillas (surprisingly, Buddhist lamas) and narrowly escaped a massacre of 68 of his companions.