Beyond Beauty: Hunting the Wild Blue Poppy

By: Josh Schechtel

Josh Schechtel is an avid gardener and has rarely met a plant that he didn’t like. He has worked as…

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BeyondBeautywebFor anyone interested in horticulture, no small amount of gratitude is owed to plant hunters, those individuals whose love of plants and horticulture compels them to trek through little-known regions of the globe, collecting seed from plants new to horticulture, and sometimes new to science. Many of the plants we grow in our gardens can be traced back to their sources through the famous (and not so famous) plant hunters of the 16th and 17th centuries (John Tradescant Senior and Junior), 18th century (Sir Joseph Banks and Alexander von Humboldt) and the 19th and 20th centuries. Much has been written about some of our modern plant hunters, such as Chris Chadwell, Jim and Jenny Archibald, Josef Halda, Vojtech Holubec, Dan Hinkley, and Rod and Rachel Saunders.

In his book, Bill Terry describes a journey that he and his wife undertook, traveling with a team of two dozen Dutch, Australian and British plant hunters in 2010, to cross 2500 kilometers of Sichuan Province and Tibet. The goal of the trip was to photograph rare alpine plants in their habitats. Much of the book is devoted to describing the rigors of traveling on primitive roads through high mountains, and the various things that can go awry in the middle of nowhere. Washed out roads, broken down cars, overly officious bureaucrats, questionable hygiene and clashes of eastern and western palates create situations that Terry details with a wonderful sense of humor. This is demonstrated at the beginning of the book, when he describes being over seventy years old as “a fine age to be undertaking what the Lonely Planet Guide to Western China describes as a journey requiring ‘super-human endurance’.” The descriptions of some of the hotel rooms that he and his wife endured are simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. As the story unfolds, we learn about the other members of the team, and some of the funny neologisms that crop up as they try to speak in each other’s languages. Many of the situations are familiar to anyone who has traveled off of the main tourist roads of the world, and Terry does a great job in expressing the strange mix of disgust and curiosity that often accompanies an immersion into a new culture.

In telling the story of their expedition, Terry captures the feeling of the landscapes they see each day, both the natural beauty of the ‘roof of the world’ and the various indigenous architectures they encounter in the villages and towns they pass through and in which they find shelter. He also creates fascinating, and often humorous, profiles of the people they encounter on their journey. These range from overly formal tour guides to rowdy drivers to shy children to surly soldiers. Humorous miscommunications ensue in many of these places, due to the language barriers between locals and members of the expedition, and between the various Europeans in the team. Because they are traveling from a Chinese province into Tibet, there are a plethora of permits to be obtained and Chinese bureaucracies to be navigated, with their attendant miscommunications and humorous moments. These experiences provide proper introductions to more serious explanations of the political and social history of the region, enlightening us about the centuries of human habitation in the area that have led to today’s uneasy stance between China and Tibet. Terry also details some of the damage that human development has inflicted on this delicate ecosystem, including the effects of tourism.

Interspersed in the travelogue are stories of the plant explorers in whose footsteps the team is following, sometimes quite literally. George Forrest, Reginald Farrer and Jean André Soulié are some of the 18th and 19th century plant hunters whose amazing tales unfold in the pages of the book, as the team visits some of the same collecting sites over a century later. We also learn about the adventures of Major Frederick M. Bailey and Frank Kingdon-Ward, explorers of the early 20th century. The author specializes in Asiatic poppies (Meconopsis) so it is fitting that one of the goals of the expedition is to find the famous Blue Poppy (Meconopsis baileyi). None of the expedition members, many of whom are experienced travelers in the Himalayas, had ever seen this elusive plant in the wild. In telling the story, Terry describes many of the alpine plants they see in such exquisite detail that they can almost be tasted. Many of the names are familiar (Rhododendron, Aquilegia, Cardiocrinum, Clematis, Primula, Berberis, Corydalis, Daphne) even if the species are not, and some, such as Ponerorchis, Soroseris, and Chionocharis, are rarities to any but the most devoted alpine plant lovers. Terry does a wonderful service describing the natural plant communities; which plants are growing together, how they interact with each other, and how they magically create one ‘perfect garden’ after another, leaving him and his wife gaping in wonder.

There are many excellent photographs in the book; especially those that show some of the intimate landscapes and ‘perfect gardens’ that are described in the text. However, many of the photographs of individual plant species are frustratingly out of focus or poorly lit. This is understandable, since one can only bring a limited amount of photographic equipment on such a journey, but it created a small distraction from the otherwise enjoyable reading of a well-written adventure of a lifetime.

Josh Schechtel, PHS board member
San Francisco, California