In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry and his Chinese plant collectors

InFootstepsAugustineHenry-webDuring my first visit to Dublin several years ago, I visited the iconic garden of plantswoman Helen Dillon in a salubrious quarter of that city. Like the thousands that had visited previously, and since, I was entranced by her intricately ordered borders using the cream of garden worthy plants. Slightly out-of-sync in one of her color schemes were the splendid orange flowers of Lilium henryi that, upon closer inspection, were not planted in her garden at all, but from the adjoining property and former home of Augustine Henry.

That interface with one of Europe’s most proficient and scholarly plant collectors of all time only served to make me more aware of his contributions to Western horticulture. A walk through my current garden in Indianola, Washington or my previous garden—Heronswood—in Kingston, Washington would in short order illuminate the staggering numbers of hardy plants Henry collected in western China and Taiwan at the end of the 19th century. Below a now stately 50-foot specimen of Emmenopterys henryi grows both the handsome bramble, Rubus henryi var. bambusarum,  as well as the supremely good woodlander in the birthwort family, Saruma henryiSinowilsonia henryi, a deciduous member of the witch hazel family, thrives near Acer henryi (now A. cissifolium subsp. henryi) the fine vining honeysuckle, Lonicera henryi, cloaks an arbor. And that is just for starters. In a sunnier location at Heronswood grows two of his most significant collections; the fabled dove tree, Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana and the Chinese witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis.

Within the pages of In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry and his Chinese plant collectors, Ireland’s contemporary counterpart to his subject, Seamus O’Brien chronicles in meaty detail Henry’s passion for the natural world and remarkable contributions to the West’s understanding of China’s floristic richness. In only a fifteen-year span within China’s borders, the self-taught botanist prepared 158,000 dried specimens which he consigned to Kew in England for proper identification. Of the 6,000 species represented by his herbarium pressings, nearly 2,000 proved new to science.

What O’Brien succeeds in accomplishing in this 367 page and handsomely illustrated tome, which follows a familiar and successful template of Roy Lancaster’s Travels in China  (by the same publisher), is to illume both the plants and the process while integrating a cultural and historical perspective to Henry’s work in a remarkably remote region of China. Through excerpts from journals and letters, we are privy to his communications and interactions with other greats from his generation; Pratt, Fabre, Wilson, Hooker, et al. In addition, we observe the relationships Henry develops with native plant collectors sometimes colorful and comical results.

Conjoining the historical account is the author’s recent travels to the same locales he undertook to find and ascertain the present day condition of the glades and glens that Henry found so appealing in his day.  Although he ultimately spent time in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces as well as northern Vietnam and Taiwan, his finest work had been along the Yangtze in western Hubei Province. Much of that area O’Brien finds entombed by the deep waters of the now infamous Three Gorges Dam project.

Although I am personally treated to revisiting familiar mountains and cities to which my travels have taken me, anyone with a penchant for geography, adventure, history and natural sciences would find this an addictive read as well as a superb botanical reference. It has earned pride of place in my personal library.

Daniel Hinkley, plantsman
Indianola, Washington