Book review: In the Land of the Blue Poppies.

In the Land of the Blue Poppies:  The Collected Plant-Hunting Writings of Frank Kingdon Ward (2003 Modern Library Edition)

Have you ever really thought about where the plants in your garden originate?  (I’m not talking about the trademarked and patented hybrids).  Some of the plants we grow here in North America are certainly native to our geographical regions – but others had to come from somewhere a little more exotic…like Asia, perhaps, maybe by way of Europe.  Consider the plant-hunters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men like Frank Kingdon Ward (1885-1958), who risked life and limb clambouring over mountain ranges in extreme weather in politically-volatile countries such as China and Tibet just so that gardeners back home in England could grow new species of unheard-of plants.

In the Land of the Blue Poppies is a collection of excerpts from Kingdon Ward’s adventures, comprising nearly fifty years of plant exploration.  Kingdon Ward undertook approximately twenty-five expeditions during his lifetime, each trip lasting several months, over multiple seasons, as he searched for viable seed to send back to his commissioners at home.  By all accounts, it was a lonely, crazy series of adventures that Kingdon Ward seemed to rather relish – his tales of his encounters with animals, with the people of the countries he visited, and with the harsh and stunningly beautiful elements of Nature and geography make for some pretty interesting reading.  In the heyday of plant collecting, it was certainly not enough to be merely a botanist – you had to be Indiana Jones, as well, it seemed.  Straddling rope bridges over a cavernous gorge containing a swollen spring river, or finding himself stranded in a bamboo thicket for over two days alone and without food or water seems par for the course, barely fazing the intrepid plant-hunter.  When one of his men becomes drunk and unruly, Kingdon Ward bops him a good one on the nose and then tramps off to climb a snow-tracked mountain in search of another new rhododendron.  It’s all in a day’s work.  It’s astonishing indeed to consider the miles Kingdon Ward travelled and the heights and lengths he went to – and all this in the days before modern climbing and hiking equipment and clothing.

And although I suspect Kingdon Ward was an adventurer first, plant collector second, his passion for flowers constantly shines through:

“In September the collector definitely turns the corner; henceforth flowers are fewer each week, berries are blushing, capsules are drying, pepos are fattening, legumes are bulging, leaves are wilting.  By October the bushes are robed in splendid livery and beaded with coral red berries.  Seeds are being scattered – plumed seeds which float away dreamily into the air on some bold voyage into unknown places; winged seeds which slant weakly to the ground like fledglings:  hard, plain seeds, which are jerked out of their capsules and fall unenterprisingly round the parent plant; dull seeds which do nothing for themselves but whose fine houses, being eaten over their heads by birds, claim the insurance money and are straightway planted far and wide.”  (pp. 112-113)

His prose is beautiful and simple and vaguely humorous, indicative of a man who was living the life he desired, despite all of its oddities and hardships.  Kingdon Ward was responsible for the discovery of several species new to Europe, including several rhodendrons and lilies.  He brought back the viable seeds of hundreds and hundreds of different species, some of which were intitially huge successes in English gardens and remain popular selections today, all over the world.  The stories of how he came by his discoveries are intimate and fascinating glimpses of history and an examination of distinctive cultures, and are well worth a sampling.


About the blue poppy:  Kingdon Ward didn’t discover Meconopsis betonicifolia, he just brought back what he thought were the first viable seeds of the plant during his first solo expedition in 1911.  Unfortunately, those plants didn’t flower, and Kingdon Ward was quite upset about it.   A few years and expeditions later, he was successful, and the plant was a wild hit at the Royal Horticultural Society flower show in 1926.   It still causes a sensation, really.

There is actually quite the name-flap regarding the Himalayan blue poppy…let’s see if we get this straight.  In 1913 the explorer Frederick M. Bailey brought back from Tibet a single pressed flower of what was then called M. baileyi, in his honour.  This sample was considered botanically different than the M. betonicifolia discovered years earlier (around 1885) in northern Yunnan by a collector named Pere Delavaye.  In 1933, however, it was decided that both samples were of the same type of plant and the plant was given its old name of M. betonicifolia.  But, no, we’re not finished yet.  In 2009, the study of the Himalayan blue poppy was opened again and scientist Christopher Grey-Wilson determined that the plants are indeed different…so M. baileyi is once again named as a separate species.

To add more confusion, the Himalayan blue poppy isn’t a poppy at all.  Sure, it’s part of the same family (Papaveraceae) but true poppies are indicated by the species name papaver, which are the ones native to North America and Europe.  Meconopsis means “poppy-like.”  Isn’t botany fun?

*** – check out Bill Terry’s gorgeous book Blue Heaven:  Encounters with the Blue Poppy (2009:  TouchWood Editions, Victoria).  So far I’ve only had a gander at the photos in the book, which are jaw-droppingly beautiful, but one of these days I intend to give the text a go.

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