Sir George Taylor's contribution to Plant Hunting in the Himalaya

Adam Stainton wrote about SIR GEORGE TAYLOR'S CONTRIBUTION TO HIMALAYAN BOTANY within the Jan-June 1986 issue of the 'Himalayan Plant Journal'.  An interesting episode in Nepalese PLANT HUNTING, with which Taylor was closely concerned and although some botanical exploration had been carried out there in the earlier part of the 19th Century, the flora was still largely unknown.  In Britain there was a strong desire to carry out further exploration, once again, primarily with a view to bringing into cultivation new species. BOTANICAL exploration in the Himalaya (without which a flora CANNOT be conserved) has always gone HAND-IN-HAND with HORTICULTURAL exploration.  This has NEVER been EXPLOITATION. Nepal is to be COMMENDED for allowing much greater collaboration than other Himalayan countries - this has greatly benefited the study of its flora, despite its limited financial resources.  Nepalese people are known for their resilience, this is an example of their WISDOM.  It is SMART to take advantage of British and other Western country's interest, amongst the educated plant enthusiasts, interest in PLANTS FOR THE CONNOISSUR found in the Himalaya - just as they take advantage of the fascination (in some cases obsession, amongst Western mountaineers to attempt to scale some of the world's highest peaks, which puts their lives at risk) for Nepal's highest mountains.  But Nepalese and those in other country's must recognise FUNDS are strictly limited for botanical/horticultural exploration - there is no money to be made, so they should be grateful as to what is PUT BACK, in return for the opportunity to PLANT HUNT!

The RESULT has been that the FLORA OF NEPAL is much better known than that of the INDIAN HIMALAYA - thus the country is in a much better position to conserve its flora!

Being a BOTANIST by training and inclination, I described myself as a PLANT HUNTER to help get lecture bookings.  Very few audiences (apart from the now perilously few NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETIES which remain in the UK, only book me ONCE ever few years) would have booked me to speak if my emphasis was primarily botanical.  Just as visitors to Kew Gardens, do NOT pay the £15 entrance fee for guided tours of the HERBARIUM to look a what to them, would be BORING OLD dried specimens of plants but LIVING ones grown from SEED collected on PLANT HUNTING EXPEDITIONS to different parts of the world!  Scientific/botanical exploration has ALWAYS been combined with horticultural collecting.

A famous plant-hunter in an exhibit originally staged at the Glasgow Garden Festival (1984) - then moved to the Threave School of Gardening

George Taylor was born in 1904.  He graduated with first class honours in botany in 1926 from Edinburgh University.  Awarded the Vans Dunlop Scholarship, he was able to undertake research at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, where he met the famous PLANT HUNTER George Forrest, who had been on his first expedition to Yunnan, SW China on the recommendation of Professor Bailey Balfour of Edinburgh Botanic Garden; Edinburgh continued to receive plants from Forrest's Chinese expeditions throughout his very successful career.  Writing many years later, Taylor stated, "Forrest's verbal and written accounts of his field experiences fired my youthful hopes of one day SAVOURING THE JOYS AND RISKS of plant collecting in remote parts".  Taylor was in fact invited by Forrest to accompany him on what proved to be his last expedition in 1930, but duties at home made him unable to accept.  Forrest died that year in the field.


Taylor's association with Forrest was to have one particularly fruitful outcome.  Amongst the many pants coming in from Yunnan and other parts of the Sino-Himalaya were gatherings of MECONOPSIS, some of which were proving difficult to identify.  Sir David Prain, at one time Superintendent of the Calcuta Botanic Garden and later Director of Kew, had published a paper on MECONOPSIS in 1915, but the flood of new material coming in it was becoming evident that a revision of the genus was imperative (not because of a demand by the botanical world but the interest in the CULTIVATION of MECONOPSIS in the UK and Western countries).  Forrest was one of several people who urged Taylor to tackle this problem, which resulted in 1934 in his monograph AN ACCOUNT OF THE GENUS MECONOPSIS.  This, much of which is based on Forrest's material, was the thesis on which Taylor was awarded his doctorate.

In 1928 Taylor left Edinburgh for a post at the British Museum (Natural History) in London.  At this date no great tradition of work on Sino-Himalayan flora such as existed at Edinburgh was in being at the Museum, but one of Taylor's first acts on arrival was to inveigle out of Edinburgh a duplicate set of Forrest's botanical (pressed) specimens, thereby greatly strengthening the Museum's representation of the flora of this region.  Incidentally, he was thereby also forestalling Kew, which might reasonably have considered itself entitled to the second set.

At this time and for many years thereafter another great plant collector was often to be seen in the herbarium of the Museum in the intervals between his many PLANT HUNTING expeditions, Frank Kingdon Ward.  His sphere of operations mostly lay in the remote mountainous borderlands where China, Burma, Tibet and the North-East frontiers of India meet.  He started his PLANT HUNTING career in 1909 and was still planning further expeditions at the time of his death in 1958 (coincidentally, the year Chris Chadwell was born). Taylor got to know Ward well, writing later, "...with whom in correspondence and conversation I shared vicariously his later expeditions". WARD'S PRIME OBJECTIVE, AS WAS FORREST'S, WAS TO INTRODUCE NEW SPECIES FOR CULTIVATION IN BRITAIN but his botanical (pressed specimen) collections much enriched the Museum herbarium.  It should be noted that Chris Chadwell primary objective was always BOTANICAL then CONSERVATION of Himalayan flora - the interest in its cultivation was a MEANS TO AN END as NO funding was available to him to specifically undertake his BOTANICAL research and CONSERVATION projects.  Chris Chadwell founded the HIMALAYAN PLANT ASSOCIATION.

GENTIANA  ORNATA - introduced from Nepal ('Plants for the Connoisseur')


An interesting episode in Nepalese PLANT HUNTING, with which Taylor was closely concerned, took place at this time.  Nepal was then still a closed country, and although some botanical exploration had been carried out there in the earlier part of the 19th century, the flora was still largely unknown.  In Britain there was a strong desire to carry out further exploration, ONCE AGAIN PRIMARILY WITH A VIEW TO BRINGING INTO CULTIVATON NEW SPECIES.

One of the most important participants in the project was Thomas Hay, Superintendent of the Royal Parks, with its headquarters in Hyde Park.  Another was Sir Clive Wigram, a keen gardener and perhaps more relevantly private secretary to King George V.  Behind the secretary stood the figure of the King himself, though to what extent he was personally concerned in obtaining permission from Nepal for the project to succeed is not exactly known.  George Taylor was a close friend of Tom Hay, and as a knowledgeable gardener he took a keen interest in the plants which Hay raised from Nepalese seed, as well as handling in the Museum herbarium the dried material (pressed specimens) coming in from Nepal.

In Kathmandu an important link was the British Resident there, Lt.-Col. F.M.Bailey.  In earlier years Bailey had carried out some extraordinarily adventurous PLANT HUNTING EXPEDITIONS, including one in 1913 when for the first time he investigated in the Tsangpo gorges in S.E.Tibet.  It was on this journey that he discovered the famous blue poppy known for years to gardeners as MECONOPSIS BAILEYI, but which is now MECONOPSIS BETONICIFOLIA.  Although Bailey was the first to locate it in the wild, the honour of having first introduced it into cultivation in fact is due to Kingdon Ward, from seed collected on his expedition to the same area in 1924.  Just as it was P.N.Kohli (not Chand) who should have the honour of first introducing PRIMULA CLARKEI, first located in the wild by C.B.Clarke.

MECONOPIS  DHWOJII  - introduced from Nepal ('Plants for the Connoisseur'); this is a rather straggly form (species vary, with each seedling raised from wild-collected seed having the potential to look different, some more ornamental than others)


Finally, and most importantly, there were the Nepali collectors in the field.  There was no possibility of using British collectors (although these often relied heavily on local/native collectors), and initially Bailey used his own men.  Soon Major Lal Dhwoj of the Nepal army was seconded for the task during the years 1927-30 he made several journeys and sent both seed and dried material to Britain.  One successful introduction is RIGHTLY named after him, MECONOPSIS DHWOJII.  After Dhwoj's death in 1931, Professor Sharma, a Burmese-born Nepali with a large herbalist practice in Kathmandu, between 1931-37 continued the work.  PRIMULA SHARMAE is named after him.  It was under Sharma's charge that the Department of Medicinal Plants in Kathmandu was started.

Plants raised from seed sent back by Dhwoj and Sharma aroused considerable interest in Britain.  One surprise was the delightful little golden-flowered PRIMULA AUREATA, which Tom hay flowered in Hyde Park (no mean achievement as the climate of London is not ideally suited to raising primulas, meconopsis or gentians from the monsoon-ridden districts of Nepal, as Kew has found to its cost on numerous occasions - conditions at Edinburgh Botanic Garden are much more favourable) when it was still quite unknown from any botanical (herbarium) specimens collected in the wild.  Flowering specimens were sent to Edinburgh, where they were described and published as a new species, but it was not until over twenty years later, after Nepal opened its frontiers, that the range and habitat of this species was established.

MECONOPSIS  REGIA - introduced from Nepal ('Plants for the Connoisseur')


Another new species was named after the king's private secretary, PRIMULA WIGRAMIANA, but the naming of MECONOPSIS REGIA after the reigning British sovereign was somewhat fortuitous.  Taylor in 1929 described this fine yellow-flowered species as a new species, and in bestowing the SPECIFIC EPIPHET (species name) REGIA, he had in fact intended to indicate no more than that it was a truly regal poppy in a general sense.  However, it so happened that when King George V came to visit the annual Chelsea Flower Show, Taylor was in attendance, and showed the king some of the new introductions grown by the Royal Parks Department.  Taylor recounts with amusement that on being shown the big yellow poppies and hearing their name, the Monarch without hesitation claimed them as his own by declaring how pleased he was that such splendid plants should be named after himself (this incident suggests that the King was not actually that interest in unusual plants, so Wigram, able to approach the King of Nepal and Maharajah of Kashmir on Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle note paper, used his position well to further PLANT HUNTING in the Himalaya).

PRIMULA  ROTUNDIFOLIA - introduced from Nepal ('Plants for the Connoisseur')


Another pair of remarkable PLANT HUNTERS were operating in the Himalaya during these inter-war years, Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff.  Ludlow had at one time worked for the Indian Education Department, and was seconded during the years 1923-26 to the Tibetan government to run a school for boys at Gyantse.  The first of the many EXPEDITIONS which Ludlow made for the Natural History Museum in London came from this area of Tibet.  Taylor remembers that one of his first jobs when he arrived at the Museum was to work on a collection which Ludlow had made in the Tien Shan mountains of Chinese Turkestan (Interestingly, I was invited to join an expedition planned to visit this region in 1986, as a botanist, on the recommendation of the Natural History Museum which included mountaineer Mal Duff and had aroused the interest of Christian Bonnington but like so many, the requisite funding fell through).  Sherriff seconded from the army for political service, worked here in the British Consulate at Kashgar, and here he and Ludlow became close friends and discussed together plans for exploration of Bhutan and Tibet in years to come.

Taylor first met Ludlow and Sherriff in person when they came to the Museum to discuss future expeditions some time in the early 1930s.  By this time they were both retired and living in Kashmir.  The mutual liking seems to have been immediate, and from that time on Taylor acted as their Home Agent and made him responsible for the distribution of the seeds and living plants from all their travels.  Over the years their collections were very large, both of plants and also of birds.  During the years 1933-49 they covered much of Bhutan and S.E.Tibet, and although during the war years their collecting was curtailed they nevertheless were able to collect a number of plants from the vicinity of Lhasa when first Ludlow and then Sherriff occupied the British Residency there. (Please note in 1939 it was TSONGPEN LEPCHA, who undertook a plant hunting expedition to the Baspa Valley, Kinnaur, principally to locate PRIMULA OBTUSIFOLIA, though all his pressed specimens and seed collections were given Ludlow & Sherriff (L&S) collection numbers).

MECONOPSIS  PANICULATA rosette - introduced from Nepal ('Plants for the Connoisseur')


Taylor had already been a member of two botanical expeditions to Africa, but it must have been very frustrating for him during these years to have had friends such as Forrest, Kingdon Ward, Ludlow ans Sherriff pouring into his ears tales of their travels in what is undoubtedly the richest temperate flora in the world.  Now came the invitation from Ludlow & Sherriff to join them for their 1938 season.  This year they planned to extend their exploration of S.E.Tibet. Taylor in fact very nearly missed the expedition, for shortly before they were due to start he needed to have an operation.  By the time he had recovered and reached Sikkim his friends had already set out six weeks before, so Taylor had to make his way to join them (though he would have had a local guide). This was a long expedition, for they were in the field until November during which they covered an enormous amount of ground and made very large collections of birds and plants - the largest and most comprehensive collection of plants that has ever come out of Tibet in any one season.

If circumstances had permitted there is no doubt that Taylor would have made a plant collector of very high order, and it was unfortunate that this was his last opportunity to ever free himself long enough to take to the field.  Shortly after his return from Tibet the war begun, and from 194-45 he was seconded to the Air Ministry.  On returning to the Museum in 1945 he was he was heavily engaged in rebuilding and enlarging the herbarium, which had been bombed during the war, and then from 1950-56 he became Keeper of the Department.  But if Himalayan PLANT HUNTING lost a splendid field-collector, it gained an energetic and powerful supporter who had attained a position of considerable influence.  As well as being Keeper of Botany Taylor attained a position of considerable influence.  As well as being Keeper of Botany Taylor was on many committees of a botanical and horticultural nature, including perhaps most importantly the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society.

With the withdrawal of the British from India and Burma in 1947, and the resurgence of Chinese control over Tibet after the communists' advent to power in 1949 the operations of PLANT HUNTERS in the remote mountain borderland areas became more difficult.  Ludlow and Sherriff made one more expedition to S.E.Tibet in 1947, but were refused permission for 1949 and in that year made their last expedition to Bhutan.  Kingdon Ward was in Northern Burma as late as 1953, but since then no one has been allowed to visit those parts.  And quickly too the frontier areas of all N.E.India became inaccessible.  It was fortunate therefore that just at this time Nepal was opening its frontiers.

The pre-war collections of Dhwoj and Sharma had already confirmed the supposition that Nepal possessed a rich endemic flora worthy of much further investigation.  Now the stimulus for this was to come very largely from George Taylor, who with his influential contacts was well-placed to raise the funds without which PLANT HUNTING and associated BOTANICAL exploration is impossible.  Taylor was instrumental in sending to Nepal the two earliest post-war British PLANT HUNTERS, Oleg Polunin in 1949 and Donald Lowndes in 1951, both as botanists attached to mountaineering expeditions led by H.W. Tilman.  He was also the inspiration behind much more ambitious PLANT HUNTING expeditions to West and Central Nepal in 1952 and 1954 (the years before and after the first ascent of Everest), led by John Williams of the Natural History Museum but also the Royal Horticultural Society, whose representative on both expeditions was Bill Sykes (whom I have the privilege to meet during a lecture tour to New Zealand in 1992).  Oleg Polunin, then a botany master at Charterhouse public school joined the 1952 team; whilst Adam Stainton, joined the 1954 team (helpfully being able to fully fund his own part in the lengthy expedition.  Stainton's mother was from one of main Scottish Whiskey families, so Adam was a man of Independent means.  In his privately published memoirs, he recounted meeting a Professor of Geology, who strongly advised him he should travel with a purpose, suggesting he meet George Taylor.  Those who can imagine the financially restrictive atmosphere prevailing in Britain in those post-war years will be able to appreciate the magnitude of the task of raising money at such a time for these big expeditions, and most of the credit of its successful accomplishment was due to Taylor.  Any modern-day, well-educated, comfortably-off younger generations in Himalayan countries, imagining that everyone from Britain in rich and has limitless funds to explore in the Himalaya, are WAY OFF THE MARK.  The activities of PLANT HUNTERS and BOTANISTS, past and present have NEVER exploited these countries.  The motivation for much of the plant exploration has been HORTICULTURAL and why not?  In return, Himalayan countries have had their floras studied FAR MORE extensively and to a MUCH HIGHER STANDARD than they could achieve by themselves.  An element of gratitude and appreciation should exist.  Many of those plant hunters, educated and skilful have been prepared to undertake ARDUOUS, at times DANGEROUS expeditions, at ALTITUDE, when MOST of the educated scientists from these countries sit comfortably in their offices - with a few HONOURABLE exceptions.  MORE of the same is needed - NOT less.



The work of these two expeditions, together with that of later collectors (including the efforts of many Japanese botanists), makes Nepal botanically one of the best-known parts of the Himalaya, and these botanical collections form the basis on which the Natural History Museum, London, in conjunction with the University of Tokyo, published the ENUMERATION OF THE FLOWERING PLANTS OF NEPAL (1978-82).  The Museum now contains a very fine representative collection of the Nepal flora.  Although perhaps not strictly relevant to Stainton's article upon which these notes are based, after publication of the ENUMERATION the museum staff are now no longer primarily concerned with the Himalayan flora (this remains the case, after a spell focussing on the flora of Meso-America).  I have not visited the Museum in recent years, so cannot report on the present situation except to report that like most botanical institutions in the West, the numbers of botanical staff have been decimated, since I first visited in the early 1980s.  The pendulum, as to studying Himalayan plants has swung back once more to Edinburgh, with A.J.C. Grierson and D.G.Long having published the FLORA OF BHUTAN.

In 1956 Taylor became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a post which he held with distinction until 1971.  This was the summit of his career but are not relevant to the Himalaya.  He was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1956, was knighted in 1962, amd in 1968 became a Fellow of the Royal Society.  Amongst all these honours and achievements Sir George retained a keen interest in Himalayan matters, and was always ready to give encouragement and assistance to anyone who shared his interest.

Since retiring from Kew Sir George has been Director of the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust, and now lives at Dunbar not far from his native Edinburgh.  Here, he remains ready as ever to discuss and advise about anything relating to that magnificent range of mountains.

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