What is involved in a modern-day 'plant hunting' expedition?

So exactly what is entailed in a modern-day 'plant hunting' expedition?  And what was involved in comparable expeditions is the hey-day of the famous plant hunters of the past.  I can only speak about what I know. It may be that the situation is different for other parts of the world (again past and present) and for other plant hunters.  Have there ever been individuals in the past who have not followed the rules - who do not treat the country they are in or the local people with respect?  Yes.  But is Chris Chadwell automatically "guilty" of similar "offences" because of this? No!

Botanist at the University of Kashmir which Chris liaised with during his botanical expedition to Kashmir in the 1980s

Let us work in chronological order, as this makes the most sense to me - finishing off with Chris Chadwell himself.  Rules and Regulations change over time.  The full implications of the Nagoya Protocol are only starting to be appreciated and understood.  The wording of many rules can legitimately be open to interpretation. Such is the way of things.  This does not imply a deliberate attempt to subvert the objectives of such "rules" - the objectives of which are almost always, admirable. Who would not be supportive of such regulations?  But are we not entitled to ask do they work to help PROTECT or actually make the situation worse?

Chris Chadwell injured during a fall whilst exploring for plants during an expedition in the Himalaya

What was involved in a typical plant hunting expedition in the Himalaya in the 1900s?

Ludlow & Sherriff Expeditions
I know a fair amount about Ludlow & Sherriff, having covered some of the same ground, so they make a suitable starting point.  Frank Ludlow was born in Chelsea in 1885, educated at Wellington School, Somerset and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1908 min Natural Sciences. He then joined the staff of the Sind College, Karachi, served during the First World War with the 97th Indian Infantry in Mesopotamia, returned to India and for three years was Inspector of European Schools at Poona.  In 1923 he went to Gyantse in south-eastern Tibet, at the invitation of the Tibetan Government, to set up an educational system and he remained there until 1926, gaining the respect and goodwill of the Tibetans which much aided his later collecting activities in Tibet.  In 1927 he moved westward to Srinagar in Kashmir and began to collect birds. While on an expedition to Chinese Turkistan in 1929 he met George Sherriff at Kashgar and there began the close friendship and the fruitful partnership in activities which lasted until Sherriff's death in 1967. Their first joint plant-collecting expedition was to Central Bhutan in 1933 with F.Williamson, Political Officer in Sikkim. 

The success of the 1933 journey led Ludlow & Sherriff to plan for subsequent years a series of expeditions progressing eastward to the great bend of the Tsangpo river, which continued, despite interruptions, until 1949.  He specialised in PRIMULA and CORYDALIS.  Major George Sherriff, a skilled photographer, was born in 1898; at one point Political Agent in in Kashgar, he collected many plants of horticultural interest along the Tibetan frontier.

Ludlow wrote (in 1968): 'Our main object was to survey botanically and ornithologically the temperate and alpine regions of Bhutan and South Tibet.... We realized at the start that the success of our expeditions depended almost entirely on having a happy and contented staff.  Our staff was a very mixed one.  It consisted of Bhutanese, Sikkimese, Kashmiris and Lepchas, so there was always the danger on a long journey squabbling and quarrelling would occur.  This never happened.  Sherriff had the gift of getting the best out of his men.  They were well fed, well clothed, well paid and he made them feel their work was of great importance, as indeed it was, so they gave of their best.  But Sherriff and I were always acutely aware that such success as we achieved was almost entirely due to their loyalty.  Without their aid we should not have got very far or done very much"

This 'enlightened' approach - showing respect for locals, was not share by  all of the Europeans who worked in the Indian sub-continent, nor many of those who subsequently wrote about such famous plant hunters.  I never met Ludlow or Sherriff but can tell "kindred spirits".  I continue to do my best to bring recognition to those who assisted plant hunters past and present.  Perhaps the current un-pleasant situation I find myself in, may ultimately aid me with this task.


As they were both, form a time, based/working in the Himalaya or close-by, some of their plant explorations (plant hunting expeditions) did not require travel from Britain.  This was a considerable advantage as in those days it still involved a passage by ship to India first - which took weeks.  Thus they were able to "plant hunt" in many parts of Kashmir, without mounting formal expeditions.  Much of what they did involved collecting botanical specimens, see:   Though a keen interest was taken in plants of "ornamental merit", worth growing in gardens in Britain.

It is widely assumed that they were the ones to collect any seed which was gathered.  This, in fact, was often not the case.  Though it is they who got the credit for the plant introductions raised from such seed.  It is their collection numbers/names which are recorded - and to keep tracks of such collections, this made sense.  Yet it was mainly their collecting teams, led principally by Tsongpen Lepcha (from Sikkim), trained by Sherriff, who became skilled, at times acting completely independently - who collected most of the seed!

When I first started taking an interest in plants of horticultural interest from the Himalaya in the early 1980s, PARAQUILEGIA ANEMONOIDES (sometimes named as PARAQUILEGIA GRANDIFLORA) was winning prizes on rock garden society show-benches.  This was a blue-flowered form, introduced during a Ludlow & Sherriff expedition to Bhutan in the late 1940s.  Further West in the Himalaya, this species is typically white-flowered (though other colour variants occur), such as in Kashmir (where I have photographed it).  It is assumed, because it had indeed been a Ludlow & Sherriff expedition, they were the ones who collected seed of it (from which the plants on the show-benches were raised).  No, the credit SHOULD go to Tsongpen!  Yes, Ludlow & Sherriff had participated in a reconnaissance earlier that year but it was Tsongpen (and his team) who gathered the seed.  Where were Ludlow & Sherriff at the time?  Probably back in Kashmir or even England - a thousand or thousands of kms away from Bhutan.  I have drawn attention to this before, including in an article in the 'Himalayan Plant Association' Journal.  Within the journal was the 'Local Heroes Corner', acknowledging the contribution of locals to botanical and horticultural exploration in the Himalaya.  Do I acknowledge the contribution of such people to the expeditions of the famous plant hunters of the past in my lectures about the Himalaya?  Yes.  Do I acknowledge the contribution of  guides, porters and the men in charge of the pack animals, to plant exploration past and present?  Yes.  Have such people been awarded the Kohli Memorial Gold Medal by the Himalayan Plant Association? Yes.  Yet to this day, the credit goes to "heroic" plant hunters.....

In 1940, Tsongpen undertook an entirely separate expedition to Kinnaur in the borderlands of Tibet.  He was plant hunting for botanical specimens and seed, especially of PRIMULA OBTUSIFOLIA.  Ludlow & Sherriff were nowhere to be seen.  But were all the botanical specimens (and the seed he collected) allocated Ludlow & Sherriff numbers?  Why yes, of course - and rightly so, as to start another set of numbers would have led to confusion - it is difficult to keeps things labelled well, with typing and transcription errors common-place.  I have seen Tsongpen's pressed specimens from the Baspa Valley, Kinnaur in the Natural History Museum in London (where there is also an account, published in the Journal of the Linnaean Society, of Tspongpen's "trek").  These botanical reference specimens are amongst the best quality I have ever seen - his original field notes (in Hindustani, I think) survive. Why would a British collector not write in English?  Yet some remain convinced it was Ludlow & Sherriff who collected them (and the seed).  Articles have been written about going in the "footsteps" of Ludlow & Sherriff, yet these Britishers (as us Brits are still, mostly affectionately, know as in India) never went to this particular valley - no entries in their diaries of plant collections exist for 1940, which provides supporting evidence.  There have even been botanical tours by specialist travel companies for plant enthusiasts to "follow in the footsteps of Ludlow & Sherriff" yet these famous plant hunters never went  to Kinnaur or covered much ground in Himachal Pradesh!  Why not in the footsteps of the 'intrepid' and talented Tsongpen?  No doubt one of the best plant hunters ever!

Ludlow & Sherriff's first expedition was to Bhutan and Tibet in 1933.  They returned in 1934. The following year they were in Kashmir. In 1936 they visited Bhutan and Tibet again. In 1937 Sherriff was in Bhutan. There are a few specimens with L&S numbers from 1937 - most likely gathered by one of their collectors. The following year they were in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. In 1939 they visited the Simla Hill States and Kashmir.  They were in Assam in 1941.  There is no mention of Ladakh but there are L&S specimens from here collected in 1940 & 1941.  In 1942 there were specimens from Assam, Kashmir, Sikkim, Tibet. 1943: Sikkim & Tibet. 1944: Tibet and Mishmi Hills.  1945: Tibet & Sikkim. 

World War II restricted their travels.  Ludlow was sent to Lhasa as assistant Political Officer in charge of the British Mission, being succeeded in this post by Sherriff and his wife in 1943.

In 1946: Kashmir and Tibet.  1948: India & Sikkim.  1949: Sikkim & Bhutan. 1950: Bhutan.

Let me next cover early plant exploration in Nepal - this country is to be applauded for welcoming expeditions from European countries and Japan, leading to considerable international collaboration, which is ESSENTIAL for ALL countries to study their flora, particularly developing ones.  UNLESS A PROPER FLORA EXISTS, NOT ONLY LISTING EVERY KNOWN SPECIES IN EACH COUNTRY BUT ALSO HOW ABUNDANT OR RARE THEY ARE, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PROTECT AND CONSERVE PLANTS.
 
Nepal only opened its doors to foreigners in the late 1940s (principally mountaineering and scientific expeditions).  Everest, all we all know, was first climbed by a British Expedition (though it was a New Zealander and Nepalese who got to the top - incidentally such mountains are never 'conquered') in 1953. This was from the south, through Nepal - all the early attempts on Everest were from the north, through what was Tibet.

Specimens of COTONEASTER collected by the New Zealand doctor during the Joint British and Royal Nepalese Army Expedition to Mt. Kirat Chuli, Nepal (1985) - this was subsequently pressed, dried and deposited in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardem, Kew - a duplicate set of specimens would have been deposited in a herbarium in Nepal


Well, the year before, permission was granted for a joint Natural History Museum/Royal Horticultural Society 'plant hunting' expedition to Nepal.  Those credited with the collections (botanical, seed and in some case, roots) were Polunin, Sykes and Williams.  Oleg Polunin was a botany master at Charterhouse public school (who went on to co-author, with Adam Stainton, 'Flowers of the Himalaya' - the best available guide to Himalayan flowers); I led my first botanical tour in 1985, as late replacement for Oleg, who had been taken ill and died whilst I was leading this trek. 'Bill Sykes'  was the RHS' representative whilst Williams was a botanist at the Natural History Museum.  There was a further expedition in 1954, this time Stainton, Sykes and Williams names going on the specimens and labels.  Adam Stainton, a man of private means, replaced Polunin.  He went on to devote his life to studying the flora of the Himalaya - he had the distinct advantage of not having to work and could readily his travels.  What an eccentric lot us Brits are.... devoting their lives to studying Himalayan flora!  Stainton had met Sir George Taylor, who recommended he join the 1954 expedition to Nepal, with the bonus of being able to pay his share of the expenses, after a professor of geology he knew, advised that he should "travel with a purpose". Sykes, whom I subsequently met in New Zealand, where hew had moved to and became known as "Botany Bill"  told me that although his name went on the labels, when the expedition split into 3 parties to allow greater coverage, it was a skilled Indian collector who had worked with famous British  plant hunters, who knew much more than him - he was very much the novice.

Specimens of ABIES SPECTABILIS collected by the New Zealand doctor during the Joint British and Royal Nepalese Army Expedition to Mt. Kirat Chuli, Nepal (1985) - this was subsequently pressed, dried and deposited in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardem, Kew - a duplicate set of specimens would have been deposited in a herbarium in Nepal


The seed from these expeditions (which had the host government's permission) went to the RHS Garden at Wisley (along with the live material/roots) and assorted shareholders.  Plants raised from the seed were distributed to botanic and botanical gardens under Polunin, Sykes & William's (PS&W) numbers and Stainton, Sykes & Williams (SS&W) numbers.  One should bear in mind that once plants were grown from second (or subsequent) generation seed, it should have been labelled as ex PS&W or ex SS&W. There is the risk of hybridisation in cultivation, especially amongst such genera as MECONOPSIS and GERANIUM - and, I understand, many more genera than is realised.  Thus keeping track of such introductions, even a few years on, let alone decades later, from a major expedition is challenging.  Botanic Gardens do not always keep good records and the labels (particularly those for specimens planted out in the beds within such gardens are liable to be damaged/break, be moved by birds or trampled on by visiting children, ending up beside the wrong plant or the plants themselves spread or die) and to all but the most expert gardeners the labels can end up referring to the "wrong plant".  I did once request, in a letter published in the RHS Journal, to receive up-dates 40 years on, on behalf of the Himalayan Plant Association as to what had happened to all those PS&W and SS&W introductions from Nepal.  I received very few replies, mostly referring to just a handful of collections/introductions.  I even visited Wisley (RHS HQ) itself but there was little evidence (or records) of more than a small number of the original introductions (of which there were hundreds).

The experience gained by Polunin & Stainton during their expeditions to Nepal and other parts of the Himalaya contributed to them being able to author this book - which is the best available guide to Himalayan flora


There have been some primarily botanical expeditions to Nepal in more recent decades; not sure if any have taken place in the past few years?  These mostly involved the leading botanic gardens in the UK (Kew and Edinburgh) during which some seed was sometimes collected; permission would have been given by the Department of Forestry and Plant Research within the Government's Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, on the basis that the seed would solely be used for study/research purposes, not commercial gain - they would have been grown on at the respective botanic gardens.  A number of individuals, not working a botanic gardens were also given permission to take seed back to their countries.

A well-known plantsman published a book on 'Plant Hunting in Nepal' - he would hardly have done that if the seed collections made, then distributed to shareholders, had been illegal!  This was based upon his participation on an official University College of North Wales expedition in the early 1970s.

Bhutan

An impressive DZONG (monastery) in Bhutan

In the 1990s I worked as a consultant to The Royal Government of Bhutan on 'The Cultivation of Medicinal Plants for Traditional Medicine Project' (funded through the European Union).  I collected seed during one of my visits towards trials to grow the species, rather than collect material from the wild.  My initial task was to recommend which species were most suitable for the trials, amongst the 2-300 species used.  The idea was to reduce dependency on collecting from wild populations, reduce the risk of over-collection damaging these colonies - for some species, the whole plant, including roots is collected by doctors of traditional medicine (as is the case in Ladakh, Lahoul, Kinnaur, Nepal and Sikkim).  I was able to recommend the most promising due to my experience on plant hunting expeditions and knowledge of their cultivation in British and other gardens.  Had I continued on the project I would have asked permission to take a limited amount of seed of other species to undertake trials in my own miniature 'botanical garden' - I could not be in Bhutan full-time and it was costly for the project for me to be there and no local counterparts existed with experience of cultivating these medicinal plants.  The objective of the project was to, where possible, cultivate Bhutanese species used in Bhutanese Medicine, rather than collect directly from the wild.  Unfortunately, whilst the Director of the National Institute of Traditional Medicine in Thimphu had agreed that, in theory, 'cultivated' material, rather than material gathered in the wild could be substituted, he was not familiar with growing these plants, imaging they could all be grown in exactly the same places where they were normally collected from.  To him, this made sense, as traditional doctors of Bhutanese medicine (dungtshos) follow medieval texts which dictate where and when to gather each plant used in their medicinal formulations.  In fact this makes scientific sense, because if a plant is grown at a different altitude, in different soil and under different climatic conditions, this could impact upon the 'active principles' inside!  It is one thing to grow e.g. the wild strawberry found at the edge of forests at some 2100-2400m in nursery beds, quite another at 3600m, where this species is gathered.  Just as species found on wet rocks and screes at higher altitudes present a challenge to be cultivated anywhere!  Even the most skilful and dedicated growers of rock-garden plants, with an expensive alpine house, in Europe or N.America, often struggle with such species - sometimes the only ones who succeed live in the arctic circle!  So the project was ill-conceived (often the case) with an un-realistic time-table, expecting instant results...


I know a plant enthusiast who through their connections, was able to visit Bhutan decades before it opened its doors to foreigners.  They clearly had permission at the highest level and IF they had collected any seed, this would have been authorised.

So it is not true to say that foreigners have never had the host governments permission to collect seed in the Himalaya and return with it to the UK - though not for obvious commercial purposes.

Nowadays?  Much more difficult, even for major botanic gardens to secure such permission and presumably it will become ever more bureaucratic.  Easier to stop trying? As I have tried to explain, this is NOT a good thing.  It does NOT help 'PROTECT' Himalayan species, rather damages their conservation.....


Chris Chadwell expeditions

Chris Chadwell on a botanical expedition in the Himalaya


I can only speak about my expeditions in the Himalaya, undertaken since the 1980s. I do not expect to be in a position to undertake any in the future - for various reasons, amongst them serious ill-health.  I have always been a botanist and my expeditions primarily (often exclusively) botanical.  Initially, these were described as 'botanical' expeditions and myself as a botanist (which I have always been).  Such as the 1983 Botanical Expedition to Kashmir.  But I soon realised that most people, including gardeners are intimidated and off-put if things appear too 'botanical'.  I organised the 1985 Plant Hunting Expedition to Kashmir - which was just as much a botanical expedition, as the 1983 one had been.  There were advantages of the different title (I never envisaged that 30 years later using such a description might create difficulties).  I had begun giving lectures (one of the few ways I am able to attempt to earn a living).  If I only offered talks (now digital presentations) on 'botanical' expeditions, I would get hardly any bookings!  I thus turned into a modern-day 'plant hunter' specialising in the Himalaya. There was a bonus. The famous plant hunters of the 20th century are viewed as 'Indiana Jones-like figures' - which I make no claim to be - have always thought it makes sense to come back from an expedition alive.  That sounds far more interesting to hear about than a boring old botanist! 

Did this make me, or Oleg Polunin or Adam Stainton (who were the most widely-travelled plant hunters prior to me) into shady figures collecting plants 'illegally'?  Of course not.  In life, if a description or assumption improves your name or reputation, then why not use it?  Especially, as one also encounters detractors and those whose "toes you tread on" unintentionally who are then out to damage your reputation.

Several of Chris Chadwell's 'plant-hunting' expeditions were as a leader of 'botanical' tours showing clients flowers in the Himalaya for specialist travel companies (as was the case for Oleg Polunin - Adam Stainton had a private income, so did not have to bother with such things)


So, what is ACTUALLY is involved in a Chadwell 'plant hunting' expedition?  Sorry to disappoint but I have crossed no wild frontiers, met no bandits and fought off no wild animals, let alone exchanged rifle shots with Tibetans in the high Himalaya - though did very nearly drown on one occasion attempting to cross a river.  Most of the time I just explore for and photograph plants -  all rather dull and boring an occupation for most people, as is attempting to identify plants.   I treat those who help me in the Himalaya with respect (and take great car to keep them safe, see:   On my early expeditions I gathered botanical specimens but rapidly found I could achieve more with photographs and now thanks to the wonders of digital photography only take pictures, not botanical specimens - though there is still a role for this on botanic garden expeditions.  I know which parts of the plants need to be photographed and have the skills to reliably identify plants from the Himalaya - a more difficult task than is realised, sometimes requiring help from specialists.  The digital images possible nowadays reveal more clues about each plant.  I view plant identification as equivalent to detective work - the more clues the better.

Have I been the one to actually collect the seed on most of my expeditions? No. Have I ever legitimately collected seed in the Himalaya? Yes, I have done so on occasion in the past. Do I receive most of my Himalayan seed through P.Kohli & Co., and other sources?  Ye.  I do visit the Himalaya, which is adventurous. I do study the plants, I do check and supervise matters, locals collect the seed for P.Kohli & Co. and other suppliers. I do participate in 'plant hunting' expeditions. Are locals permitted to send me the seed?  Yes - see P.Kohli & Co., as a representative example (see: This is much as happened in Ludlow & Sherriff's day - when where they went was mostly 'British' territory (although permission would have had to be gained to enter Tibet).  Having said that, Indian nationalists, rightly, considered British 'occupation' of India illegal - so one could make a case for such collections being made "without the genuine host government's permission".  Though I cannot see what useful purpose would be served to pursue this now?

Chris Chadwell washing his hair in an ice-cold glacial stream during an expedition to the Himalaya!


So, has Chris Chadwell been an importer of the equivalent of illegal 'drugs', poacher of the botanical equivalent of ivory or someone who "hunts down" and kills (digs up) 'rare and endangered' plants?  No. And I pose a question to anyone doubting this - would it make any sense, if I were, to be so open and have shared so much, so openly on my web-site, the content of which is there for anyone to read? I would have had to be really dumb.    Please note I have asked questions of firms in the Indian sub-continent about seeds and handicrafts (which I am interested in as well) - FEW of them EVER answered questions by letter or nowadays, e-mail.  P.Kohli & Co., on-the-other-hand, were friendly an welcoming.  I recently had an inquiry about a Himalayan plant someone was trying to grow, from seed supplied by a seed company in Europe offering seed of garden plants.  I had not ever seen this plant in the Himalaya, so could not help much - it was not a species ever supplied by P.Kohli & Co.  I asked the person to ask their supplier for more details but the company said, "they did not given information about internal company affairs".  SEEMS TO ME I AM SHARING AN AWFUL LOT OF INFORMATION ABOUT WHAT I DO AND HOW I DO IT!

Botanical specimen collected during a Chadwell Expedition to the Himalaya - this would have been dried and pressed and deposited in a herbarium in the UK with a duplicate specimen deposited in a herbarium in the Himalaya


The prime purpose for the lengthy content on my web-sites so has always been to INFORM and EDUCATE.  There is a great need to do this but requires those reading what I say, to take the time to study and digest the content INTELLIGENTLY.  This seems a reasonable expectation to me.   I am able to provide accurate, reliable information, due to first-hand experience and as a result of thorough research.  Far too much is published in articles, books, newspapers and now on-line, which is inaccurate and at best misleading.  But there is only so much any one person can do...
I really have not been in good health for several years, which has been mentally and physically debilitating. 

We seem to live in a world obsessed with TRYING to find fault and spoiling things.  We seem to want to rejoice in damaging the genuine ones,  like myself, actually trying to help conserve the flora of the Himalaya, improve its Environment and the lives of local people..... 

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