Plant of the Month: May 2017

When an unfortunate juxtaposition of my slippery sandal and the glass-like surface of a marble step in Venice had fairly uncomfortable consequences a couple of weeks ago, my second conscious thought (the first having been ‘I hope this wasn’t caught on CCTV’) was ‘Oh dear [a slight paraphrase], what about Chelsea?’ But I managed to hobble round last Wednesday, thanks mostly to the help of my devoted wingman, who sheltered my left side from assaults by elbow and the thrice-accursed backpack.

An unexpected bonus was that the whole jamboree was on a noticeably reduced scale by comparison with the last few years: not only the much-commented-on eight show gardens instead of fourteen, but also greater space between exhibits in the Great Pavilion (and some very long-standing exhibitors who simply weren’t there), so that there was considerably less crowding round the displays, and it was much easier to stand and stare.

One of the plants I stared at most was Lilium mackliniae, the Shirui lily, or Siroi lily. The specimens were quite short (under 30 cm), but apparently, in the wild, the plants grow much taller in sheltered valleys, but have more restricted growth on more exposed, windswept slopes.

Lilium mackliniae at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Having got home and looked it up, I was surprised to learn that it was introduced to Europe quite late (in terms of botanical discoveries), and that it had been found and named by Frank Kingdon Ward, author of one of the great plant-hunting books (published in 1913, more than forty years before the naming of the lily), The Land of the Blue Poppy.

Was the title intended to echo The Land of the Blue Gown, published by Alicia Little in 1902, or is it pure coincidence?

The son of a botanist, Harry Marshall Ward (1854–1906), whose career culminated in the Cambridge chair of botany in succession to Charles Cardale Babington (himself the successor of Henslow) in 1895, Francis Kingdon Ward (1885–1958) followed his father to Christ’s College in 1904, but was forced to abandon his studies on his father’s sudden death, which left the family impoverished.

A family friend obtained Frank a teaching post at an English school in Shanghai; in 1909 another acquaintance obtained him a place on a zoological expedition up the Yangtze River, which he clearly found much more congenial than teaching. His luck was in again: Arthur Bulley (1861–1942), who developed what later became the great botanic garden at Ness, on the Wirral, and founded Bees Nursery, was looking for a plant hunter in the Far East (having fallen out with his original explorer, George Forrest).

Arthur Bulley. cotton magnate and nurseryman. (Credit: Ness Botanic Garden)

A Bees Ltd seed packet from the 1950s. I can remember these – a bit of a falling off from the days of the plant hunters.

Bulley snapped up Ward, who cheerfully left his teaching duties and spent the year 1911 in south-west China, collecting specimens to validate his sponsor’s theory that herbaceous plants from the region could thrive in the conditions of northern Britain.

The success of that expedition led to a further commission from Bulley, but Kingdon Ward encountered problems with the Chinese authorities, and made the deliberate decision to move further west, to the borders of Burma, Assam and Tibet (leaving China to Forrest). At the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the army in India, but never saw combat.

During the 1920s he continued to obtain sponsorship for expeditions, and in IPNI he is associated with 174 plant names (some of them duplicates or renamings), including dozens of rhododendrons, and fourteen of the glorious Meconopsis, the blue (and also white and red and yellow) poppy.

Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’, with red primulas in the background.

Meconopsis punicea, the most intense red imaginable, with drooping, silky petals.

Kingdon Ward seems to have been a rather rebarbative personality (though heaven knows one would have needed toughness and single-mindedness to survive in the largely unexplored territories which enthralled him). He married Florinda Norman-Thompson in 1923 (and named Primula florindae, the giant Himalayan cowslip, and a Meconopsis species after her), but during the fourteen years before their divorce, they spent fewer than four years together.

Primula florindae.

At the age of 62, Kingdon Ward met Jean Macklin, the 26-year-old daughter of an Indian judge; they were married – despite apparent objections from her parents not only because of the age gap but also because Kingdon Ward’s financial position was always precarious.

The Kingdon Wards on an expedition.

During their first expedition together, to Manipur in north-east India, on 5 June 1948, they discovered the lily which he named after her: Lilium mackliniae. (It is now the state flower of the province.)

An Indian postage stamp showing the lily.

After Kingdon Ward’s death in 1958 (his grave, at Grantchester, near Cambridge, has recently been adorned by a new rose variety named after him), Jean married Albert Henry Rasmussen, a Norwegian traveller and writer whose life (including a period in China, and a wartime role as a BBC correspondent) was as adventurous as her first husband’s. Widowed for a second time in 1972, she lived alone for the rest of her life, first in Norway and the in England, dying in 2011.

Kingdon Ward’s grave, in Grantchester churchyard.

The lily is endangered in its native habitat, and grows in the wild only in a limited area in the Ukhrul district of Manipur, about 1700–2500 metres above sea level. Best horticultural practice is apparently to grow from seed – assuming of course that you can provide the moist, humus-rich ericaceous soil, and shelter from direct sunlight. Well, I can do shade easily enough, but only with bone-dry, alkaline soil … but at least, once a year, I get the chance to drool and dream.


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4 Responses to Plant of the Month: May 2017

  1. Pingback: Bark | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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