Portrait of Frank Kingdon-Ward | Plant hunter and explorer

Frank Kingdon-Ward | Plant Hunter, Explorer and His Travels in Arunachal Pradesh

What exactly is it about plants and flowers that sends these men and women, otherwise known as ‘botanists’, all over the world in search of new species of flowers and plants, usually in remote, difficult to travel areas? When mere mortals walk through gardens or see beautiful flowers around them then that is precisely what they see – flowers. Botanists appear to look at plants and flowers in a completely different light.  History has been kind enough to provide us with some very famous plant hunters. Joseph Banks, George Washington Carver, Gregor Mendel, more recently Barbara McClintock and our favorite television personality, David Bellamy. Meticulous recording, analyzing, dissecting, photographing and drawing of plant species were done by these people and you have to take into account that all those years ago technology did not give these pioneers computers, electron microscopes, four wheel drives and instant global communication. There is another name that can be easily added to the list of great botanists – Frank Kingdon Ward whose name, surprisingly, does not appear in the top 100 list of famous botanists, a list headed by Leonardo Da Vinci no less!

Frank was both a prolific traveller throughout Asia and a prolific writer, “ because it paid the bills”, having written 25 books that covered each of his expeditions spent hunting for plants. Born in 1885, in Manchester, England, Kingdon Ward originally started his career as a school teacher in Shanghai, China. While he did not like that career, it turned out to be a great starting point for his love and fascination for botany in that country. It was already in his genes to be a botanist seeing his father was an eminent scientist in the same field and whose work saw him become the Professor of Botany at Cambridge University where he founded their Botany School. So, for young Frank Kingdon Ward the love of plants was really in his blood.

In the Land of the Blue Poppies
The Land of Blue Poppies was published in 1913 and is one of Frank Kingdon Ward’s first account of eastern Tibet.

That anyone should earn his bread and butter by looking for new plants is, I suppose, news to many people; it seems to strike them as curious, to judge by their remarks, and yet more by their skepticism.

“What are you?” they ask me, curiously.

“A plant collector!”

“Yes, but what do you do?” in a tone of exasperation.

“Why, collect plants,” I say brightly.

~ Excerpt from “The Land of the Blue Poppies”

After his unhappy period teaching in Shanghai, Kingdon Ward, through a series of fortunate breaks, was given the opportunity to pursue his passion for botany on some expeditions in China, mainly in the Yunnan province. During these times, he experienced mixed success in plant hunting but loved the travel and the interaction with cultures. Not a lot of white foreigners were traipsing through southern China in those years so his presence must have had the locals scratching their heads in wonderment at times. “It drives me clean daft to walk behind him…if I ever travel again, I’ll make damned sure it’s not with a botanist. They are always stopping to gape at weeds.” Spoken by Lord Cawdor who accompanied Frank into the Tsangpo Gorge. There are many stories about Frank Kingdon Ward’s adventures through this region but one of the more fascinating trips he went on was through the area of Arunachal Pradesh, which is on the northeastern tip of India adjoining China’s Sichuan Province, Tibet on another northern border, Bhutan to the south west and the Indian areas of Nagaland and Assam to the south. The raw beauty of the country can be understood by translating Arunachal Pradesh to mean “land of the dawn-lit mountains” and the fact that the Himalayas covers most of the area is the reason for that name. Simply by its location and its inaccessibility the area is also considered to be the Paradise of Botanists and referred to as the Orchid State of India. No wonder Kingdon Ward had more than a passing fascination with it. It was here that he first experienced the ho-p’an, which was a metal tray filled with burning charcoal that fitted under his bedroll to keep him warm during those dark, cold Himalayan winters.

It was not entirely plants and flowers with Frank during his time in Arunachal Pradesh due to the territorial fighting by China and India over the ownership of this state along with China’s then and ever-continuing debate over Tibet. Kingdon Ward inadvertently crossed an imaginary border called the McMahon Line during one of his expeditions in the area when he was traversing the Sela Pass and was promptly, albeit briefly, arrested. Was this incident responsible for the current disputed borders and sovereignty debates that still exist between China, Tibet and India?

But nothing really stopped this botanist from pursuing his life’s passion, not two wars, both of which he served in but without seeing any real action, and neither did a violent earthquake in Assam in 1950, the second biggest ever recorded in India. There was little loss of life as a result of the earthquake, but Frank wrote about the “incalculable damage done to the mountains”. In his writings The Geographic Journal the chapter titled “The Aftermath of The Great Assam Earthquake Kingdon Ward’s geographical and geological knowledge can be seen as he tries to understand the continued, resultant flooding of the Brahmaputra River after the earthquake and his pondering on what other changes may occur in that area of the country. “The mountains round us seemed to be falling into the Lohit gorge. Some of them were literally rent in half…..For weeks rock avalanches went on; rivers were dammed and when the dams burst surged forward in tremendous floods.” At times his journeys were filled with death defying adventure when during one of his plant hunts he swung across a deep gorge on a twisted bamboo rope, where he had “a snap – view of the muddy river foaming below.” Terrified the first time but he quite enjoyed the times he did it after that.

Frank Kingdon-Ward and wife Jean in Assam
A vintage photograph of Frank Kingdon-Ward and his wife Jean in Assam.

On the western tip of Arunachal Pradesh is the area of Tawang and it borders Bhutan and Tibet and it is in this area that Frank Kingdon Ward spent some of his time hunting plants and making commentary about the geography in his inimitable fashion. “A narrowing valley stretched northwards in front of us,” he writes, “and was cut off abruptly by the converging mountain ranges. But the river came thundering out of a deep gash, and a mist of spray hung in the air. Beyond, the cobalt blue sky shut down tight, like a lid. I felt rather awestruck… noting the puffs of bright cloud shining against the violet hills. No white man had ever seen this valley before. The river was not less than a hundred miles long…”  During his collection and classification of plants he showed great patience and perseverance, always having the energy and eye for detail that made him the complete scientist. A great skill of Frank was his writing ability and the way he crafted words to be romantic, interesting, scientific, humorous and hence highly readable in what was considered to be a rather boring science, Botany, and made him the envy of other scientists at the time who tended to write rather more formally. For example, when speaking about his meeting with the leader of the Monpa area, whom Kingdon Ward referred to as the “High Priest”, he mentioned that he gave this “rotund man with little pig eyes” a noisy alarm clock as a gift and in return Frank was gifted a sheep which “ran along with us for a fortnight before we had to butcher it” shows a sense of ironic humor. In Monyul he purchased a dog “black longhaired dish-faced bow-legged Bhutanese dog with large appealing eyes and well covered in fleas” which he called Beetle and who travelled the Himalayas with him. His travels through the Himalayas with his wife Jean was in the company of only their porters and guides who were at times cheerful while at other times a little sullen and even hostile. Even so, Frank Kingdon Ward spent many years among the little known tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, such as the Adi, Naga and the Mishmi. “We climbed great precipices in search of plants, the nicest of which always select the most abominable situations…”

As mentioned above, Frank Kingdon Ward wrote 25 books such as The Land of the Blue Poppy, Assam Adventure and Plant Hunting on the Edge of the World about his expeditions and none of these journals made him any money. He would turn in his grave if he knew that today, in 2015, his re-packaged books are selling for about $27 for paperback and up to $61 for hard cover editions. This anomaly lends truth to the sad fact that fame and fortune often comes to the talented after they have died!