Plant hunting in the famed Tsangpo Gorges

Date: Thursday 6th May 2010

“THE Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges” was the intriguing title of the final lecture of the season for the North Cumbria Rock Garden Group. Kenneth Cox, plant hunter and rhododendron breeder from Glendoick, Perthshire, has, over a number of years, retraced the steps of explorer Frank Kingdon Ward in the almost inaccessible Tsangpo Gorge, in south eastern Tibet.

The riddle for the Victorians was whether or not the Yarlung Tsangpo, which flows west to east parallel to the Great Himalayan Range, joined the Bramaputra flowing into Assam. If it did, it would have to turn sharply south and make a rapid descent.

Magnificent waterfalls were sought after by early travellers and several expeditions set out to try to solve the riddle. As Tibet was isolated from the outside world, the British trained Tibetan speaking natives, who disguised themselves as merchants and pilgrims, the so-called Pundits, to survey as much of the area as possible.

Kintup, a tailor from Sikkim, followed and dictated a report of his adventures. The tales of these earlier attempts to explore this dangerous territory are full of the drama of human effort and failure, involving infidelity, slavery and a fruitless plan to launch marked logs into the Tsangpo in the hope that watchers on the plains of Assam would find them, thus proving a theory.

Kenneth Cox also described the explorations of Morshead and Bailey in the early years of the 20th Century, the latter apparently the inspiration for James Bond.

In 1926 Kingdon Ward published his account of his expedition with Lord Cawdor, entitled The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges, and it was this journey that Kenneth Cox and a number of different companions attempted to follow in detail. Equipment may have improved but the weather and terrain remain challenging. With photographs from his own explorations to bring the drama, beauty and danger of the landscape to life, Mr. Cox described Kingdon Ward’s journey and his plant discoveries.

The yellow rhododendron wardii is one of the most important rhododendrons brought into cultivation and used in breeding; Primula cawdoriana, not easy but growing at Cluny, in Perthshire, is another. The gardens at Cawdor Castle have many rhododendrons grown from seed obtained on that trip. Kingdon Ward plant-hunted all his life, which perhaps led to his divorce from his first wife. Primula florindae was named after her. His young second wife joined him on expeditions and was able in 2000 to write an introduction to Kenneth Cox’s book in which Kingdon Ward’s account is republished.

Kingdon Ward had no names for the plants he was coming across so was able to be imaginative. Primula alpicola was “the moonshine primula”. The high pass Doshong La area he called “The Rhododendron Fairyland”. It is perhaps the finest place for dwarf rhododendrons. R. cephalanthum Nmaiense with sulphur yellow flowers and large leaves with buff indumentum has been brought into cultivation by Mr. Cox.

Hybrids of plants found by Kingdon Ward were noted by Mr. Cox, including Rhododendron hirtipes varying in flower from deep pink to pale pink and white. Rhododendron lanatoides, described by Kingdon Ward and with plants from his expedition growing at places such as Muncaster Castle, proved elusive at first to Mr. Cox. He failed to find it at all in 1995, found a single small plant in 1996 and then, a few days later, a forest of it. Meconopsis betonicifolia, recognised by Kingdon Ward as a promising garden plant, was found still thriving in exactly the same position.

And the waterfalls? Kingdon Ward had come across one of some 90ft. Mr. Cox’s travels revealed a slightly longer one not very far off. An interesting observation made was that a glacier recorded by Kingdon Ward has now retreated far up its valley in some 75 years.

These more recent expeditions have clearly had their own moments of high drama, official obstruction and danger, as Mr. Cox related. It is not currently possible to travel in this region and a vast flood after a natural dam burst in 2000 has changed some of the topography and swept forest away.

The talk brought into focus the difference in attitude between the earlier plant hunters and those of today, who recognise that the plants they seek are known to people in the area and “discovery” is perhaps not an appropriate term. In describing attempts to find and collect a vibrant red lily, Lilium paradoxum, Mr. Cox noted that there are still challenges for those who seek to extend the range of plants in cultivation.

Results of the plant competitions were: Non-bulbous 1 Trillium hibbersonii, Kathryn Johnson; 2 Pleione formosana, Margaret Briggs; 3 Saxifraga allionii “Snowflake”, Shirley Leighton. Bulbous 1 Tulipa “Little Beauty’, Kathryn Johnson; 2 Fritillaria “Caramore Park”, Margaret Briggs.

Members of the group head to Ayr flower show in August. The next meeting will be in September. Inquiries should be made to the secretary on 01228 528546.