1 June 2018

Exploring the Land of the Blue Poppy - Frank Kingdon-Ward & Tibet

A couple of streets away from the house in which I grew up was our local park. It was a large, lovely green open space, filled with tall old trees, winding paths, wide lawns, dense shrubberies and colourful flower beds, with 1930s red brick and tile shelters, as well as a children’s playground and tennis courts. In the middle of one of the lawns was a large rhododendron shrubbery. I remember one sunny childhood afternoon spent excitedly exploring this dense jungle with my friends – we imagined it was a tropical island and we’d been shipwrecked, acting out our own little Coral Island adventure. Climbing through the twisting limbs of the rhododendron bushes, finding hidden paths and open pockets in which to make camps, shrouded from the outside world in the dense, shiny dark foliage, feeling like intrepid explorers. Little did I know then that appropriately enough those rhododendrons were very likely to have been introduced to our island nation from far overseas by a genuinely intrepid explorer – Francis ‘Frank’ Kingdon-Ward.

Cambridge University Press, 1913

Frank Kingdon-Ward is one of the people I am presently researching for my PhD. He was the son of Harry Marshall Ward, a noted botanist and professor at Cambridge University. Frank himself seemed destined for an academic career until the early death of his father left his family in financially straitened circumstances, cutting Frank’s formal education short. Instead he began his working life as a school teacher in Shanghai, but was quickly bored by the staid urban settler-colonial lifestyle and so he jumped at the chance to join an American led scientific expedition up the Yangtze to the borderlands of Tibet. It was a trip which changed his life. This taste of exploration was more than enough to whet his appetite for a more adventurous life. He quit his school teacher’s job and embarked upon a lifelong career as a ‘plant hunter.’ Drawn back to the borderlands of Tibet, China, Burma and India time and again over the course of a long life, making some twenty-four expeditions to collect seeds and herbarium material for various commercial plant nurseries and the two most prestigious botanical gardens back in Britain, as well as others across the British Empire. 

By the very nature of their calling, it would seem, all explorers are eccentrics. Kingdon-Ward was certainly a singular character. Often highly solitary he was happy to wander over the high hills and down humid jungle trails on his own, enduring extremes of cold and heat, leading a life of almost monastic simplicity. When travelling in company he could drive some of his expedition companions mad. Lord Cawdor lamented of one expedition: “It drives me clean daft to walk behind him – Stopping every 10 yards and hardly moving in-between – In the whole of my life, I’ve never seen such an incredibly slow mover – If I ever travel again I’ll make damned sure its not with a botanist. They are always stopping to gape at weeds.” Yet other companions were more appreciative of the skills they learnt from him and were rightly in awe of his profound botanical knowledge and scientific expertise in the field. Ronald Kaulback stated that: “Kingdon Ward proved to be the kindest and most painstaking instructor it would be possible to imagine, and I was always picking up new hints from him. He very soon saw just how very little I really knew about the things that mattered in the sort of life we were leading, especially those which had to do with bringing back useful information, and except when I was more than usually unintelligent (thus meriting reproof), he never showed any sign of impatience at my frequent questions.” 

Menconopsis baileyi, later reclassified as Menconopsis betonicifolia

Kingdon-Ward discovered many plant species which were new to Western science, and it was Kingdon-Ward who first successfully collected seeds of the famous Tibetan blue poppy (Menconopsis baileyi, later reclassified as Menconopsis betonicifolia) which were subsequently successfully introduced into the gardens of Great Britain. He wrote a number of highly entertaining books about his travels. Eloquently summing up his fascination for borderlands and his need to explore and seek out the unknown, he wrote: “On the fourth day we crossed the bridge which marks the frontier between two Empires. To us in our little island, a frontier sounds a more or less nebulous quantity, something drawn rather whimsically on maps, and a chronic source of petty international jealousies as difficult to define as the boundary line which gives rise to them. But this elusive idea becomes a physical reality when one crosses the frontier of a British possession overseas, thus bringing into focus, as it were, the days which are past and all that lies before one in the new world. Especially is this the case on the return journey, when the hardships are over.” Travel, it is often claimed, is as much a state of mind as it is a state of motion – and it seems from reading this passage that Kingdon-Ward would most likely agree.

The personal rewards of such a life devoted to the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of personal hardships and endurance were the fuel to Kingdon-Ward’s quiet yet restless character, the recognition in the form of awards, medals, and new plant species bearing his name, meant more to him than what little money he made from his work. Even at the age of 73, despite his failing health, he was still planning and actively making preparations for yet another expedition – but it was never to be, he died whilst he was briefly back in the UK and is buried in the churchyard at Grantchester, in his native county of Cambridgeshire.

There has only been one real biography to date written of Kingdon-Ward’s extraordinary life, now sadly out of print – Frank Kingdon-Ward: The Last of the Great Plant Hunters, by Charles Lyte (John Murray, 1989). Perhaps someday someone will write a really decent in-depth examination of his life and work worthy of his remarkable career, but until then the best and the only true way to get to know the man himself is to read his own words. Reading his books is a really enjoyable part of my research. So much so at times that it hardly feels like a job of work! – Over the course of the summer I am set to get to know the man (and several of his contemporaries) more deeply as I delve into archives across the UK, examining this remarkable group of scientific explorers as a whole. Earlier this year I began this phase of my research by visiting a small exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library which showcased the work of Kingdon-Ward and three of his fellow botanical explorers, Reginald Farrer, George Forrest, and William Purdom – a diverse set of characters from very different backgrounds, all united by a single love of intrepid travel and exotic flowers. And later this summer I am going to round off my research trips with a visit to Kingdon-Ward’s grave. 

Collecting in the Clouds, The RHS Lindley Library, 2018

In some senses archives are the unexplored borderlands of history. The fascination of doing historical research is wondering what discoveries await, lying hidden inside those old pages, those hand drawn maps, and faded black and white photographs. Research is a different kind of transitioning, a different kind of stepping into the unknown, it is the search for new perspectives and different vistas, of worlds long since gone yet well worth remembering.


  1. Lovely article.
    When you visit Grantchester, be sure to check on the rose named in Frank's honour.
    It is planted some way from his grave against a south facing wall if I remember correctly.
    If you are lucky enough to see it in flower (assuming it has not succumbed to the vagaries of the climate) it should have pale pink fading to yellow. (Or is it pale yellow fading to pink? LOL)
    I'm fairly sure it has a label, and the church staff should know where to find it.
    The remains of Jean Rasmussen (formerly Kingdon) nee Macklin were interred with Frank. The actual plot being some distance also from the gravestone.
    The stone has a Berberis planted next to it with leaves which resemble holly.

    1. Thanks, Olli. I will look out for them. I'm planning to go in early October. Grantchester Orchard is a long-time favourite place for my family. I didn't realise Frank and Jean were in the churchyard until I read Charles Lyte's book, otherwise I'd have visited them sooner. I spent a week in June looking through Frank's archive and hunting out his plants in the Botanics up in Edinburgh. Perfectly timed by pure chance to see many of them in flower, including the blue poppies they have there.

  2. Rely good article. I'm currently researching plant hunters. in the Kew archives and it's so much more fun looking at primary sources.

    1. Many thanks. Hoping to get to the archives at Kew Gardens myself at some point soon.


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