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Augustine Henry – Plant Hunter

With all the attention being given to the importance of native plants in our domestic landscape, one can only wonder where all the non-natives, otherwise known as exotics, came from. If you look at plant names, sometimes including the full scientific name, you will get a hint. Many of the plants discovered in countries like China will have the name of the plant hunter included.

Those who are familiar with Kerria with its sprays of golden pompoms may not realize that it is named for the Scottish plant collector William Kerr (1879-1914) or that the Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii) was named for Charles Sprague Sargent, the  first director of the Arnold Arboretum (1872-1927).

Sargent also sponsored many plant hunters like the British Ernest H. Wilson, soon known as Chinese Wilson, who travelled around the world to find new plants and send seeds and cuttings back to the Arnold Arboretum.

Lilium henryi

Lilium henryi

A number of years ago a friend gave us a large white clematis named Clematis henryi. The gift was in honor of my husband Henry. I subsequently planted two lilies, the golden Lilium henryi, and a White henryi, both with gracefully recurved petals.  It did not occur to me until recently to wonder who was the henryi.

Augustine Henry was Irish (1857-1930) and after earning a medical degree from Queens College in Galway, a friend suggested he go to work for British Customs in China. He passed the necessary exams and studied to gain a working knowledge of Chinese. An impressive accomplishment in itself. He left for China in 1881. For nearly 20 years he worked in Yunnan, Hubei, Shanghai and Formosa, banishing the hours of isolation and boredom by exploring the local landscape and woodlands.

Lilium white henryi

Lilium white henryi

What began as a time filling hobby became a passion. Though not a botanist he realized there were many unusual plants he had never seen before. In 1884 he sent a letter to the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew offering to send specimens back if he thought they would be useful. By 1885 he was thoroughly engrossed in finding new plants, and finding out as much about them as possible, their Chinese names and local uses, especially of plants used medicinally.

He was aided in the beginnings of his studies and plant collecting with advice from Henry Hance, a leading expert on Chinese flora and British vice-consul in Canton.

Some plant hunting had been done in China earlier, but with very little that resulted in getting plants or seeds back to England. Augustine Henry could only collect plants when he was not working but between November 1884 and February 1889 he discovered about 500 species that were new to scientists in the western world. This included 25 new genera.  I can only imagine the trouble he would have had trying to reconcile European scientific names with the Chinese names for plants.

In a letter to a friend from student days, Evelyn Gleeson, he confesses to trouble collecting colorful flowering plants, because his own interest was in the variety of foliage forms. He particularly disliked chrysanthemums because he found the foliage so ugly, but he did love all the roses. His rose discoveries are particularly important to me because it is the China rose that gave ever-blooming genes to the west.

One of the great botanical searches in China was for Davidia involucrata, the dove tree or handkerchief tree. Henry had found a single tree but was not able to collect seed. When E.H. Wilson arrived Henry gave him as much information as he had. Wilson did eventually find the site of Henry’s Davidia, but it has been cut down. Fortunately he found other Davidia trees nearby and was able to send seeds back to England. Actually, Henry did find a different form of the handkerchief tree: D. involucrata var. vilmoriniana, which has grayer leaves than the tree first described by Father Armand David in 1871.  Although D. involucrata is more widely available, Henry’s tree is more likely to be found as a mature specimen in Britain, owing to its greater hardiness.

Of course, out of the over 15,000 specimens of over 5,000 species that Augustine Henry collected, only a few are propagated for garden use today. There are the very popular henryi lilies, but there is also Lonicera henryi, clematis henryi and the blue flowered rhododendron augustinii. This rhododendron is notable because it is lime-tolerant, and has been used to hybridize new blue rhodies.

During his years in China Henry met many other men who were botantists like Chinese Wilson, as well as those who were, like him, intelligent and skilled amateurs. Like gardeners everywhere they shared information and plants.

Perhaps, remembering his love of foliage, it is not surprising that when Henry returned to England he decided to begin a career in forestry. He went to study at the FrenchSchool of Forestry at Nancy but left to work with Henry J. Elwes to work on a book about trees cultivated in Ireland and Great Britain. Then in 1907 he began teaching at the University of Cambridge, leaving in 1913 for the Royal College of Science in Dublin to become their first professor of forestry.

Henry’s first wife died of tuberculosis in 1894. He married Alice Brunton in 1908. It was she who organized the 10,000 tree specimens in his private collection which became the Augustine Henry Forestry Herbarium in the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin.

I like thinking about Augustine Henry launching himself into a life in a totally different country and culture, finding discovery, excitement and pleasure in a new passion that brought so many new plants to our notice, and made us all so much richer.

Between the Rows   January 30, 2016

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