—Penny McCook, Sida, Contributions to Botany, September 2005
Plants from the Edge of the World: New Explorations in the Far Eastby Mark Flanagan, Tony Kirkham
In October 1987, a great storm drove in from the English Channel, devastating the southeastern counties of the British Isles. Huge gaps opened in the landscape of England, and the historic tree collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, and Wakehurst Place in West Sussex lay fallen. The storm exposed the mortality of heritage trees for all to see
In October 1987, a great storm drove in from the English Channel, devastating the southeastern counties of the British Isles. Huge gaps opened in the landscape of England, and the historic tree collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, and Wakehurst Place in West Sussex lay fallen. The storm exposed the mortality of heritage trees for all to see and provided the impetus for a new wave of plant collecting by the Royal Botanic Gardens, led by the enterprising Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham. The losses sparked a realization: the collections at Kew and Wakehurst Place lacked key representatives of the world's temperate woodlands, and to fill the gaps, Flanagan and Kirkham looked east, to the species-rich temperate forests of Korea, Taiwan, eastern Russia and Japan. These hidden corners of the Far East became their hunting ground. Plants are at the heart of this story, and the descriptions convey the excitement of the find. The narrative unfolds with an immediacy that makes us feel right there beside them as they uncover rarities like Cotoneaster wilsonii (found only on the remote island of Ullung-Do), hang off the side of a gorge to collect the seed of Magnolia sieboldii and endure a punishing day in search of the Taiwan beech. Vividly illustrated with color maps and photographs, this entertaining travelogue will appeal to travellers, plant-lovers and anyone with an interest in the rich diversity of flora of the Far East.
—Penny McCook, Sida, Contributions to Botany, September 2005
—William Grant, Pacific Horticulture, Summer 2005
—Alice Joyce, Booklist, July 22, 2005
"A rare and wonderful trove of plants encountered along the way is described enthusiastically amid the breathtaking scenery of panoramic gorges, pristine mountainsides, and monolithic trees. Armchair botanists will enjoy each fascinating journey to the outer reaches of distant continents and the authors' accounts of successful plant cultivation back in England."
—Alice Joyce, Booklist, July 22, 2005
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I was summoned to Ian Beyer's office on a chilly autumn morning in 1988. As deputy curator of Kew's Living Collections Department, Ian enjoyed a formidable reputation and the respect of the botanic garden world. Many at Kew feared his no-nonsense approach but grudgingly acknowledged that he ran a tight ship — firm but fair was the consensus. With Ian's reputation in mind I was more than a little apprehensive as I climbed the staircase of Aiton House in the Lower Nursery; named in honour of William Aiton, the first curator of the original 9-acre botanic garden started by Princess Augusta in 1759, this building acted as the curatorial nerve centre of Kew. I knocked lightly on the outer office door and was invited in and offered a seat looking out over the River Thames. Ian, a balding, portly man, came straight to the point. 'We want you to lead a seed collecting expedition to South Korea and begin the poststorm fieldwork programme'. Dumbstruck I searched for a response. I hadn't ventured into the field since a near fatal seed collecting trip to Chile with colleague Stewart Henchie in 1985. The memory of my brush with death — a combination of salmonella typhoid, a military coup and a massive earthquake in Santiago — was all too fresh in my mind, but here was an offer too good to miss and I was eager to oblige.
Most collections from the 1982 Living Collections Department trip to South Korea, led by Ian Beyer, were now growing well in the arboretum and herbaceous section, but many areas on the mainland had not been visited and several collections failed to germinate or were not successfully established in the gardens — the unfinished business. I therefore was to organise and lead a follow-up expedition next autumn, in 1989. I had to choose a colleague, which wasn't going to be too difficult, as there was really only one candidate who would be suitable: Mark Flanagan, a fairly new lad to Kew from Manchester, trained at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, who had recently moved to take a manager's post at Wakehurst Place.
Ian made a telephone call to Tony Schilling, and the green light for Mark to participate was given. The invite was put to Mark, who didn't need much persuading. This was the start of an association that would make a significant impact on the future woody collections growing in the arboreta at Kew and Wakehurst Place.
At the request of Grenville Lucas, keeper of the herbarium and chairman of the Fieldwork Committee, a third member would join us: Peter Boyce, an assistant scientific officer and Araceae expert in the herbarium who required real fieldwork experience. Our hosts would be the Korean Forestry Research Institute, who successfully administered the 1982 expedition jointly with the Korean Horticultural Society. Contacts were made with Mr Jo Jae-Myung, the director general in Seoul, and once again he and his colleagues kindly offered their valuable help and assistance, which Mark and I gratefully took up. The offices of the Forestry Research Institute also arranged for all the collecting permits and permissions needed to collect officially in the national parks, national forests and other natural monuments in South Korea. The following months were spent in the two arboreta, at Kew and Wakehurst Place, and the herbarium, compiling a target list of plants to collect and an inventory of equipment we would need for a six-week field trip.
On 21 September 1989 we check in at Heathrow Airport for a Korean Air flight to Seoul via Anchorage in Alaska. I say goodbye to Sally, who is six and a half months pregnant, and Mark to Lesley and their six-week-old son Callum. Our timing for an expedition to far-flung places is impeccable!
As well as our rucksacks we have a large blue suitcase, carrying expedition equipment and gifts for our hosts, which puts us well over our baggage allowance. A long discussion with the duty manager follows, and a gift of a 1990 Kew calendar and an explanation about the nature of our trip (complete with buzzwords like 'conservation', 'genotypes' and 'germplasm') help to oil the wheels. We get away with paying a modest charge for excess baggage, which doesn't eat too much into an already small expedition budget.
On 22 September 1989, after a monotonous yet nerve-wracking eighteen-hour flight via Anchorage in Alaska (over the Kamchatka Peninsula, where on 31 August 1983 the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Flight 007 after a supposed air space incursion), we finally arrive in Kimpo International Airport, Seoul. Rebuilt for the 1988 Olympic Games, the main airport arrival area is an impressive cathedral-like piece of architecture.
We are met by Mr Kim Un-Cho, founder of the International Gardens Foundation in Korea, and Mr Oh Jeong-Soo, chief of the forest ecology section at the Forestry Research Institute, and feel a little more relaxed being in capable hands in foreign parts. We load the institute jeep with our baggage and are driven to the Mammoth Hotel in Tongdaemun district, where we are to spend the first three nights of our duration in South Korea. It feels expensive, and Mark, who is treasurer for the expedition, starts to mentally juggle figures and conversion rates and announces to Peter and me that he intends pulling in the purse strings on day one. It later turns out that the Forestry Research Institute have special rates, and Mark's fears are somewhat allayed.
Following a short discussion with Mr Oh about the trip, we are taken out to sample the delights of Korean cuisine. Bulgogi, a dish that we are to become very familiar with over the next six weeks, is at the top of the menu, and no meal would be complete without a portion of the national dish, kimchi. Bulgogi consists of thin strips of beef marinated in soy and a strong chilli sauce with copious amounts of garlic, barbecued at the table on a cast iron pan over red-hot coals. Rather more of a culinary shock to Western palates is kimchi, a pungent, fiery hot sort of Eastern coleslaw consisting of Chinese cabbage, sometimes with radish or carrot added, fermented for long periods in earthenware jars with exotic spices, red pepper, garlic and ginger — and I can vouch that it is an acquired taste. On the way back to the hotel we are shown a place suitable for breakfast and are told what to ask for, hae chang kuk. We all feel relaxed and comfortable at the close of this first day and with the way in which our hosts have been so helpful.
The following morning we awake to the roar of traffic and people going about their daily business. We venture out, dodging bicycles overloaded with cardboard boxes and speeding motorbikes, to the eating house recommended by Mr Oh last night and confidently ask for hae chang kuk. When it arrives, it's not what we would have expected for breakfast: a bowl of eel heads, complete with teeth, staring out of a broth of congealed blood and rice with another bowl of kimchi as a side salad. All around us Koreans pick out the fish heads with their chopsticks and drink the soup whilst taking in mouthfuls of kimchi at the same time. We all quietly prod and poke at the contents, pushing them round the bowl, waiting for someone to say something and finally unanimously decide that we are not hungry and should forego breakfast. This was to be the most difficult mealtime for us whilst in Korea and nothing could have prepared us for this experience — we don't make this mistake again!
Peter, a supposedly ardent traveller to the far east of tropical Asia in search of arisaemas for his monograph in the herbarium, has arrived in Korea with an empty suitcase with the intention of procuring clothing here in a Seoul (rather unusual I thought, but it certainly helped ease the excess baggage problems at Heathrow). This called for a trip to the Tongdae-mun Sijang market at the Great East Gate, one of several large markets in Seoul that sell everything from silk to fruit and, for the not-so-faint-hearted, any form of meat or fish from dogs to sharks and much, much more. It is said that if you can't find what you are looking for here then you won't find it anywhere. In the spice market it will be possible to collect most of our target list without even venturing out into the field. However we are here to top up Peter's wardrobe and this we do with an array of cheap, top-brand designer reproductions that would make any of the trendy sports companies livid.
In the afternoon we are picked up at the hotel and taken to the Research Institute at Chongryangri-Dong. We are to have a meeting with several senior staff to discuss our itinerary further. Mr Oh introduces us to Mr Choi Myoung-Sub, a dendrologist at the Kwangnung Arboretum (the institute's base just north of Seoul), a well-built Korean with hard facial features dressed in denim jeans and a short fishing vest. 'He will be your guide, bodyguard and interpreter for your trip', explains Mr Oh. We introduce ourselves and get a wry smile from Mr Choi; we are then told that he doesn't speak English. We all look puzzled, and Mark breaks the silence by saying 'Acer okamotoanum' — a rare maple uncommon in cultivation in the West, now recognised as a subspecies of A. pictum, from a Korean island in the East Sea. Mr Choi responds by opening a map and stubbing the island with his index finger, saying 'Ullung' several times. Mark is happy, as he believes that Mr Choi knows his plants and will be a great field botanist. We all shake hands and celebrate with a cup of ginseng tea complete with pine kernel floaters.
Mr Oh advises that the institute's accommodation in Kwangnung Arboretum in Pochun-Gun will be made available to us as a base to stay and prepare collections between trips out in the field. A walk round the Kwanak Arboretum, attached to the institute, completes our afternoon before we return to the Mammoth Hotel for what will be one of our last Western meals for several weeks. A 10-m (32-ft) specimen of Firmiana simplex, the parasol tree, is growing outside the main offices; the large maple-like leaves and fruits with broad papery wings make this a striking species. This is one of the few hardy species in the Sterculiaceae, which is primarily a tropical family, and if it can survive a winter here in Seoul it must be hardy enough for the south of England. With permission a few seeds go in the bag to start the collection.
The following day is spent visiting British Ambassador Lawrence Middleton at the embassy, where we dispense horticultural advice in the embassy garden in exchange for their monthly quota of tinned Spam luncheon meat and corned beef. This addition to our field ration supply would later prove to be a valuable resource to us. We leave the embassy to visit Pagoda Park by way of the Secret Garden and observe thousands of maidenhair trees, Ginkgo biloba, growing as street trees. The majority are females, showing the familiar symmetrical fastigiate habit, and the apricot-like fruits, just beginning to ripen, are giving off that strong smell of rotting flesh that seems to fill and linger on the air. At present the leaves are green, but by the time we return to Seoul in late October they will be a fantastic butter-yellow colour. The other common street tree is Zelkova serrata, grown as a multi-stemmed tree, a rather unusual habit for an urban tree but one that seems to work.
We exit the park onto the main highway and are confronted by thousands of students being contained by riot police dressed in full combat outfit. The tear gas in the air is starting to have an effect on our eyes when some of the riot police recognise us as Western tourists and quickly escort us into the subway, advising us to leave the area on the next train. We take their advice and return to the Mammoth Hotel for our last night in Seoul before leaving for Kwangnung Arboretum. We spend the evening at a bar next to the hotel drinking OB, Korean beer, before retiring to our beds for a much needed sleep.
Meet the Author
Mark Flanagan is Keeper of the Gardens in Windsor Great Park, where he is responsible for the world-renowned Savill and Valley Gardens as well as the gardens at Frogmore (the resting place of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) and Royal Lodge. He has traveled extensively in search of hardy plants, with visits to Turkey, eastern Asia, western Canada and the western United States. He lectures widely and contributes regularly to horticultural journals. Mark is married and has two children; they all live in a house in the woods in Windsor Great Park.
Tony Kirkham is Head of the Arboretum, Gardens, and Horticultural Services at RBG Kew. He lectures regularly internationally and is known and respected by North American tree experts at Quarry Hill, the New York Botanic Garden, the Arnold Arboretum, and other leading U.S. arboreta.
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