In the Footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker

In the Footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker: A Sikkim Adventure – by Seamus O’Brien

My goodness, this is an extraordinarily good book! I had expected something wonderful along the lines of the author’s previous book, “In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry and his Chinese Plant Collectors” but this volume has surpassed my most hopeful expectations. The depth of research, the volume of original material reproduced, the quality of the writing and the sheer monumental nature of Hooker’s journeys and those of the author in his footsteps all contribute to give us one of the major works of horticultural literature of our day. Hooker’s passion for plants drove him to great adventures and achievements and this book will stand as testimony that no man was more suitable to walk in his footsteps than the author.

 

Page 81
A wonderful view from the house of Brian Hodgson who helped Hooker when he was in Sikkim.
Page 36
Early morning as seen from Darjeeling

 

 

 

Joseph Dalton Hooker was a man of extraordinary ability and achievements. We may remember him as a plant hunter but his contributions in other areas are equally significant and noteworthy. Between 1839 and ’43 he travelled with Sir James Clark Ross to Antarctica to determine the exact location of the South Magnetic Pole. As a 22 year old, he was the assistant surgeon and botanist on board and collected material at Madeira, Tenerife, the Cape Verde Archipelago and St. Helena on route. He created the first comprehensive map of the Kingdom of Sikkim and recorded everything of the geology, zoology and botany of the region. His plant collections amounted to several thousand specimens, pressed, dried and forwarded to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for naming and further study. His book, “Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalaya” started the European wide craze for growing rhododendrons and influenced our gardens for the following century.

 

First picture...Page 7 Caption on photo
In the Footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker!

Hooker’s collected seed was spread far and wide and the gardens at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, in Co. Wicklow, Ireland hold a significant number of specimens which came directly from him. The Acton family had grown Rhododendron arboreum in the gardens as early as 1820 – the first recorded in Ireland – and Dr. David Moore of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin considered the gardens an excellent home for the newly raised Hooker rhododendrons for the soil at Glasnevin did not suit them. The author was placed in charge of the gardens in Kilmacurragh in 2006 and his research into the history of the gardens, the plants, and the good chance to have been studying at Kew while Hooker’s portraits of rhododendrons were on the library benches for conservation work all fired an interest and a determination to follow in Hooker’s footsteps in the Kingdom of Sikkim. Nobody had previously covered all of Hooker’s historic route, though there had been several attempts, and the author was the first to do so over four expeditions to Sikkim. It is the tales of these travels – those of Joseph Dalton Hooker and those of Seamus O’Brien – that are intertwined in this narrative.

For the purposes of the narrative, Hooker’s travels in Sikkim are divided to match the four expeditions of the author with chapters describing Hooker’s travels followed by accounts of those of the author. The setting is Sikkim, a country of spectacular landscapes and home to an extraordinary range of plants with tropical conditions in the deep valleys, through a temperate range to the glacial conditions in the mountains.

Both are extraordinary stories and, with the author’s extensive research, weave a tapestry of places, people and plants which is entirely fascinating and engrossing. William Griffith, an explorer of extraordinary ability, had recorded many plants in Bhutan in advance of Hooker’s expeditions and Hooker acknowledged and even promoted his achievements. Brian Houghton Hodgson, an English naturalist and ethnologist most active in his retirement and a host to Hooker, had been the East India Company’s  British Resident (ambassador) to the Nepal Court in Kathmandu, and settled in Darjeeling. Dr. Archibald Campbell was the first superintendent (1840-1862) of the sanatorium town of Darjeeling and accompanied Hooker on many of his travels, including an ill-advised border transgression which led to their imprisonment and, later, to the British annexation of the Sikkim Terai region. The list of “characters” is extensive and names which previously may have been familiar are given greater depth and greater connections with each other, with plants and with introductions to well-known gardens back home. The progress of, for example, the introduction of the magnificent Magnolia campbellii is related through the disappointing years of failure to transport viable seed to its eventual first flowering in Britain and Ireland at Lakelands, the garden of William Horatio Crawford at Mahon in Cork, and soon after at Lord Barrymore’s Fota Island and William Gumbleton’s Belgrove. There are many such fascinating personalities and plants.

Page 12 great grandchildren at Kilmacurragh
A very touching photograph from the book: Julia, William and Martin Hooker, the great-great-great grandchildren of the Sikkim explorer, pictured here, in August 2016, beneath Joseph Hooker’s 1850 introduction of Rhododendron grande at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh.

The author speaks admiringly of the old specimen of Magnolia campbellii at Kilmacurragh and it is a fitting representative of the treasures which Hooker introduced to our gardens. It is only one of a great many such introductions and the story of their introduction remains as fresh and as fascinating today as in Hooker’s time and Seamus O’Brien’s recounting of his and Hooker’s adventures makes for an enjoyable, informative and deeply valuable resource for all keen gardeners.

[In the Footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker: A Sikkim Adventure, Seamus O’Brien, Kew Publishing, 2018, Hardback, 323 pages, £40, ISBN 978-1-84246-656-8]

Check out Events Listings on http://irishgardenplantsociety.com/ for dates of three book launch events – Cork, Dublin and Belfast.

 

 

 

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