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Joseph Hooker's rhododendrons: from the Himalayas to Kew

Virginia Mills
6 May 2014
The Rhododendron Dell at Kew is in full, glorious bloom! Librarian Virginia Mills explains how plant hunter and Kew director Joseph Hooker first brought rhododendrons from the high Himalayas to Victorian Kew, a tale of adventure brought to life by Kew's new online resource, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project.

The Indian state of Sikkim in the Himalayas is famous for its fabulous spring flora, and tourists flock there, in particular, to see the vast tracts of riotously coloured rhododendrons.

In 1848-49, Joseph Hooker was one of the first European visitors to set foot in Sikkim. A plant hunter and son of Kew's first Director (William Jackson Hooker), he was there to hunt for treasure - plant treasure - to send back to his father at Kew.

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Photo of a letter from Joseph Hooker
Example of a letter from Joseph Hooker to his father, sent while plant hunting in India

Hooker's efforts were rewarded with rhododendrons. In all Joseph discovered 25 new species of rhododendron in India and the Himalayas. In his letters, now available online for the first time, he describes seeing these magnificent plants in the wild:

'The splendour of the Rhododendrons is marvellous: there are 10 kinds on this hill, scarlet, white, lilac, yellow, pink, marroon[sic],: the cliffs actually bloom with them.' [JDH_1_10_171-173]

Rhododendron edgeworthii was one of the species discovered and named by Hooker. This illustration is from his spectacular book, Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya, published in 1851 - and this variety is still grown at Kew today.

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Painting of Rhododendron edgeworthii
Rhododendron edgeworthii

Hooker's letters reveal that collecting these plants in terra incognita was no easy task:

'I staid[sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect there seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy.... Botanizing, during the march is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous...certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever.' [JDH_1_10_146-147]

You can read more about his collecting trials and tribulations at the new Joseph Hooker Correspondence website.

Once seeds and young plants had been collected it was a further challenge to get them back to Kew in a fit state to grow. But thankfully, much of Hooker's collection did reach Kew safely. The Gardens' annual report of 1850 records the receipt of '21 baskets of Indian orchids and new species of Rhododendron'.

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Old photo of Victorian visitors to the Rhododendron Dell
Victorian visitors to the Rhododendron Dell

Hooker's rhododendrons were then cultivated at Kew and used to reinvigorate the Rhododendron Dell, originally landscaped by Capability Brown. Kew's recent publication, The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs, features the Rhododendron Dell in all its Victorian splendour, and many more images of the blossoming of Kew under the Hookers. If you visit Kew today you can still see some of Hooker's species of Sikkim Rhododendrons, putting on one of the Gardens' most colourful spring displays. In fact, they are looking spectacular right now and it is well worth making a trip to Kew during May to see them - after all it is much easier than going all the way to Sikkim!

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Photo of the Rhododendron Dell
The Rhododendron dell in full spring colour at Kew

To find out more about Hooker's Sikkim Rhododendrons and their publication in one of the most beautiful botanical books ever produced, you can watch a short video from documentary film-maker Peter Donaldson, shot in the library here at Kew and on location in India (courtesy of Jupe Productions).

- Virginia -

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