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Kew bids Vietnam good morning and works together with local botanists

Helping to assess and conserve the country’s rich and amazing plant life, in partnership with local botanists, was the key aim of Kew’s latest expedition to Vietnam. Gail Vines reports on how the intrepid team fared.
Kew's expedition to Vietnam (Image: Paul Little, RBG Kew)

Strange bedfellows, including giant hissing spiders that scuttle as fast as mice – not to mention relentless rain and ravenous leeches – were just some of the challenges faced by members of the Kew expedition to Vietnam last October.

With all that weather and wildlife, what makes this country so irresistible to Kew’s botanists?

To find out, I headed to the Herbarium to meet the expedition’s leader, Dutch-born botanist Rogier de Kok, who’d just returned from what was his third collecting trip to that country.

Rogier’s an expert on the conservation and taxonomy of South-East Asian plants, and specialises in the mint family. But don’t think mint tea, think teak – in the tropics, plants in the Lamiaceae family are often large trees.

His mission is to assess, monitor and conserve the region’s extraordinary diversity of wild plants, and help to ensure they’re exploited in a sustainable way – many species are valued traditional medicines, for instance.

He also produces user-friendly plant identification guides to help conservationists work more effectively in the field.

Travels to Indo-China

In his search for the rare and unusual, Rogier has travelled widely throughout IndoChina – including Laos, Thailand, Sumatra, Borneo, Sarawak, Java, Papua New Guinea and Christmas Island. But of all the places he’s experienced, Vietnam stands out as one of his favourites – thanks to the people and the plants.

What’s so special about Vietnam, I ask?

‘For botanists, the country is fascinating, with a rich flora, including many endemic species that are found nowhere else in the world,’ explains Rogier.

However, decades of devastating war have left the nation’s flora and its botanists in limbo.

‘Vietnam has many very good botanists, but until recently they have been isolated from the western scientific community, making it difficult for them to update their techniques and their botanical names,’ he says.

Gaps in botanical knowledge need to be filled urgently, not least because new reference publications on South-East Asian flora are now under way.

Rogier says: ‘What’s more, we have lots of new young staff in the Herbarium who need to gain experience of field work, so the expedition was good for our Vietnamese hosts, and good for Kew.’

Expeditions are all about multi-tasking, as specialists in different plant groups work closely together. Vietnam turns out to be a dream destination in logistical terms as well.

‘Our Vietnamese friends organise everything for us, and take us where we want to go,’ Rogier says.

From Hanoi the team travelled to Son La in the north west of the country, where they trekked through semi-tropical evergreen forests. Then they made their way south, exploring more mountainous forests around Pu Mat National Park for about a week, before heading south once more, to a very wet tropical rainforest high up in a national park at Da Nang, just south of the former de-militarised zone.

‘We were trekking pretty much all the time,’ explains Paul Little, the Kew photographer who joined the expedition. ‘Each of the botanists had their own speciality – legumes, say, or grasses and sedges – and everyone would look out for each other’s plants.’

Despite the long hours and endless hiking, Paul was more than happy to be there. ‘I was so lucky to get the chance to join the team to document their work,’ he says. ‘The botanists kept their own records and took their own plant photos, but I tried to show what people were doing – how the expedition worked.’

He came home with a total of 4,000 images – having taken 200–300 a day.

In the evenings, while the botanists were sorting out their specimens, Paul catalogued and stored all his images on a laptop. He used a video camera too, and video-clips of the expedition later this year, conveying one vital aspect of Kew’s work in a new and vivid way.

Paul even sent updates of the expedition’s progress by text from his phone to a blogging website.

‘Most days, we’d set off up a mountain and see how high we could get,’ he explains.

The aim was to collect as many plants as possible in that habitat, and gain an over-view of plant diversity. Paul remembers trying to struggle up the first one with his full camera kit, which weighed 14kg.

‘I soon learned not to take everything with me.’

Galloping spiders and leeches

In the mountains, they stayed in rustic lodges inhabited by spiders as large as your hand.

‘The team delegated me’, Rogier chuckles, ‘to go along with a broom and remove them – I found three or four in each room. It took a couple of days to get them all out.’

Paul remembers how quickly these spiders moved: ‘British spiders can gallop, but these sprinted.’

Other less than welcome wildlife included leeches – Paul found one the size of a squash ball feeding on his leg.

Even travel by car was memorable. ‘People do everything on the roads,’ explains Rogier. ‘You have to expect to find a haystack in the road, cattle wandering about, school kids playing, farmers drying their rice – all sorts of hazards.’

Paul was particularly impressed by the versatility of the mopeds – he saw one carrying a family of five, another a ladder, while a third ferried six pigs strapped on alongside the driver. But what struck him the most was the kindness and hospitality of the people, and their strong sense of community.

Plant specimens

By the end of the expedition, one of the vehicles was piled high with herbarium specimens, with each carefully pressed plant securely stashed in a plastic bag laced with alcohol as a preservative.

Overall, the team collected some 1,300 specimens. They also collected samples for DNA analysis – fresh green leaves that were quickly dried in plastic bags packed with silica gel.

Once the material is back at Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory, researchers can extract DNA from the dried leaves and freeze it for safe storage in Kew’s burgeoning DNA bank.

One image of the trip stands out for Paul – a portrait of a sinister-looking plant they found lurking by a river, with dark purple beard-like strands hanging down from its bizarre flower.

This was the tacca or bat flower: ‘Seeing it in the wild was the highlight of the trip for me,’ he remarks.

‘I’ve come back from this expedition with not just a collection of amazing photographs,’ says Paul, ‘but also good friendships with the Vietnamese botanists.’

Rogier concludes, ‘What’s been so powerful about Kew’s partnership with Vietnam is that we can see things improving for the country at large, as our personal and professional relationships grow stronger. It’s a beautiful country and a wonderful culture, and we need to do all we can to help conserve its invaluable flora.’


Author:  Gail Vines

Kew magazine 

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