Early 20th century plant hunting in Taiwan
By: Katherine Harrington - 19/09/2011
Find out about the experiences in Taiwan of botanical collector William Robert Price through the letters he sent back to Kew Gardens at the turn of the last century.
The Directors' Correspondence collection contains an insightful series of letters from William Robert Price (1886 – 1975), then a young botanist visiting Formosa (now Taiwan). In early 1912, Price set out to accompany Henry John Elwes (1846 - 1922) the renowned plant collector and lepidopterist (the study of moths and butterflies) and later co-author of the Trees of Great Britain and Ireland with Augustine Henry. Elwes had just been on a tour through Malaysia and Java and was attracted to Formosa by the close resemblance of the flora and fauna to that of Sikkim. Formosa also harbored one of the few forests in the world Elwes had never seen.
The Mount Morrison expedition, Formosa (Taiwan), October 1912. Price (front, centre) wears traditional Japanese footwear: cahan (cloth gaiters) and Waraji sandals
At this time, parts of the island of Formosa were unworkable as the aboriginal tribes were at war with the Japanese. Tribes on the east coast of the island, where steep cliffs and the absence of harbors made it almost inaccessible in the rainy season, remained very hostile. A mass of forest clad mountains in the north and central parts of Formosa had also been the scene of deadly warfare with the Japanese military police. A guard line was cut through the forest extending over 350 miles, with fortified posts and block houses at short intervals to prevent attacks on Japanese camphor collectors.
Price and Elwes spent four months touring the forests and accessible regions of the island, especially the Arisan forests, collecting plants and investigating the local forestry. Price agreed to stay on in Formosa to collect plants after Elwes left for Japan in the summer of 1912. In a letter to Kew's then Director Sir David Prain he remarked, "I go off to the east coast, where savages, malaria and plague are rampant! So I am in for a fine time" [archive ref: DC 152/64a].
A view of Mount Tandai, north east of Mount Morrison, with a species of Pinus in the foreground, from Price's papers, 1912
Price also visited Mount Morrison, the highest peak on the island which was previously unexplored by European botanists. Today, Mount Morrison, originally named after the Missionary who discovered it, is known as Yushan or the Jade Mountain. In a letter to Prain, Price wrote, " The mountains too fascinate, & the more one travels in them, the more one wishes to penetrate, the more one penetrates the more hopeless it seems of ever seeing more than a few isolated glimpses of them" [archive ref: DC 152/73].
Detail of a map by Price of the island of Formosa (Taiwan) showing Mount Morrison, rising to 13,000 feet
Collections at Kew
During his Formosa visit Price collected 1133 plant specimens. He sent a set to Bunzo Hayata who was working on the flora of Formosa, and is known as the founding father of Taiwanese botany for producing the Iconum Plantarum Formosanarum. Price also sent plant specimens to Kew, including seeds of Taiwania and the orchid Pleione pricei that was named in his honour.
While in Formosa, Price reported to Prain that he had 'broken out' into anthropology, but he hoped he had given botany his equal attention. I searched our economic botany catalogue and found that Price sent items such as these Waraji sandals (below), cloth fibres and a walking stick to Kew's museum.
Waraji sandals made from Abutilon rope fibres sent to Kew by Price. These are now part of the Economic Botany Collection (catalogue number 65375)
When I searched through our Archives collection I was also excited to discover Price's original Formosa collecting diary. In fact, Price re-visited Formosa in the 1960s and recorded the changes he observed on the island as well as the very warm welcome he received. In later life he came to Kew to work in the Herbarium and Library and always maintained his interest in the flora of Taiwan.
- View some of the plants Price sent back to Kew which have been digitised as part of the Global Plants Initiative by searching the Kew Herbarium Catalogue for the collector 'W.R. Price'.
- Learn more about the Director's Correspondence Project and its funders the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- Read other letters from RBG Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive at JSTOR Plant Science.
- Find out about the unfortunate plant collector Richard Oldham who also visited Taiwan and corresponded with Kew Gardens in the 19th century.
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