Augustine Henry is The Accidental Botanist

Marion Maxwell considers the achievements of the discoverer of the Chinese gooseberry

To the native inhabitants of central China, he must have made a bizarre sight, the tall Ulsterman with fair hair, blue eyes and a red beard, carrying a blackthorn stick, at times obliged to use a sedan chair in order to observe the etiquette appropriate to a representative of her Imperial Majesty’s Customs.

A thousand miles from the sea, the terrain he covered was generally hazardous: following smugglers’ footpaths, shooting rapids, holding on to a mule’s tail to be towed up a slope, often accompanied by Old Ho, his trusted native helper.

During twenty years spent in China, Augustine Henry survived pernicious malaria, political unrest, boredom, loneliness and the death of his first wife. A qualified doctor, the fact that he had come as Assistant Medical Officer in the Imperial Maritime Service was to prove incidental to how he subsequently made his mark on the world - as the botanist largely responsible for bringing to the attention of the west the heretofore almost unknown riches of central Chinese flora.

Born in Dundee in 1857, Augustine Henry - Austin to the family - was a baby when his parents Bernard and Mary (nee McNamee) came back to settle in their native Ulster. They lived in Cookstown, where Bernard was a grocer and flax merchant, but the family spent much of their time at Tyanee, near Portglenone, where the Henry family had lived since at least 1650.

Augustine, the eldest, shone academically. From Cookstown Academy he went to Queen’s College Galway, gaining a gold medal and a First in Natural Sciences and Philosophy, adding the next year a Master of Arts degree from Queen’s University Belfast. Following a year’s hospital experience in London, he obtained a medical degree from Queen’s in 1879.

A chance meeting with another Queen’s graduate, Sir Robert Hart, resulted in his recruitment for the Imperial Maritime Customs Service in China. Having completed the relevant exams and acquired a working knowledge of Chinese, Dr Henry left for China in the autumn of 1881. For the next twenty years, his career took him to customs stations in Shanghai, then to the remote provinces of Hupeh, Szechuan, Yunnan and to Formosa.

The opening up of new trading stations in South China was, co-incidentally, providing a rich new field for enterprising botanists interested in finding medicinal plants that might have lucrative applications.

Customs officials looked on plants as raw materials, so on the strength of a rudimentary knowledge from his medical training, the young medic was dispatched in his spare time to collect specimens. Welcoming any antidote to the boredom and routine of his official duties, he had stumbled on a pastime that was to become a ruling passion.

From 1885, Dr Henry devoted all his spare time to botany. Based for seven years in the remote province of Ichang on the Yangtze river in Hupeh Province, 1 000 miles inland, he mounted two major expeditions, one to the mountainous area south west of the Yangtze, the other to the high and dramatic terrain of Hupeh, the natural habitat of many vegetable drugs.

His employing of Chinese helpers was innovative and through them he recorded the native names and applications for plants used in Chinese folk medicine.

He also had the vision to realise that the climate and terrain of much of China was such that its native plants were hardy enough to suit the British Isles and his attentions soon moved to plants with ornamental potential.

Passionately curious and energetic, his meticulous methodology for collecting, labelling and preserving paid dividends. When, tentatively, he sent his first specimens to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 1889, it was the start of a productive relationship. Over a twenty year period, he sent to Kew about 150 000 dried specimens, including as many as 5 000 new species. A bottle of camphor oil which he sent resulted in camphor becoming one of Formosa’s chief exports.

Among the many now familiar garden plants that bear his name are clematis henryi, the blue-flowered rhododendron augustinii and the fragrant viborium henryi.

Carolinella henryi commemorates his all-too-short relationship with Caroline Orridge whom he married while home on leave in 1891. Caroline was consumptive and not even the more temperate climate of Formosa could save her from decline. She died in 1894.

Ever generous, Dr Henry encouraged and tutored other botanists. Most notably, it was at Henry’s bidding that the Kew-trained botanist EH Wilson came to China. To Wilson are attributed the introduction of the dove (‘handkerchief’) tree and actinidia deliciosa the Chinese gooseberry or kiwi fruit, but Henry must be assigned due credit for bringing them to his attention.

Even before his final departure from China in 1900, Dr Henry had increasingly become absorbed by an interest in trees. Thus, instead of retirement, he chose to start a new career in forestry. At a time when industrial forestry was totally undeveloped in the British Isles, he had realised its potential.

After two years at the French School of Forestry in Nancy, he headed a new School of Forestry in Oxford in 1905, moving to Cambridge in 1907 to become reader in forestry there.

Dr Henry’s desire to give service to his native Ireland resulted in his acceptance in 1913 of the professorship of a new Chair of Forestry at the College of Science in Dublin. Thus positioned, he was instrumental in founding the Irish forestry industry, bringing a crucial understanding of the need to use trees suited to Irish conditions.

By the end of his career, he had become a world renowned forestry expert, his standing enhanced by the seven volume The Trees of Britain and Ireland which he completed with fellow enthusiast Henry Elwes.

With his marriage in 1908 to Alice Brunton, a lengthy period of domestic happiness began and it was Alice who, on his death in 1930, carried out the massive eight-year task of sorting out his private collection of 10 000 tree specimens. They form the Augustine Henry Forestry Herbarium in the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin.

John Besant, a former Keeper of the Gardens at Glasnevin, paid this tribute to Augustine Henry:
‘Happily so many plants bear his name that, while trees and shrubs are cultivated, his memory will remain in every garden and arboretum for long years to come...’

Referring to the vibrant orange lily lilium henryi, named for his former colleague, EH Wilson said: ‘It is particularly fitting that such a notable addition to our gardens should bear the honoured name of a pioneer who has done so much to acquaint a sceptical world of the rich floral wealth of interior China.’

A final word should go to Enniskillen-born botanist Dr Charles Nelson, whose scholarship has done much to bring Dr Henry‘s achievements to notice: ‘From the Chinese flora’s treasure chest, he displayed the jewels and allowed others, with his help and encouragement, to bring the gems to us.’