Take a stroll through an English country garden on a summer’s day and you will encounter a colorful explosion of flowering plants — masses of white lilies, ropes of purple orchids, and heaps of pink rhododendrons, to name a few.
But none of these plants is actually native to England. Instead, they originated in the temperate fields and forests of Northern Myanmar where the humid jungles of the wet Irrawaddy River Valley give way to the chilly foothills of the Himalayas.
How, then, did they end up in a garden over 6,000 miles away?
The story of the spread of Burmese flora around the world is one that involves a great deal of calculation, deceit, and the expansion of British imperial rule in the 19th century.
As early as the 18th century, flowers were brought back to England as valued trophies by British botanists who often acted as reconnaissance parties for conquering British armies.
Empire and plant-collecting went hand-in-hand, as in the example of Dr. Francis Buchanan — a Scottish Botanist and physician — who accompanied the diplomat Michael Symes on the first ever British mission to the Burmese king in 1795.
During the expedition, Buchanan collected plants along the shores of the Irrawaddy River and sent dried specimens back to the Board of Directors of the British East India Company in London.
Later on, in 1826, Dr. Nathaniel Wallich of the Calcutta Botanical Garden accompanied the Crawfurd mission to the Burmese King Bagyidaw, in order “to report on the resources of the forests of Pegu and Ava”.
The British eyed Myanmar’s plants with envy and it is telling that when they finally conquered the whole of the country in 1885, it was following a dispute over a plant — the teak tree — and their right to log it.
After the British conquest, English botanists set to work collecting and identifying Burmese flora and fauna in the name of science (but also in the name of empire).
Whenever they “discovered” a local flower or tree, they re-named it after themselves or their patrons, thereby inculcating British imperial dominance onto the landscape itself (for instance, a tree traditionally called Thawkagyi was renamed Amherstia Nobilis after the wife of a British Governor-General of India, the 1st Earl of Amherst).
Perhaps no archetype conveys the great symbolic importance of plants to Victorian Britons quite like that of the plant hunter.
Plant hunters were celebrities admired by the British public for their fearlessness in venturing into unknown lands in search of exotic plants, but more often than not they acted like vigilantes in their insatiable hunger for new and rare specimens to sell.
Perhaps the most famous story of this sort of “plant piracy” was the case of Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, who was commissioned by the East India Company to illegally smuggle tea plants out of China in 1843.
The tea plants were then replanted in British gardens in India, making the East India Company a fortune.
But, rather than criticize him, the European public praised Fortune’s theft of Chinese tea as an example of British individual fortitude and daring-do.
In spite of their fame, plant hunters very rarely acted alone. Instead, they often relied on the labor of local porters, the creative skill of local artists, and the knowledge of local guides in order to locate and identify new plants.
Take, for example, the most famous British plant-hunter in the history of Myanmar — Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958).
Between 1910 and 1958, Frank was sent to Tibet, China, India and Myanmar by a number of scientific organizations and seed companies in order to collect hardy and beautiful flowers that would thrive in English gardens.
Frank had an amazing ability to find plants and identify species on sight, but in his 40+ years of plant-collecting in Northern Myanmar he also relied heavily on the local Kachin porters and guides.
Sometimes they would strike and refuse to work for him; other times, they would withhold information about certain plants considered to have valuable medicinal properties. But more often than not, local knowledge was integral in helping Frank to locate the specimens he sought.
When Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the new Burmese government began to harness the power of plants for its own purposes and it became harder and harder for British plant-hunters like Frank to gain access to the country.
So, in 1953, Frank agreed to take on two young Burmese botanists and train them, in exchange for a visa and access to his former plant-hunting grounds.
Their names were U Tha Hla (1916-?) and U Chit Ko Ko (1917-2008), and they would go on to become the forefathers of botanical science in a newly-independent Myanmar.
After Frank’s death in 1958, Chit Ko Ko continued the task of seeking out and cataloguing Myanmar’s 1,500+ native species of flora, though no longer to line the pockets of British companies (he would later go on to study as a visiting scholar in Indonesia, India, and Japan).
Since Chit Ko Ko’s retirement in 1983, his protege, Dr. Saw Lwin, an orchidologist and horticulturist, has kept the tradition of Myanmar flower-collecting alive.
Between 1956 and 1997, foreign botanists were not allowed into the country, but in the 21st century plant-hunting has been revived, not for imperial prestige, but in order to protect the region’s biodiversity and prevent the extinction of native species.
This way, scientists will hopefully be able ensure that Burmese flowers can be found in their natural habitat for many years to come.