Augustine Henry, horticultural hero from city with two names

Fiann Ó Nualláin charts the life of a doctor, turned plant hunter who also set up the Forestry Commission.
Augustine Henry, horticultural hero from city with two names

Derry man, Augustine Henry (1857–1930) is a noted plant hunter and educator – hugely influential across Europe and Asia.

He set up the Irish Forestry Commission and developed a system to identify trees by twig shape and angle of bud – so they could be identified in winter, but he is best known for sending over 15,000 plant samples and seed to Kew gardens from his time in China where he served in the Imperial Customs Service as Assistant Medical Officer and Customs Assistant.

John William Besant would write of him: “The wealth of beautiful trees and flowering shrubs which adorn gardens in all temperate parts of the world today is due in a great measure to the pioneer work of the late Professor Henry”.

Lilium henryi Inflorescence a Turk’s cap variety of lily with specks of black, discovered in China by Derry-man, Augustine Henry.
Lilium henryi Inflorescence a Turk’s cap variety of lily with specks of black, discovered in China by Derry-man, Augustine Henry.

In his lifetime, Henry was honoured by horticultural societies across Europe and Asia.

He was friends with Yeats and involved in the Celtic revival movement and mixed in circles with Roger Casement (my hero back in March), and Erskine Childers.

Augustine Henry is important in the realm of horticulture because at the time he commenced collecting the indigenous flora of central China, little was known about Chinese plants in the west.

In fact the botany of China was virtually unknown outside China itself.

Henry was stationed in the provinces of Hupeh, Szechuan and Yunnan and also in the Island of Formosa. He worked by day and collected by evening.

He sent his collections to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – the hub of economics botany and research, then as now.

Between 1885 and 1896 his parcels to Britain brought the west into contact with 25 new genera and about 500 new species.

He sent enough specimens so that duplicates could be distributed to other herbaria around the world.

His path to botany actual came through medicine.

As a medical officer he was encouraged to familiarise himself with local Chinese customs and traditions and herbal medicines.

What began as a collection of herbs grew to a collection of all sorts of botanical specimens.

These Henry first sent to Kew for identification with a request for information on collecting techniques.

But there was no need for the latter, he was skilled and the word from Kew was ‘please send more’. Kew have a large collection of not only his botanical samples, but his writing and artifacts.

Henry’s first letter to Kew’s Director Joseph Hooker dated 1885 (Kew archive ref: 151/578) points out that: “a good number of medicines are grown about here, and there seems to be a fair number of interesting plants. As this part of China is not very well known to botanists...interesting specimens might be obtained”.

The variety of plants he collected was to enthrall western horticulturalists and some are still in popular cultivation, and the favourites of many gardeners.

My own favourite? I’d have to toss a coin to pick between Lonicera henryi (an evergreen honeysuckle with TCM usage) and Lilium henryi (an exquisite orange Turk’s cap speckled with black spots that just lights the borders ablaze this month).

The old Chinese curse – may you live in interesting times – applied to Augustine. He contracted malaria, returned to Ireland, married Caroline Orridge.

Returned to China with his new bride, she contracted tuberculosis there and they were forced to separate.

She went to America to Augustine’s sister to convalesce; he went deeper into China and bandit territory and before Henry had his next leave of absence, his wife died. The plant Carolinella henryi commemorates her.

He stayed on in China and ventured further into dangerous terrain and also into the fray of the Boxer uprising. He woke one morning to find three severed heads hanging from a tree outside his residence.

He didn’t take the hint and continued collecting. I mean , I love plants but I like my head on my shoulders too. A bit of Derry ‘no surrender’ there.

His bravery is not what makes him a hero, however, it is that his pioneering work in China opened the door to all the more famous plant hunters, including Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson and Frank Kingdom-Ward, but he truly opened the West’s appreciation of the stunning flora of China.

Then when he returned home, he had a huge impact on Irish botany and forestry — in particular he was instrumental in chronicling our arboreal wealth and putting global deforestation on the agenda.

Henry left China in 1900, but before resettling in Ireland, he spent two years at Nancy, France, at the French National School of Forestry. In 1907 he was offered and took up a post at Cambridge University, where he helped to establish the School of Forestry.

In 1913 he returned to Ireland and accepted the position of Professor of Forestry at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, where he remained until his death in 1930.

If you are up for a bit of light reading this weekend you might like to check out The Trees of great Britain and Ireland by Henry John Elwes and Augustine Henry — all seven volumes — or the thoroughly engrossing biography, In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry, by Seamus O’Brien.

Henry has left a legacy. He is a towering figure in Irish forestry, a champion of plant hunters and a celebrated plant hunter himself. Ireland’s credentials in global botany where in part validated by his likes.

Today some of Augustine Henry’s collections are in the gift of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin home to “The Augustine Henry Forestry Herbarium”.

But you don’t have to travel to the Bots for a peek at the jewels he introduced, you may find some of his plants in your local garden centre – look out for Clematis henryi, or the wonderfully fragrant Viburnum henryi.

There is also the blue-flowered Rhododendron augustinii spp to honor the man. And if you’ll forgive me I will end this article here as there is a regal lily outside my window with his name on it and my mind is wandering to it. Time I think to water it and gesture a thanks to a real horticultural hero.

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