Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - Introduction


Handel -Mazzetti's name is well known to all botanists and horticulturists who have worked on the flora of China, though it is usually seen in abbreviated form appended to the name of one of the many plants that he determined — for example, Taraxacum tibetanum Hand-Mazz. As his publications, apart from this book and a few newspaper articles, are austerely scientific, and as he never introduced plants into cultivation, he has remained a shadowy figure, hardly known outside the world of the herbarium. Yet he was one of the most distinguished of the pioneer plant collectors who travelled in western China in the early years of this century. He greatly expanded our knowledge of the wealth and diversity of the flora of that great region on the borderlands of Tibet where the three mighty rivers of western China, the Mekong, the Salween and the Yangtse, dissect the high mountains.

Foremost among the plant explorers of the region were collectors such as Frank Kingdon-Ward, George Forrest and Ernest Wilson, who not only collected dried herbarium specimens for scientific study but introduced many plants into our gardens, plants for which they will always be remembered. Then there were the French missionaries who devoted their leisure to plant collecting: Delavay, Ducloux, Monbeig, Soulié and others made major contributions to our understanding of the flora. Joseph Rock also based himself primarily in NW Yunnan and the Tibetan hinterlands, as did many of the others, for they realised that the region with its diverse climates, high mountains, wooded hills and extensive lowlands offered a rich and unique flora, and many species which would be likely to prove hardy in western gardens. Rock, like Kingdon-Ward, was more than just a plant collector, but a expert and knowledgeable geographer and ethnologist with a keen interest in both plants and animals.

Most of these collectors wrote little or nothing on their travels; we have only a fragmentary record, for instance, of the extensive travels of George Forrest. But there were exceptions: Joseph Rock wrote extensively about the region and its peoples and Ernest Henry Wilson wrote a classic book on his travels and collections in A Naturalist in Western China (1913). However, it was Frank Kingdon-Ward who, more than any other, brought the adventure of plant collecting to the horticultural public. In a series of books he outlined vividly the trials and tribulations of (he professional plant collector. His early books such as The Land of the Blue Poppy (1913), Mystery Rivers of Tibet (1923) and Plant Hunting on the Edge of the World (1930) have become collectable classics, now much sought after.

But what of Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti? Though relatively little known, he collected extensively in western China at a time when the country was undergoing enormous upheavals, both social and political. He was an Austrian botanist who later became the Keeper of the Botanical Department of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. In 1913 Handel-Mazzetti was invited to join Camillo Schneider, the General Secretary of the Austro-Hungarian Dendrologicai Society, on an expedition to China, the aim being to extend the pioneering work already achieved in the region by Delavay and Forrest. So, at the beginning of 1914, aged 32, Handel-Mazzetti found himself in western China under the auspices of the Vienna Academy of Sciences. The outbreak of the First World War marooned him in China until 1919, but during that time he was able to travel and collect in Yunnan, southern Sichuan and Upper Burma, as well as in Guizhou and Hunan. He published an account of his travels and plant finds in a book entitled Naturbilder aus Südwest China (1927). This rare and little known work was of course written in German and as such is inaccessible to the majority of English-speaking gardeners and horticulturists. With the current vogue for new editions of books on plant hunters and plant collecting it is surprising that this almost forgotten work has not already been seized upon and translated. But this has now been rectified and we must be greatly indebted to David Winstanley for his painstaking translation and for his determination to see the new edition published, an undertaking that he has achieved mainly by his own endeavours, financing the cost of publication largely out of his own pocket. In addition. David Winstanley has compiled a full and useful index to plants and places and (with Stephen Haw) an indispensable glossary of Chinese place names with their modern Pinyin equivalents, which make this important work far more serviceable.

Handel-Mazzetti's is a fascinating and accurate account written by a man who was first and foremost a scientist wishing to record details of his work. This might sound dry and matter-of-fact, but with considerable skill he manages to inject a sense of adventure and humour into his narrative.

His tastes in plants were catholic, from the tallest trees and the rich and varied shrubs to the herbaceous, bulbous and alpine species. In addition, he collected what many ignore, the lower plants such as ferns, mosses and lichens. His specimens reside in the Natural History Museum in Vienna and elsewhere as a lasting testament to his endeavours. A special interest in the genus Primula led him to describing several new species including P. genestieriana Hand.-Mazz., P. leucochnoa Hand.-Mazz. and P. valentiniana Hand.-Mazz. Other plants that he described include Leontopodium haplophylloides Hand.-Mazz., Prunus mugus Hand.-Mazz., the Tibetan cherry, and Sorbus poteriifolia Hand.-Mazz. Plants named in his honour include the charming Arisaema handelii Stapf.

Although the period when this expedition was undertaken was the golden era of plant exploration in western China, it was brought to an end by the political turmoil in China between the two World Wars. So this book serves as a unique record of part of China at a transitional time in its history and is a valuable addition to the more familiar books on the region.

Present day readers will be impressed by the dedication of these early plant hunters, despite the difficulties of travel and the hardships that they had to endure. Western China was not always a friendly place earlier in the century, communications were difficult and the task of collecting, storing and recording the details of plant finds and localities on a day to day basis must have been extremely exacting. Add to this the ever present dangers of bandits and local revolts, the weather (very wet in summer and bitterly cold in winter) and the at times appalling food and difficulty of travel, and one can appreciate the achievements of these men. Hardships there undoubtedly were but the excitement of visiting and exploring the region, of seeing such a range of plants growing and flowering in the wild and the thrill of seeing something rare or even new to science was spur enough.

Today we are fortunate in being able to travel freely in China once more and to see the richness of the flora, the amazing and varied landscapes and the delightful medley of different ethnic peoples who are so conspicuous in the west of that great country. It is easy to gauge the excitement and trials of these early pioneers while suffering none of their hardships. Today, one can reach China quickly by jet plane and the internal transport is relatively good. Most towns boast modern hotels with colour television and bathrooms (not always with the best toilet arrangements!). There is safe bottled water and beer in plenty and the food is wholesome and often excellent. Yet when one gets out into the mountains away from civilisation it is just as wild as it ever was, the weather can be just as unpredictable and the terrain no less severe. It is then that one can appreciate more the daily lives of the earlier plant explorers. Today, despite shocking deforestation, especially close to the Tibetan frontier, there is just as much to see in the wild and the excitement of finding plants in their native habitats is just as thrilling and unforgettable. We are indeed greatly indebted to collectors like Handel-Mazzetti and privileged to be able to read this account of his journeys and explorations, as well as to find out something of the man behind the name that adjoins so many familiar plant names.

C. Grey-Wilson

[Handel-Mazzetti's foreword]