Ludlow and Sherriffs last Botanical Expedition to Bhutan

In 1949, three British plant collectors and a doctor collected 5,000 plants, 600 seeds, bulbs and tubers in Bhutan and shipped them to London. In addition, 93 lots of living plants were flown directly from Calcutta to London. The summer botanical expedition which ran from 26 March to 29 October assembled the largest plant collection ever made from Bhutan revealing the country’s floristic richness. 

Reputed as resolute and knowledgeable, the plant collectors were Frank Ludlow (1885-1972), Major George Sherriff (1898-1967) and his wife Betty Sherriff (1899-1978). The expedition doctor, Dr J.H Hicks was a member of the expedition both in medical and botanical capacity. 

Both Ludlow and Sherriff were renowned naturalists but neither were botanists. The duo were from the elite Tibet Cadre. Son of a Botanist from Cambridge University, Ludlow was interested in ornithology and shooting. As an educationist, he was employed as the Headmaster of the Gyantse school from 1923 to 1926. Later, in 1942, he served as the head of the British mission in Lhasa. 

Map of the Sherrifs and Hicks in Central Bhutan. Photo courtesy: A Quest of Flowers

Major Sherriff succeeded Ludlow and in 1943 also lived in Lhasa. Earlier, the Scottish explorer served at the Kashgar consulate and was a first world war veteran. He was a skilled photographer and an avid plant collector. In 1943, Dr. Hicks served as the British Trade Agent in Gyantse.  The period from 1920 to 1950 was considered the golden era of exploration. Ludlow and Sherriff were active plant collectors from 1933 to 1949 and collected over 21,000 gatherings of specimens, many of which were new to science and contributed to the collection of the British Museum.

While both Ludlow and Major Sherriff kept dairies of their travels with all their observation and recordings of altitudes, it was not until their friend and colleague Dr Harold R. Fletcher chronicled their journeys in his book, A Quest of Flowers: The Plant Explorations of Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff (1975) that the general public learned of their explorations. Dr Fletcher was the former keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. 

Published by Edinburgh University Press, in 1975, the book records that, the 1949 expedition was their sixth joint expedition to the Himalayas and their fourth in Bhutan. Ludlow called the expedition ‘our final fling.’ By then, Ludlow and Major had officially left India but could not resist one last trip to Bhutan before going back home.  

From the book, we learn that the Sherriffs and Dr Hicks arrived in Bhutan on 26 March, 1949. By 2 April they had ridden their way up the Mangdechu valley and reached the King’s winter palace of Kuenga Rabten, where they received royal treatment for a week. 

The goal of their ‘last fling’ was to cover the whole of temperate and alpine Bhutan from the west to the east of the country.  Ludlow concentrated his activities in the western region going up as far north as Lingshi. Major Sherriff covered central Bhutan and Betty Sherriff and Dr Hicks collected plants in eastern Bhutan. 

Royal Treatment 

As guests of the Second King, they were given royal treatment. On 25 July, when the plant collectors regrouped in Bumthang, they were accommodated in the King’s guest house near the Kurjey monastery. The same day, His Majesty the Second King visited them and entertained them till the group left Bumthang on 1 August. The details of the royal audience have been recorded both in Ludlow’s diary and in Fletcher’s book.

In Kurjey, the collectors compared notes before they dispersed once again for the seed harvest, with the plan to regroup in Haa on 24 October.  On 1 August, Major Sherriff accompanied his wife to Haa who had to return to India for an Xray after falling from her mule.

By 29 August, the Major was back in Bumthang after narrowly avoiding what could have been a fatal misadventure: he was riding his horse from Chendebji to Trashiling, and only five minutes before he was to cross the wooden bridge, it had given way and a horse had fallen through the gap.  By 5 September, he was on his one-month expedition north of Bumthang. 

On 7 October, Major returned to Bumthang again. By then he had collected 180 seeds, 25 rooted plants, a goodly number of bulbs and tubers as well as close to 1,500 dried plants for the herbarium.  On the same day Dr Hicks reached Bumthang and had by then gathered 150 seeds. In addition to his seeds and living plants, the doctor with the help of Betty and their Bhutanese guide known as Tsongpoen had collected nearly 1,500 herbarium specimens. Ludlow had collected 1,500 plants and seeds and Betty had collected 1,500 herbarium specimens.

According to Dr Fletcher, Major and Dr Hicks left Bumthang on 13 October and reached Haa on 24 October, joining Ludlow there to exit the country to Kalimpong. Ludlow states in his diary that they halted in Haa on 25 October and 26th, spending a busy day packing and preparing for the last hop to Kalimpong. The details of the trip are recorded in the book as, “Our dried plants and other baggage leaving on 29th and we will travel via the Jelep La. Sherriff, Hicks and I with the living plants and minimum of load leave on the 30th and travel via Nathula and Gangtok.”

Short of a Miracle

The team carefully packed the 93 lots of living plants but Ludlow’s diary says, “Sherriff has three baskets of living plants which he intends sending home on arrival in Kalimpong. It will cost him nearly 100 pounds.” 

The plants were organized in three loosely woven bamboo hampers, three tiers of plants in each hamper, the individual plant clumps wrapped in moss so that once in Britain they could be forwarded to the gardens specified by the collectors with the minimum of disturbance. 

In the consignment there were over 30 primulas. Each plant was described as having blue sap in their veins. The rare primulas included, Primula xanthopa P. jigmediana, P. uniflora, P. soldanelloides, two aconites, Aconitum fletcherianum. 

Major Sherriff made a special journey to Calcutta and successfully made arrangements for the plants to be flown to London. His colleague Dr. George Taylor FRS, former Director at Kew, processed all the permits and arranged for the consignee at London Airport to divide the collection and forward each share to the recipients Ludlow and Sherriff had already nominated.

According to the book, the plants left Calcutta by BOAC on 11 November.  When the plane touched down the following afternoon at London Airport, Dr Taylor was already there. Within an hour, he organized the three hampers and dispatched it to the Natural History Museum which was one of the recipients of the precious cargo. 

According to Dr Fletcher, on the whole the plants from Bhutan were received in good condition at the destination with the exception of some which had dried out along the way.  Given the length and the rigour of the journey, the drastic change of temperature from the cool wet alpine haunts of Bhutan to the high temperatures in the steamy lower parts of the country to Kalimpong and then between Kalimpong and Calcutta when the temperature would no doubt be in the region of 100°F, the success of the transportation exercise was little short of a miracle.

The plant collector’s effort to air freight living plants for cultivation in Britain was considered one of its kind. It was a fitting climax to their years of magnificent collection. However, time has shown that their endeavours was not as successful as they had hoped. Many of the plants made but a fleeting appearance in the British gardens, flowered and then were gone. And over 20 years later, most of those which have survived have maintained but a tenuous hold on cultivation. 

Final Years in Ascreavie 

In 1950, the plant collectors finally returned home after a seven-month last fling with Bhutan. The Sherriffs bought the estate of Ascreavie, in Angus in Scotland. They spent the rest of their lives on the farm transforming the overrun compound into a Himalayan garden of surpassing beauty where they grew primulas, meconopsis, gentians, lilies and rhododendrons collected from their Bhutan expedition.  On 19 September 1967, Major Sherriff passed away on his estate on his seventieth year.  His wife Betty lived for another years eleven years. 

Ludlow spent the remaining years of his life quietly and happily studying their collections in the Department of Botany of the British Museum (Natural History). 

He died in 1972 at the age of 87. During his last audience with the Second King in Bumthang, he reported that the recollection of his happy days in Bhutan and Tibet would be the solace of his old age.  

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi