PLANTS FROM THE EDGE OF THE WORLD: NEW EXPLORATIONS IN THE FAR EAST

by Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham

Publisher:  Timber Press (2005)
ISBN 0-88192-676-0

Hardback £25

Over the years, there has been a number of Edge of the World Books, from Kingdom Ward in 1930 to McMillan Browse and Christian Lamb quite recently.  The edges in this book are South Korea in 1989, Taiwan (or Formosa, Beautiful, as described by the first, Portuguese, colonists) in 1992, Ussuriland in Russia’s Far East in 1994, and Hokkaido in 1997.  The seed-collecting trips to these countries were organised by the Royal Botanic Gardens subsequent to the hurricane of October 1987, when Kew lost 800 trees and Wakefield Place 15,000.  The explorations contributed 1223 accessions comprising 426 different species and varieties from woodlands of the Temperate Loop.

The narrative is written in the first person by the two authors quoting from their journals made at the time and Mark Flanagan has an especially enjoyable descriptive ability. The journals cover food fish heads in a broth of congealed blood in Korea, writhing squid and octopus for dinner; native fauna rats in the bunkhouse, monkey dung to be dissected for seeds in Taiwan, mosquitoes and poisonous snakes near Vladivostock; hot springs and comfort in Japan contrasting with the very primitive conditions in Russia.
There are also artistic maps, many coloured photos, an index of plants, people, and places, and a selective bibliography.

E.H. Wilson is a particular hero to both men and they derive inspiration in Taiwan and Korea from following in his footsteps:  although they do not, like him, meet aboriginal headhunters complete with trophies.

But of course the real interest of this enjoyable book is in the landscape and plants, the different cultures experienced and the interaction between the collectors from Kew and their hosts.

Margaret Burford