Mysteries & Misadventures

Dangerous Adventure: Discovering the Elusive Blue Poppy

It is often said, and repeated, that mountaineer George Leigh Mallory discovered the Himalayan blue poppy on his failed scaling of Everest in 1922. George and his team were returning from their trip (and a very bad one with an avalanche and seven dead Sherpas) when the alpine mountain meadows on the descent left him “half the time in ecstasy” he wrote to his wife. I get quite excited to see them every year too, but maybe not so much as George 😉

There are few climates where the blue poppy can grow. They are, after all, naturally at home on the cold and sunny Himalaya mountains, 10,000 feet above ground. But every year here in March, Longwood Gardens has a small display of these blue and purple-streaked flowers to mark the start of spring. (And they are my very favorite!) The purple is a sign of the warmth: during late snows in February, and god knows we had those, the heat in the conservatory is cranked up to keep the heavy snowfall off the glass roof. It’s a delicate dance for anything over 65F/18C will slowly kill them.

The Missionary and The Botanist

And so Mallory usually gets most of the credit outside of plant circles. He’s so well known and he did see them aftera ll. But Père Jean Marie Delavay did it before, in 1886 to be exact. A French Jesuit missionary, but also an avid plant collector, he found them in the alpine woods of northwest China and sent them, pressed, to the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

But wait, I need to back up just a little bit more. Because it really all started in 1860 when the French and British secured a treaty from the Chinese allowing them to explore China and send missionaries. Delavay was entering dangerous territory. The first missionary/botanist appointed (strangely, that appears to be a popular combo at the time!), a Père David, had sent thousands of samples back but only about a third survived. He seemed to take all the adventure on the chin and he was quite excited about it…at least later when he was recording it in his diaries and back to safety. The wolves were so hungry that he had to share his tent with his donkey, he often went hungry and said the local food must be “eaten with courage.” At one point he became so ill he was given last rites. Though in comparison to fellow missionary/botanist (yes another one), Père Jean Andre, who caught between the Tibetans and the Chinese while packing up plant specimens was captured, tortured for 15 days and then shot to death…I can understand Père David’s positive attitude about a few wolves and spicy food.

If was under these sometimes shaky circumstances that Père Delavay collected his extensive plant specimen collection, working entirely alone. Though Delavay sent beautiful specimens of the blue poppy back to Paris, only a few were documented. Apparently the process was such an enormous task that they left the rest to lay around in their original boxes, unopened for forty years after the Jesuit’s death {insert joke about how serious the French are about leisure and taking their time here 😉 }. For Delavay this was quite frustrating after the trouble he had taken while collecting the plants. I mean he caught bubonic plague while gathering and one of his arms became permanently paralyzed…and still he kept going!


There was another man before George Mallory too, Frank Kingdon-Ward. He brought the blue poppy’s into people’s gardens (you’ll see most of them in Scotland where these fickle flowers have happily taken to the climate). Frank went to even more remote areas than Delavay, though he packed food and supplies with 4-6 months of rations and with those kinds of supplies you can bet that he did not work alone! He brought so many “necessities” on his expeditions that he often had to hire around 50 workers to help shoulder the load. You do need a lot of specimens to get them into people’s gardens.

When Frank found his blue poppies, he brought the seeds back to Britain and debuted them in 1926 at the Royal Horticultural Society. They say it bloomed right before the enraptured audience, who burst into applause. Soon the public were going wild for blue poppies. At next year’s show the seedlings were sold for a guinea a piece, that’s around $50USD today! It’s quite the tricky plant to grow and even pro gardeners can find it elusive so the booming demand fizzled out but you can still buy seeds to try your hand at it (though many of them are scams and dead seed, be careful!)

Frank completed about 25 expeditions in total and they were definitely worth writing home about. He was impaled on a bamboo spike, fell off a cliff, got lost countless times (sometimes without food), his tent was crushed by a tree and he was at the epicenter of a severe earthquake which he described in one of his books as seeing “the mountain forests peeled off like wet paper.”

When he wasn’t nearly killing himself his travels made him an excellent candidate for more secret activities. Mainly being a spy (while still plant collecting) for Britain in the 1930s. I couldn’t find too much about his spying days other than one arrest. Attempting to cross the border into Tibet he stumbled upon a drunken lama (that’s a high priest, not the furry animal) who told him not to enter because of the fighting between the Tibetans and the Chinese. So Frank traveled a little further downstream through rocky mountains with few paths. Not the best luck for a man with a fear of heights. Still he couldn’t find an alternate way in. Eventually, suffering from malaria and rheumatism he turned back north. His traveling companion, a “porter” (a guide/servant/translator), turned out to be an army deserter and all around pretty bad guy. He took off with some of Frank’s money, was caught, and then condemned to death by the local Chinese army. This was all at Christmas. Merry Christmas Frank :/

Things hadn’t quite hit rock bottom yet. After losing his porter, and also being arrested and serving his detention, he now had two Chinese soldiers as escorts…not the best idea whilst trekking through an area at war with China. By the time he gave up and went back to his starting point he found the whole place closed down for Chinese New Year.

It’s a stunning flower, I hope they all agree it was worth all the trouble 😉

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9