Comment: When fieldwork pains bring genuine gains

An expedition into the Himalayas is an enormous logistical exercise. Picture: Contributed
An expedition into the Himalayas is an enormous logistical exercise. Picture: Contributed
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Knowledge can grow and flower with research says Colin Pendry

Trudging up a muddy hillside in Nepal, sweating into my waterproofs, gasping in the thin air and maintaining a sharp lookout for leeches, I sometimes wonder why, in my sixth decade, I am still doing fieldwork instead of staying in my cosy office at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). However, botanists need to collect plants when they are in flower and in the Himalayas their brief season coincides with the monsoon. As a result,, we spend weeks trekking through the wettest time of the year, camping in sodden fields and only intermittently glimpsing the magnificent mountain views when they emerge from the clouds. It is a bit like spending weeks on an extended Scottish camping holiday.

An expedition into the Himalayas is an enormous logistical exercise. Self-sufficiency is essential so, as well as camping gear and food, we need to bring equipment to dry specimens and a generator to power computers, charge cameras and provide light to work in the evenings. A team of 50 porters is not unusual. Working in remote areas, sometimes at altitudes over 5,000m and often in quite severe weather, is not without risk, so a satellite phone and an insurance policy which includes helicopter evacuation are essential. Fortunately, despite one or two close scrapes, I have never had to take such extreme measures.

The Flora of Nepal project, which RBGE co-ordinates, not only uses specimens from our fieldwork but also the collections of plants already held in the herbaria in Edinburgh and our partner organisations in Nepal and Japan. Much more than simply a list of what grows in a region, a Flora is a full account of its plant diversity containing keys and descriptions to identify species identification, distribution of plants, ethnobotanical uses and their rarity – or otherwise. A good Flora is a fundamental tool: if you don’t know what you have, then how can you conserve it? In the digital age this important online resource is constantly updated with the data and images we collect.

It is no accident RBGE is co-ordinating this project – the earliest plant collections from Nepal date back to the early nineteenth century when the Edinburgh-trained surgeont Francis Buchanan-Hamilton spent a year collecting in the Kathmandu valley from 1802 to 1803.

Even today, large parts of the country have scarcely been visited by botanists. These poorly known areas need to be reached to improve knowledge of what grows there. Along the way we discover species not previously found in Nepal and others that are new to science. While a completely new species is usually confirmed only after considerable research back in the herbarium, on fieldwork last year I had the thrill of learning that a Clematis I had just spotted during fieldwork was just that, thanks to my PhD student Alan Elliott, who is revising this genus for Nepal and immediately recognised it as unlike any other.

So, the work goes on. While our herbarium already contains tens of thousands of specimens from Nepal, our fieldwork will never really be finished as so many specimens are needed to properly describe each of its 7,000 species. Take a look at the variation in the appearances of people around you – how many examples would be required to adequately describe Homo sapiens?

Actually there is much to compensate for these miserable trudges in the rain. For one thing, it is only by getting out to these places that we properly understand them and the plants that grow there. On another level, fieldwork can be addictive because of the sheer intensity of the experience: a lot of living is done in a very short space of time, with every day bringing new sights and sounds. Ultimately, though, it is probably the human interaction that makes it most worthwhile. The camaraderie that comes from sharing such experiences in the interests of a common cause is unbeatable, particularly with the addition of a well-earned malt whisky at the end of the day.

• Dr Colin Pendry is a Flora of Nepal floristic researcher at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh