A few years ago I spent a month in Burma, and one of the highlights of the trip was to see the National Botanic Gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin, way up in the hills near Mandalay. It was rather strange to discover that neither the Burmese friends I’d gone with nor, indeed the staff we spoke to, seemed to know much about the history of the gardens other than the little printed on the information boards, so when I came back I decided to do some research.
I wrote that up for an article in Garden History in 2015 but in the process became very interested in one of the garden’s founders: Lady Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe.
Don’t be taken in by her title or rather grand appearance in this photo, as she was an intrepid and immensely practical woman who spent 24 years in Burma and let very little stand in the way of her love of plants and gardening.
Unless otherwise stated the images in this post come from the archive and collections of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland at Glasnevin. They are unfortunately not available on-line.
Born Charlotte Williams in Wimbledon in 1867, her father was a prominent lawyer and her mothers family had Irish connections. We know little about her upbringing except that she thought about training as a nurse, had art lessons with Frank Calderon and her nickname was Shadow. We don’t even know where she acquired her love of plants although she was to collect, paint and record them all her life.In 1897 she married a childhood friend, Otway Wheeler-Cuffe who was a civil engineer, and also the heir to an Irish baronetcy and small estate in County Kilkenny. Immediately after the wedding the couple set off for Burma, a colony which had been absorbed into Britain’s vast Indian empire in 3 stages, the last as recently as 1886.
Otway’s new appointment was at Thayetmyo, a small settlement on the Irrawaddy, Burma’s main “thoroughfare”, about 200 miles north of Rangoon [now Yangon] which had a tiny British community.
Within a few days Charlotte was writing home about how one of them, a Mr Carter who was a keen gardener, “was going to start me with plants for our little compound, which I think I shall be able to make very pretty in time.” She listed the existing trees and added “there are some very fine orchids on the trees, brought in from the jungle by a former inhabitant.” Orchids were to prove a new and on-going interest for her. In a sign of her growing attachment to the country she also began to learn Burman.
Otway’s work in the Public Works Department gave him responsibility for the official buildings, bridges and roads over a wide district.
This involved regular tours of inspection which was referred to by Charlotte as “jungling”, and from the earliest days she accompanied Otway, partly to see the country and its flora and partly help unofficially in his work.
Having noted that “Most people in Thayetmyo go in for trying to grow home flowers, but they don’t really do well” she decided to fill her own garden with indigenous plants. She sent accounts home of how she “sallied forth along the road with a slice of pointed bamboo for a trowel and tried to dig up some ferns, but found they wanted a more substantial weapon.”
Otway often sent labourers to help her and she usually came back with an array of interesting plants for her garden. One haul was described by Otway [who was clearly not a botanist] as “a lot of climbing ferns, a lovely big thing with a flower like an orchid, something like a lily, and something like Solomon’s Seal in growth”. There was also “a Gloriosa” which he recognised from one he had seen growing in a conservatory in Britain but which here “was growing by the roadside.” Her entire household staff, of around a dozen would then come out and help pot up or plant her finds into the garden.
But she didn’t just collect plants for herself. She also sent them back to family at home and to Sir Frederick Moore, a family friend who just happened to be in charge at Glasnevin, the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland. Later she began sending material to Kew as well.
They were accompanied by regular letters which recorded her activities in considerable detail, many of these along with a large collection of her paintings survive in the archive at Glasnevin where they lay pretty much forgotten until her biographer Charles Nelson began to research her life. Without them Charlotte would be almost unknown, since she hardly figures in the official record.
That’s not surprising really given that unlike most plant hunters she was not supported by a commercial nursery, a horticultural organisation, wealthy individual patrons or a government. She did not even set out to collect and classify plants for profit, nor to impress an audience – that’s something that just happened incidentally. Nor did she have any intention of publishing any account of her travels or activities, or prepare for the lecture circuit. Instead unconstrained by high status, she was free enough to follow her own interests and did exactly that.
Indian Civil Service systems ensured they were never long in one spot, and Otway was moved to Toungoo in 1901. Once again she began to create a garden and fill it with local plants.
More “jungling” followed, including one particularly arduous expedition. Writing home in December that year from “at the back of beyond” she described having gone on a 30 mile trek over steep jungle covered-hills “tree ferns, palms, wild plantains & every sort of tropical tree and plant you can think of – in fact one of the Kew hothouses spread up and down precipices with torrents in the gorges.”
The upside was that it yielded plenty of orchids to paint, which was useful as she had taken 40lbs of painting materials and equipment.
They returned to the UK on leave in 1902 and she sent a series of orchid paintings to Kew for identification. This led to her being asked to provide herbarium specimens.
On their return to Burma they were moved again this time to Mandalay the former royal capital. Otway carried out an inspection tour en route there, while she, as usual, looked for plants. She wrote of the “loveliest creamy yellow dog roses and white rhododendrons all over the hills and huge trees of bauhinia…and a lovely scarlet tree whose name I don’t know & any amount of orchids so I am in my glory… this morning I got 4 new orchids on one tree, 3 more on another and 3 more on a knob of limestone rock so have been painting hard all day.”
Letters home tell the story of how seriously she took her collecting. Otway writing home on one occasion that “Shadow is hard at work collecting all sorts of specimens of trees and plants up in these hills for the Forest Dept & every evening on arrival in camp we have to sort out, docket and press the specimens, a big job I can tell you!”
At each of the postings it’s clear that Charlotte made gardens, and usually attracting comments from longer term residents who “had never thought anything like it was possible in Meiktila”. Mind you Meiktila was the place where she succumbed to recreating an “English” garden [or perhaps had inherited it]
“It really is pretty. The borders from the gate are a sheet of pale mauve and white petunias, with a hedge of sunflowers and dark coleus at the back. Another border is full of balsams and zinnias with dark leaved coleus and lemon coloured cannas at the back. The little lawn is edged with tuberoses and very pretty violas…. leading to a small formal garden with beds of verbena surrounded a paved place to sit out when the grass is wet.”
It was in 1911 the plant hunting adventures really started and she discovered Mount Victoria [ now Nat Ma Taung]. She was invited by Winifred McNabb, the wife of the local district commissioner to spend part of the hot season up in Kampetlet, a small military outpost in the Chin Hills in the far west of the country. She responded in typical unconventional fashion: “I’d sooner go there than to a ‘civilised’ place” by which she meant the hill stations where the Europeans usually retreated.
Mount Victoria is over 3000m high and even now a plant persons paradise. Although it had been mapped in 1885 after the British conquest it was otherwise unexplored by Europeans. Charlotte is the first person known to have studied the flora there.
The two women spent a month exploring the region. They were not of course unaccompanied, because a local male official accompanied them, although he seems to have played little part in deciding what to do. They had lots of Burmese and Chin servants, and they travelled in some comfort ie they had tents, pack horses and ponies, but it was “rougher” than most people would have tolerated. She wrote: ” the freedom and unconventionality of it suits me down to the ground.”
The climb to the summit was arduous, and the ponies abandoned at about 6000 ft. The women declined the offer of being carried in a makeshift sedan chair and completed the ascent on foot. Her letters home carry detailed descriptions of the changing vegetation – bracken, fern, primulas, blue gentian and the occasional pine tree gave way to prickly wild roses more ferns and “gnarled tree rhododendrons” their blossom “shone like great rubies against the sunshine”. One stood sentinel on the very summit.
On the way at between 7000 and 8000 feet up they passed what she later called their “chief find”…
It was she wrote ” a sweet scented snow white rhododendron which grows like an orchid on other trees, never on the ground. I have got a lot of plants of it and will try to send some home. It does not seem to grow naturally below 7000 ft so it should be practically hardy.. I think it should grow in moss and a little peat but no real earth. I don’t think it is the same as any I have seen at home. Anyway it is very beautiful.”
This unusual plant was later named by Kew after her and it appeared in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1917.
They also found a scented yellow rhododendron which she did not recognise.
Following their descent she noted they were “weary but triumphant and laden with spoils.” These included seeds of gentians, ranunculus and primulas, and living plants of several orchids as well rhododendrons. There must have been substantial numbers since they were sent to friends in Rangoon as well as London, Ireland and the two botanic gardens.
Later that year Charlotte met George Forrest the well-known plant hunter and showed him some of her finds. He did not recognise the yellow rhododendron either and believed it to be a new species. And so it proved to be, being later named Rhododendron burmanicum, although it did not become very widely known until it was reintroduced by Frank Kingdon Ward in the 1950s. It has since become a useful parent plant in breeding both scented and yellow rhododendrons.
The two women returned to the mountain in 1912 and afterwards she sent back more specimens of new plants to Glasnevin and Kew, together with paintings and descriptions of their habitat. These included Anemone obtusiloba, which grew prolifically on the mountain and which was nicknamed “Shadow’s buttercup”. It appeared in Curtis in 1915.
There was also Ione flavescens, [now Sunipia flavescens] a small orchid,[ although unfortunately I can’t find an image] and this orchid which arrived at Kew via Moore at Glasnevin described as :”A rather fine Coelogyne sent me by Mrs Wheeler Cuffe.”
A letter she wrote in 1923 explains a little more about her later discovery of several new lily species: ‘ In November 1915 I was travelling with my husband…in the Southern Shan States and finding some dried stalks and seed pods of a lily (growing on the edge of a wood and facing north, on limestone, at an elevation of somewhere about 5,000 ft) dug them up and brought them back to Maymyo… There they flowered the following summer.” That autumn she sent some to Glasnevin and “Sir Frederick wrote to me the next year saying that the lilies were Lilium lowii, which had been in cultivation in Europe but lost for many years, as its habitat was not known…
This lily and Lilium sulphureum often grow naturally together, in open woodland in the Shan hills; and in damper places a yellow and brown one, which I believe to be Lilium nepalensis. I have watercolour drawings of both these…Other lilies I have found in Burma are: a beautiful pure white one, growth like sulphureum but quite different bulb ( small and white, whereas sulphureum is large and purplish).This white lily grows in the extreme north-east of Burma, on the China frontier at about 6,000 feet and further up the passes ( about 11,000 ft) there is a lovely spotted pink and white lily which was, I think, first found by Miss Malet, who was up at the frontier post of Hpimaw with her brother.”
Then in an interesting aside about the way in which plants are named and which shows no resentment or even disappointment: “she sent it to me at Maymyo and I had it blossoming there a year at least before Mr Farrer found it ; but I believe it has been named Nomocharis farreri).
Despite all this, like all good Empire wives she was self-deprecating: “I am unfortunately very ignorant about botany although I love plants.” But it should come as no surprise to discover that well-known plant hunters including George Forrest, Reginald Farrar and Frank Kingdon Ward followed in her steps to the sites where she collected, or that she was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society in 1922.
Charlotte was a modest woman, and as her biographer says “did not seek immortality.” She was, he thinks “a little bemused at first by the attention her Mount Victoria plants received” but there’s no doubt that she came into little more of the limelight during the First World War and I’ll write about that in another post soon.
If you want to know more about Charlotte Cuffe the best place to start is a beautifully produced and illustrated book by Charles Nelson who worked at Glasnevin and drew extensively on its archive and collection. Shadow among Splendours: the adventures of Lady Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe among the flowers of Burma 1897–1921 was published by the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland in 2014.
And if you’re interested in knowing more about her place in the history of botanical knowledge then she’s the central character in Nuala Johnson’s article “On the Colonial Frontier: gender, exploration and plant-hunting on Mount Victoria in early 20thc Burma” in The Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Feb 2017