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Ireland team retraces botanist Hooker's trail

Darjeeling, Nov. 20: Nine naturalists from Ireland are retracing the footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker, the iconic botanist who had for the first time documented the flora in the Himalayas of the Darjeeling hills, Sikkim and Nepal in the 19th century.

The strapping 30-year-old Hooker had left England on November 11, 1847, and spent three years on the lap of the Himalayas. His contribution in identifying and preserving the world’s flora made him one of the greatest botanists of the 19th century.

Hundred-and-sixty-five years later, the Irish team is in the region to visit the same places where Hooker spent time studying and recording various plant species. The team comprising botanists and private garden and estate owners is led by Seamus O’Brien, the manager of the Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens, at Wicklow in Ireland.

“The Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens has now over 50 species of rhododendron, orchid and magnolia that Hooker had sent to the United Kingdom during his stay in Darjeeling. His friends included Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale,” said O’Brien.

Hooker had arrived in Darjeeling on April 16, 1848 and stayed with Brian Hodgson, a naturalist, at a place called Brianstone, which is currently the rectory of St Paul’s School in Darjeeling.

“It is from Brianstone that Hooker planned all his expeditions to places like Tonglu in Sandakphu and Sikkim,” said Rev. Joy Halder, the rector of St Paul’s School.

The Irish team is also staying at Brianstone and has already travelled to Tonglu after their arrival in Darjeeling on November 17.

“We will travel to Sikkim to visit Gangtok, Lachen, Lachung, Yumgthang, Thangu and other surrounding valleys,” said O’Brien.

Hooker used to write notes at Brianstone and dispatch them to the United Kingdom, along with herbarium sheets and plants seeds. He went on to write Himalayan Journals, which was published in 1854 and dedicated to Darwin. He had also undertaken voyages to Antarctica, Palestine, Morocco and United States and came up with publications after every visit.

Like their icon, the travellers from Ireland, too, plan to write a book. “Earlier, I had written a book, In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry (an Irish botanist who travelled to China) and after this travel, I am planning to write; In the Footsteps of the Great Plant Hunters,” said O’Brien.

The plant lovers are also taking pictures of places, which were sketched by Hooker during his stay in the region.