Augustine Henry

By Nicole Tarnowsky

Mar 26 2019

Augustine Henry was one of the first and most prolific western botanists to collect in Central China, in the 1880's. Henry was from Ireland, trained as a doctor and then recruited to become a member of the Imperial Customs Service in China. While at his post in China for 18 years, he spent his weekends collecting plants, discovering new species everywhere he went. He sent his collections to Kew Garden in London. These shipments included seeds and bulbs to be cultivated and sold to gardeners, as well as these herbarium specimens to be studied by scientists. Of the over 15,000 collections that Henry made, 37 genera and 1726 species and varieties were brand new to western science.

Two popular species cultivated today, both discovered by Augustine Henry in China, are Lilium henryi Baker, a beautiful Tiger Lily named for Henry, and Begonia cathayana Hemsl. See the specimens below for the original collections of each.

Henry sent the director of Kew, J. D. Hooker, "a lot of seeds: and he gave them to the girl gardeners to grow: and these dears succeeded in raising 45 kinds (already) including 6 species of Begonia" (Nelson, 1980).

A. Henry wrote:

"The difficulty is in selecting. I like plants with beautiful foliage and neat little flowers. I don’t care for colour much. I think chrysanthemums are positively ugly on account of their wretched leaves. The Rose is an exception: it is wonderfully beautiful in every way. As for Geraniums, I really can’t understand any one liking them. Ferns of all kinds please me" (Nelson, 1980).

A Closer Look


Nelson, E. C. (1980). Augustine Henry and the Exploration of the Chinese Flora. This paper was read at a meeting held in University College, Dublin, in November 1980, marking the 50th anniversary of Augustine Henry’s death. Available at: (Accessed 26 March 2019).

O'Brien, S. (2011). In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry and his Chinese plant collectors. Woodbridge, England: Garden Art Press.