Myanmar Mystery Solved

By Lance E. Jones, Kate E. Armstrong

Jan 6 2020

Working in a Herbarium sometimes requires detective work.  This Myanmar mystery started when an odd set of specimens were found while digitizing historical collections in the NYBG herbarium, as part of a project to document the flora of Myanmar. Collected in Burma in 1935 by “Vernay and Cutting”, the specimens were an enigma with no other information. A thorough inspection uncovered that a few of the specimens bore field collection tags, revealing them to have been collected by someone with the initials F.W.  With these clues, we began investigating.

It became clear that “Vernay and Cutting” were Arthur Vernay and Charles Cutting, two wealthy benefactors of the American Museum of Natural History who led expeditions for the acquisition of anthropological specimens. However, Vernay and Cutting were not known to have collected botanical specimens. The initials F.W. belonged to none other than the British plant hunter Francis Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958). Celebrated for his expeditions to Burma, China, Tibet and India, he is credited with the introduction of many plants to western gardens. However, Kingdon-Ward was not known to have collected plants in Burma during 1935. Was this perhaps a short or unpublicized expedition? The exact location and date the specimens were collected was not known. The trail grew cold.

The specimens sat for two years awaiting the discovery of their true identity. A chance encounter with an expert in early Asian botanical collections, Seamus O’Brien, gave us the additional clues we needed.  Kindly sharing with us the data from all of Kingdon-Ward’s expeditions, a quick comparison could be made. It became clear that the specimens were not collected in 1935, but during an expedition that took place in 1938-1939, which was later detailed in Kingdon-Ward’s travelogue “Burma’s Icy Mountains.”

Another set of specimens from that trip already exist at NYBG with proper collection data, and a detailed account of the expedition was published in 1941 by Kingdon-Ward and Elmer Merrill in NYBG’s journal Brittonia. Merrill states in this article that while NYBG and Harvard have specimens, an additional set of the same specimens will eventually be sent to other herbaria. Our mystery specimens appeared to be this set—never sent. The specimens have now been given updated labels with the complete data, and after consultation, it was agreed that they could be sent to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), where a large number of historical specimens from Myanmar currently reside.

Although 80 years late, the adage “better late than never,” certainly applies to this case. These additions to the RBGE herbarium will allow scientists from all over the world to study the flora of Myanmar and the changing environment of Southeast Asia.

A Closer Look


Merrill, E.D. (1941).  The Upper Burma plants collected by Captain F. Kingdon Ward on the Vernay-Cutting Expedition 1938-39. Brittonia Vol. 4, No. 1, pp 20-188.

Kingdon-Ward, F. (1949). Burma's icy mountains. London: Jonathan Cape.