Joseph Rock

Lived Life to the Fullest

Today is the birthday of the renowned Austrian-American botanist and explorer Joseph Rock.
Joseph was born in Austria but ended up immigrating to the United States and eventually settled in Hawaii, where he was beloved. Joseph became Hawaii's first official botanist. He started teaching as a professor of Botany at the University of Hawaii in 1911. he also served as a botanist for the Hawaiian territorial Board of agriculture. He served in these capacities during his first 13 years in Hawaii and then got about the business of exploring China, which was his primary passion. He left Honolulu in 1920. He always said that he considered China to be his “real” home,

“Where life is not governed by the ticking of the clock but by the movement of celestial bodies.”

Joseph spent much of his adult life - more than 20 years - in southwestern China. There were many instances where he was the first explorer to enter many of the locations he visited. Joseph became so embedded in the country that there were many times that his counterparts in other parts of the world thought that he might have died in the Tibetan or Yunnan ("YOU-nan") mountains.  After World War II, Joseph had to be evacuated by plane from the Yunnan province.
Joseph recounted many hair-raising stories from his time in China. One time he had collected plants along the base of Mount Gongga ("Gan-GAH") in China's Tibetan Borderland. Mount Gongga is known as "The King of Sichuan ("SITCH-ooh- an") Mountains. One spring, Joseph had great luck collecting around the base of Mount Gongga. When he returned in the fall, Joseph asked the tribal King for permission to go as far as the foot of the peak. Halfway up Mount Gongga, a runner caught up to Joseph and his guides with a letter from the King. Apparently, after their first collecting trip, a severe hail storm had destroyed the fields of the tribe that lived near the mountain range. The tribe blamed the catastrophe on Joseph Rock and his party. They believed that the deity of the mountains was not pleased; the tribe considered the mountains to be sacred. If Joseph and his party were to continue up the mountain, they would certainly be killed. The King requested that Joseph abort the trip - which he did.
In addition to plants, Joseph had a knack for languages. He cataloged and transcribed Chinese manuscripts and actually wrote a dictionary of one of the tribal languages. He had an enormous intellect and was multi-talented. In addition to being a botanist, he was a linguist. He was also regarded as a world-expert cartographer, ornithologist, and anthropologist.
From a gardening standpoint, it was Joseph Rock who first introduced blight-resistant Chestnut trees to America. He had sourced them in China, and he also brought us more than 700 species of rhododendron. Some of his original rhododendron seeds were successfully grown in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. How could we ever thank him enough for that?
In the year before Joseph died, he was granted an honorary doctor of Science degree from the University of Hawaii. He died at the age of 79.

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Joseph Rock
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