Small Talk

New Film on Hawai‘i Explorer- Botanist Joseph Rock

April 26th, 2013

New Film on Hawai‘i Explorer- Botanist Joseph Rock (1884-1962): A Founder in Island Natural History and Yunnan China Culture Studies

‘Ahahui Mälama I Ka Lökahi, Sierra Club's Oahu Group and University of Hawaii - Windward will screen a recent 52-minute film on the life of Joseph Rock, the "Father of Hawaiian botany", who went on to become internationally recognized for his explorations in China. The free film showing of A King in China: The Life of Joseph Francis Rock will be introduced by several heirs of the Pohaku legacy on Friday, April 26, at 6:00 p.m. inWindward Community College Akoakoa 103. These will include Sam 'Ohukani'ōhi'a Gon & Steven Lee Montgomery. Producer Paul Harris of "People and Places" will send a message from Europe.

The 2013 showing coincides with the 100th anniversary of a foundational book on Hawaiian plant life, Rock’s 1913 The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands, republished by National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) in 1974. A largely self-taught scholar and explorer, Rock has many Hawaiian species named for him, including endemic lobelias and asters. His other books covered sandalwoods, ornamentals and leguminous trees, plus complete reviews of loulu palms, öhi’a lehua, lobeliads and tree cottons.

In the 1920s, Rock traveled to Southeast Asia for the U.S.Department of Agriculture to collect plants used in treating Hansen’s disease. He is most known for expeditions led for the National Geographic Society and Harvard in Chinese and Tibetan border regions, documenting Natural History, then culture and language of the Naxi people in Yunnan province. He continued work in Asia into the 1950, and then back to Hawai‘i, where he died in 1962.

National Tropical Botanical Garden Director Chipper Wichman says, “The story of Rock’s explorations in China is so fantastic it is hard to comprehend in the context of our modern society. Everyone in Hawaii should know that this internationally celebrated explorer got his start right here in the Islands, where he taught himself not only botany but also photography.” This earned him much space in National Geographic Magazine.

An early enthusiastic backer was former Governor George R. Carter, who shared a desire “to give the public a volume on the native trees of Hawaii, giving popular as well as technical descriptions of the trees peculiar to Hawaiian soil.” It gives details of all the floral regions embracing the whole plant covering. Rock essentially adopted the earth’s most distinctive flora, and shined such a revealing and reverent light upon an archipelago so isolated from all continents that his works became durable foundations and inspirations. He advised the Marks family on building a superb Botanical Library, now in use at Kauai's NTBG.

Partnerships are expanding to tell his story to share his scholarly and ecological ethics to benefit Hawaii's environment. To celebrate "The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands" (issued June 26, 1913) the first of Rock's six books, a symposium, expanded film, book and photo exhibition are planned on this classic explorer- plant hunter, who arrived in Honolulu in 1905. He became Territorial Botanist, worked in Burma, lived 27 years in western China collecting plants, birds, photographs and filming for USDA, National Geographic Society, and Harvard University's Arboretum.

Paul Harris will film an extension of his documentary, "A King in China,” with new material on Hawaii's indigenous forests. A Harris book is planned about the Austrian-American botanist and ethnologist, with 250 photographs and writings from National Geographic and diaries from formative years in Vienna and Hawaii, to life in China, closing with pioneering work on the beautiful pictographic script of the Naxi people.

For information on the co-host institutions, visit websites

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