The plant hunters

Our gardens are not just a piece of land used for growing flowers or vegetables; they are a genuine reflection of our cultural history.

Arguably our taste for the exotic was first ignited by the Romans when they arrived on (invaded) our shores in AD 43. Like many soldiers they brought with them the comforts of home. It was after tasting the rare delights of plums, walnuts, roses and parsley, to name just a few, that the British bought into the pioneering spirit and began searching the planet for plants that can be put to good use back home.

Global expeditions are of course an expensive business. With the rise of British fortunes during the reign of Elizabeth I finances became available.

To defend against the threat of a Spanish invasion Sir Francis Drake was sent to the Pacific coast of the Americas. In between terrorizing and hijacking ships of the Spanish fleet, he found time to return to England with the potato and tobacco.

So economically important were theses two plants that they subsequently fuelled the rise of the British Empire.

Fifty years later and the pumpkin, pineapple, runner beans, sweet corn, and the tomato (considered to be a highly suspicious crop at them time) had been introduced to England. Furthermore, over 100 newly discovered North American species of tree were being grown in the grand estates of Great Britain.

The problem is that searching the globe for economically viable plants can come with considerable risk!

Mutiny on the Bounty - 1789

Perhaps the notorious botanical mission was Captain Bligh's ill-fated voyage aboard HMS Bounty in 1787. In order to win a premium offered by the Royal Society he sailed to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit trees. These were to be collected as viable potted specimens and taken to the Caribbean where they were needed for food research.

However the HMS Bounty never reached the Caribbean as the infamous mutiny broke out on board shortly after the ship left Tahiti.

Plant hunting continued throughout the centuries but it became an obsession during the reign of Queen Victoria. If it wasn't for those early Victorian plant hunters many of the plants that we see in our gardens today may never have been discovered.

David Douglas 1799 – 1834

David Douglas was a Scottish botanist who made three separate trips from England to North America, although the second expedition starting in 1824 was his most successful.

The Royal Horticultural Society sent him back on a plant-hunting expedition in the Pacific Northwest and this ranks among the great botanical explorations of a heroic generation. In the Spring of 1826 David Douglas was compelled to climb a peak near Athabasca Pass to take in the view and in so doing he became the first mountaineer in North America.

His success was well beyond society's expectations.  He introduced over 240 species of plants to Britain but most famously the Douglas-fir in 1827. Other notable introductions include Sitka Spruce, Sugar Pine, Western White Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Monterey Pine, Grand Fir, Noble Fir and several other conifers that transformed the British landscape and timber industry. In addition he discovered numerous garden shrubs and herbs such as the Ribes sanguineum, Salal, Lupin, Penstemon and California poppy. Douglas paid for his discoveries with his life at the age of 35. He was killed under suspicious circumstances in Hawaii after 'falling' into a pit dug to trap wild bullocks.

Robert Fortune 1812 – 1880

Robert Fortune was a Scottish botanist, plant hunter and traveller who introduced many new and exotic flowers and plants to Europe.

He was employed in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and later in the Horticultural Society of London's garden at Chiswick.

Following the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, Fortune was sent out by the Horticultural Society to collect plants in China.

His most famous accomplishment was the introduction of tea plants from politically volatile China to British-controlled Assam in 1848. As a result of his mission success, the British gained a large, highly profitable industry and they were able to manufacture tea throughout the world.

He stayed in China for about two and a half years, from 1848 to 1851, often disguised as a Chinese merchant during his journeys.

Not only was Fortune's purchase of tea plants forbidden by the Chinese government of the time, but his travels were also beyond the allowable day's journey from the European treaty ports.

Fortune travelled to some areas of China that had seldom been visited by Europeans, including remote areas of Fujian, Guangdong, and Jiangsu provinces.

Ernest "Chinese" Wilson 1876 – 1930

Ernest "Chinese" Wilson introduced a large range of about 2000 of Asian plant species to the West. Some sixty species still bear his name, and over 100 have received the First-Class Certificate or Awards of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society of London.

He discovered the majority of his new species growing in the Min Valley in southwest China. in 1903 and 1908.

In 1910 he again returned to the Min valley, but this time his leg was crushed during an avalanche of boulders as he was carried along the trail in his sedan chair. The injury left him with a limp for the rest of his life.

In recognition of his service to horticulture he received many awards such as the Victoria Medal of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society of London in 1912, the Veitch Memorial Medal, and the George Robert White Memorial Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Reginald Farrer 1880 – 1920

Reginald Farrer was a traveller and plant collector. He travelled to Asia in search of a variety of plants, many of which he brought back to England and planted near his home village of Clapham, North Yorkshire.

He liked to paint plants in situ, and often perched on a mountain ledge. Some of his watercolours show a village in the distance or a waterfall; partly to give some idea of the plant's favoured habitat and partly, one suspects, to record the emotional moment of discovery. He also published a number of books, although is best known for 'My Rock Garden'.

Unfortunately Farrer was a prickly, arrogant character who was cast off by his own family after he converted to Buddhism in 1907. He also had a great sense of his own worth.

Despite his character faults he was perhaps the bravest of all the plant hunters. Travelling through northern China with William Purdom in 1914, the party was knowingly travelling just a few days ahead of a notorious bandit army. Six years later, Farrer died there at the age of 40, supposedly of diphtheria (though some said it was alcohol poisoning).

George Forrest 1873–1932

The greatest collector of all was arguably George Forrest, the foremost collector of Yunnan flora. He amassed hundreds of species of rhododendron and other shrubs and perennials. He brought back approximately 31,000 plant specimens and the name forrestii still adorns more than thirty plant genus.

In 1924 Forrest also discovered Camellia saluenensis, which formed the basis of the hardy Williams hybrid camellias which we grow in gardens all over the UK. He died of a heart attack in Yunnan in 1932 after a plant hunting career that included fighting off xenophobic Tibetan "lamas" and succumbing to malaria.

What motivated the plant hunters was not personal gain, as very few became rich. They were not even motivated by fame as their names are only really familiar to keen gardeners through the plants they bequeathed to us. Their driving force was a passion for their subject and a spirit of adventure. It is easy to see when we look round at our great gardens that we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

For related articles click onto the following links:
Camellia japonica 'Desire'

No comments: