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Early plant-hunters and their exotic findings


A large percentage of the plants in British gardens originate from far-flung places, discovered by intrepid explorers who risked life and limb to obtain rare and unknown botanical specimens.

Take the beautiful early spring-flowering camellia, such a staple in gardens all over the UK. It most common variety, the Williams hybrid, derives directly from Camellia saluenensis, which was brought back to the UK in 1918 by plant-hunter George Forrest. Forrest was also the greatest collector of rhododendrons, particularly the bright red specimens which were rare at the time. From the 1920s these formed the basis for hybridisation programmes conducted at gardens such as Bodnant Garden in Wales.

These beautiful plants were often brought back at a price. Forrest himself was caught up in the bloody Tibetan Revolution of 1905 and was nearly killed while conducting his horticultural searches. On yet another occasion he contracted malaria.

Another plant-hunter who contributed specimens to Bodnant was Ernest Wilson. His travels to China furnished the garden with exotic magnolias and rhododendrons, as well as the famous Lilium regale which was the cause of his ‘Lily Limp’ (he was injured by an avalanche during the expedition that led to the flower’s discovery).

Wilson spent over two years in the Hubei Province of China and his daring spirit led him to remote mountain valleys in search of new plants. When he came back to England in April 1902 he returned with 305 new seed species, as well as 35 sealed containers (known as Wardian cases), packed with bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers. Among his discoveries was the Acer griseum (paper bark maple), today one of the most stunning plants at Dyffryn Gardens, also in Wales. Dyffryn was inherited in 1910 by Reginald Cory, a leading figure in the Royal Horticultural Society, who sponsored several plant-hunting expeditions around the world. The trees in Dyffryn’s arboretum come from original trips commissioned by Reginald.

Nymans in West Sussex features rare plants which were brought back from expeditions to South America conducted by Harold Comber. Harold introduced several rare Argentinian and Chilean plants, such as the Discaria discolor and the Asteranthera ovata, into the UK. A particular highlight at Nymans is the Chilean border, which contains a Luma apiculata (Chilean myrtle) originating from a seed collected by Comber.

Killerton in Devon contains trees from every continent bar Antarctica. With the help of Thomas Acland, 10th Baronet, the talented gardener and landscape designer John Veitch was able to start his own nursery business which he eventually handed over to his son James when he retired in 1913. James developed the business to become one of the largest and most prestigious nurseries in England, sending plant-hunters across the globe to bring specimens back home. Killerton contains some of the first Sequoiadendron giganteum (giant redwoods) to be planted in Britain (they were brought back from California in 1853).

In an effort to continue this tradition for growing rare and exotic plants the National Trust, in partnership with the Royal Botanical Garden of Edinburgh, has collected seeds from endangered cedar trees found in the forests of Lebanon and planted them at Killerton. The spirit of adventure which led early plant-hunters to travel to the remotest areas remains very much alive today.

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