Meet Raiders of the Lost Parks
Plant hunters fought off bandits, pirates and pestilence à la Indiana Jones to bring gardeners prized specimens back from the four corners of the earth.
Harrogate Autumn Flower Show is paying tribute to the intrepid hunters, as the theme for this year’s autumn show (September 15-17) is Postcards from the Hedge, inviting visitors to trace the ancestry of our most popular plants.
One of the explorers in the show’s new exhibition is Reginald Farrer, who travelled from his home in Clapham, North Yorkshire, to Asia in search of new species.
Regarded by many as the ‘father’ of the British rock garden, Farrer was renowned for his eccentricities, including using a shotgun to spread seed on rock cliffs to achieve a natural effect.
Travelling through northern China in 1914, Farrer is said to have been just hours ahead of a bandit army, who would almost certainly have killed him had he been discovered. He died, aged 40, on the Myanmar/Chinese frontier in 1920.
His books include The Garden of Asia (1904), My Rock Garden (1907), Alpines and Bog Plants (1908), In a Yorkshire Garden (1909), Among the Hills (1910), and The English Rock Garden (1919).
His lasting legacy is a range of Himalayan plants now naturalised and growing wild around Ingleborough and Clapham in North Yorkshire.
Plant hunters’ legacy
There’s also Scot David Douglas, who journeyed to North America in 1823 and travelled thousands of miles on foot, on horseback and by canoe. Douglas was killed in Hawaii aged 35 after falling into a pit. His lasting legacy is the Douglas Fir.
Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson was the most famous and prolific of the plant hunters, bringing back more than 300 species from China, including Lilium regale or the regal lily.
Harrogate show director Nick Smith said: “With the vast array of plant varieties now available to us, it is easy to forget that most of them have roots that reach the four corners of the globe and that a small band of dedicated people risked and, in some cases, lost their lives to bring us the exotic species to brighten our flower borders.
Alien plant invasion
“We should also remember that less welcome invaders found their way to the UK during this great age of discovery – giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam and Rhododendron ponticum were all brought to our shores for ornamental use, but are now regarded as serious threats to the British countryside.”
As well as travel-themed displays and exhibits, Postcards from the Hedge includes talks on the Plant Hunters by BBC Radio York gardening expert Nigel Harrison.
Lucy Cornwell, from the Non-Native Species Secretariat, will also be giving tips on how to recognise Britain’s most unwanted plants, and what you can do if you find them in your garden.