Plant collectors

Buddhist mobs, extreme weather and tropical disease were just some of the hurdles early plant collectors faced in finding and transporting new plants back to the UK. To celebrate their endeavours, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has today opened a new exhibition at its Lindley Library in London.

Collecting in the clouds: Early 20th Century Plant Discoveries charts the trials and tribulations of the men that traversed the botanically rich interior of China to grow our horticultural knowledge and gardens.

Plant collectors
This is a herbarium specimen of Camellia × williamsii ‘Saint Ewe’.

Among the expeditions detailed are those of prolific plant collector George Forrest who toured Yunnan province six times and on one occasion narrowly escaped an army of Buddhist monks intent on capturing missionaries, as well as Frank Kingdom-Ward who, lost in the jungle, survived by sucking the nectar off flowers.

Plants bought back by Forrest and his peers, and now commonplace in UK gardens, include:

  • Rosa elegantula: This 2m high spreading shrub has pale pink or white flowers to 2.5cm across in June, followed by bright coral-red, egg-shaped fruits set against purple and crimson autumn foliage. Introduced by Reginald Farrer.
  • Magnolia campbellii mollicomata: Tree to 20m with pink to rosy-purple, waterlily-like flowers in February to March. Many cultivars known including ‘Lanarth’ and the cross (with M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’) ‘Caerhays Surpise’. Introduced by George Forrest.
  • Bully’s Primula (Primula bulleyana): Colourful whorls of soft orange flowers, red in bud, and borne on 70cm high stems in June and July. Introduced by George Forrest.
  • Glory of the Bog (Primula prolifera): 1 m high candelabra primula with 4-8 whorls of fragrant bright golden yellow flowers, c. 20 flowers per whorl.  Introduced by George Forrest as Primula helodoxa.
  • Rhododendron wardii: 1-8 m high shrub/tree with saucer-shaped, clear yellow flowers, sometimes with a crimson basal blotch, produced from May to June. This plant is known from many cultivars. Introduced by Frank Kingdon-Ward.
  • Delphinium forrestii: Features a stout raceme of flowers varying in colour from deep purple to a transparent dark blue, covered with white hairs on the outside. Introduced by George Forrest.

Many of these can be seen at RHS gardens and are documented in the herbarium – a collection of more than 80,000 preserved plants – at RHS Garden Wisley.

Sarah McDonald, Heritage Collections Manager at the Royal Horticultural Society, comments: “UK gardens are rich with blooms in every colour, size and shape and much of this we owe to plant collectors who travelled to some of the most botanically rich corners of the world to find new and novel specimens. One hundred years on from the exploits of Forrest and his peers, we’re celebrating those that traversed the often dangerous interior of China; exploring the significance of their work and the lasting impact of their contributions to our gardens.”

The exhibition opens as the RHS calls on professional and keen amateur horticulturists to embark on their own plant finding missions via its bursary scheme. Recently funded expeditions include to collect Proteaceae seeds in the Western Cape of South Africa and to identify and aid the completion of a UK collection of rare Azaleas in Japan.

Collecting in the clouds: Early 20th Century Plant Discoveries runs from Monday 20th November until Friday 2nd March and is open weekdays, 10am-5pm. The exhibition is free for RHS members and non-members. For more information about the RHS’ current and upcoming exhibitions visit www.rhs.org.uk/libraryevents and to apply for an RHS bursary visit www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/bursaries-grants.

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