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Plant hunters


by James Alexander-Sinclair

...there's something about plants that makes people bubble and froth with excitement. This can be lost on a great deal of the population who can't understand what all the fuss is about...


Roy LancasterOne of the most important traits in any gardener's character is enthusiasm. I am sure that there are other occupations/activities that foster similar outpourings in their adherents. Football (for example), food (undoubtedly), trainspotting (perhaps) and cat wrangling (definitely) have their enthusiasts, but there's something about plants that makes people bubble and froth with excitement. This can be lost on a great deal of the population who can't understand what all the fuss is about. To those of us who are gardeners (and, unless you have got very lost somewhere in the world wide web, I include anybody reading this) it seems perfectly reasonable.

I mention this after listening to the sainted Roy Lancaster who is capable of making even the tiniest, leafless Himalayan weed sound as entrancing as drifting through a Venetian lagoon, while fireworks light the sky and nubile attendants serve rare delicacies from their navels. Roy is an outstanding writer (he just won Journalist of the Year at the 2008 Garden Media Guild Awards) but above all he is an enthusiast.

He follows in the footsteps of not only recent figures (the late Geoff Hamilton springs to mind) but of many of the great plant hunters. Have you ever grown Viburnum farreri? You should: it is about 3m high and has gloriously scented tubular white flowers in Autumn, lush Autumn colour and bright red berries. Or Gentiana farreri, a trailing evergreen delight with flowers like sky blue fanfares? These are just two of the plants that Reginald Farrer brought back from China.

He strode, tirelessly, all over the Far East sending back rhododendrons and many other plants; a lot of which, sadly, didn't make it into our gardens. Like all those stalwart fellows he endured more than his fair share of discomfort: ticks "the size of young crabs", snakes and disease. Eventually he died of, perhaps, diptheria on a rain-soaked hillside. His servant carefully packed up all his stuff, including boots, but threw away all the seeds and specimens that he had painstakingly collected.

He may not have been the world's most successful plant hunter (especially compared to his contemporaries E.H.Wilson or George Forrest) but he was an enthusiast. As evidence I quote his description of an Omphalogramma: "...the colour is superb, being really less of a violet blue than of a real sapphire, or very dark cornflower ... like the stars of blue velvet midnight."



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Gardeners' World Web User 25/11/2008 at 19:43

Yes i agree with you james plants make my cup runneth over! The feeling i get as i walk out into my garden rain or shine is one of wonder.I know what you mean about cat wrangling!!!!!!!!!

Gardeners' World Web User 26/11/2008 at 12:45

Please could someone advise me. I have two tall silver pots that I am looking to place at either side on the entrance to my Gazebo. Can anyone suggest suitable plants to put in them?? The pots will be on top of gravel more north faceing but will be open to elements from the east and west too. MAny thanks in advance

Gardeners' World Web User 27/11/2008 at 21:07

Hey James, I hunted down DAHLIA merckii earlier this year. I love it, but dont know how to keep it through winter. It is still in a little pot in my coldframe, should I cut back the foliage and dry it like your conventional DAHLIA? I understand it to be hardy, but I am scared of losing it. Please help.

Gardeners' World Web User 02/12/2008 at 18:13

Can anyone advise me on a short variety of cosmos to grow from seed say eighteen to twenty four inches tall

Gardeners' World Web User 10/12/2008 at 16:25

I go all weak kneed when I am about to dig up my first potatoes, i run into the house shouting"look at these" when I get the first handful up, its something only gardeners understand

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