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  • Richard Barnes

plants from the ends of the earth

With the marvels of the internet, we had Richard Barnes talking to us in February on Zoom from his attic in Northumberland to about 30 members of TGC. Richard is a Landscape Architect and Garden Designer and has travelled extensively taking photos of plants and landscapes.

He opened with the Regal Lilly, known for its scent and now common in all flower shops and gardens. It was first discovered in 1903 by Ernest Wilson in the Ming Valley. After several failed attempts to bring it back to the UK that nearly cost him his life, he eventually brought back 7000 bulbs and the rest is history.

Another plant explorer, John Travis brought back Foxglove and Euphorbia from Siberia in the 17th Century. Today we tend to grow them in too rich soil as they survive best in poor rocky outcrops. Moving on to the Alps we were treated to displays of Gentian and Potentilla and then Central Europe where Hellebore are native around the Balkans. The Hellebore quickly self-seed and become muddy in flower, so best bought in flower to see them at their purest.

Unknown to most of us, the birthplace of the Apple was Kazakhstan, and its origins date back 4000 years. Via the Silk Path they found their way to Rome where through hybridizing and cuttings the Romans developed the varieties we know today. Then from Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan where Tulips originated, he described the 17th Century trading frenzy caused by the scarcity of the tulip bulb in Europe. Fortunes were lost in the paper money created around tulip trading like the South Sea Bubble.

One of the most extravagant plant hunters was Sir Joseph Banks who in the 18th Century paid £10,000 for an expedition with Cpt Cook on HMS Endeavour for a 3-year trip which cost the lives of 42 crew. But on returning he had the ear of the King who gave him land at Kew for his exhibits, which we now know as Kew Gardens.

Moving on to America, another explorer called David Douglas in 1825 trekked over 10,000 miles on horseback often in very dangerous conditions to bring back over 200 new plant species including the Aster and Rudbeckia hirta.

The difficulty in the early days was sending plants back by sea, most died, and the only way was to collect seeds. Then in 1830 Kingdom Ward invented a sealed container which revolutionised travel from the Far East. Rhododendron, Meconopsis and Lilies were all then able to be brought back from the Himalayas and Tibet.

Nowadays we are very lucky we can grow plants from the 4 corners of the earth, but the early plant explorers risked their lives and spent fortunes to bring back new species.

Simon Edgington


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