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Praise be the exotic travellers.

Byline: By Ron McParlin

The number of native plant species in the British Isles is relatively small compared with most other countries. For example, we have only three native conifers - Scots pine, common juniper and the English yew.

However, we do have a vast collection of `exotics'. Gardeners in Britain (and also Europe) owe a great deal to the extensive travelling and often hazardous journeys and explorations of the plant hunters and collectors of the past 250 years.

Scotsman Francis Masson was apprenticed at Kew Gardens and at the age of 31 was selected as the first Royal Collector. He travelled to the Cape in South Africa on the Endeavour in 1772 on what was the first wholly botanical expedition with Government sponsorship.

Masson collected many plants, including zantedeschia aethiopica - a genus now popular with many home gardeners who use it to help create an exotic summer look. He also collected gardenia stellata, Cape heaths, lachenalia and nerine samiensis.

Later, in Canada, he found comparatively few new plants. A notable exception was trillium grandiflorum, which are ideal plants for shady places, especially when sited under deciduous trees.

Born in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, in 1754, Archibald Menzies was an apprentice at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh at 14 before moving to Menzies Castle. In 1778 he went on a plant collecting trip to the Highlands but opted to take up medicine and qualified at Edinburgh in 1781. A year later he joined the royal Navy as an assistant surgeon.

Sir Joseph Banks at Kew commissioned Menzies as a naturalist on a naval expedition sent to collect furs from North America. Menzies collected rosa nutkana and rubus nutkanus as well as chamaecyparis nootkatensis. The latter is a wonderful tree although it is not grown much in its own right. However, it undoubtedly has fame because it is one of the parents of the infamous leylandii.

His most important voyage was on Captain George Vancouver's global trip in the Discovery from 1791-95. They travelled to the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii and then to the West Coast of America. On the return journey they stopped at Valparaiso in Chile and went inland to Santiago. While dining there with the Spanish Viceroy, Menzies noticed some nuts that he did not recognise on the table and popped a few into his pocket. Several germinated on the journey home and led to the introduction of the monkey puzzle tree into Europe. However, it was actually not widely grown on the large private estates of that day until it was re-introduced by William Lobb in 1844.

David Douglas was one of the greatest of the plant hunters and explorers of the Pacific North-West of North America. Yet he remains unknown - other than by the tree named after him, the Douglas fir.

He was born in 1799 in Scone, Scotland, and at 11 he was apprenticed to the gardens on the Scone Estate. Eventually moving to Glasgow's Botanic Gardens he came under the influence of the Professor of Botany, Sir William Hooker. On Hooker's recommendation, the Royal Horticultural Society appointed him to search for plant species in Washington, Oregon and California. His drive and determination led to the introduction of more than 200 plants. His tree introductions include the sitka spruce, the noble fir, grand fir, lodgepole pine and, as mentioned, the Douglas fir.

However, it is not just the introduction of conifers for which Douglas is accorded recognition. In gardens today you will find his trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, annuals, alpines and bulbs. Some of his introductions, such as lupins and erigeron, have produced a host of cultivars. In fact, it is possible to select a range of Douglas introductions that will provide colour and interest all-year round. For instance, at this time of year few plants can better the cheerful brightness and style of winter flowering mahonia cultivars. Near the mouth of the Columbia River he came across the flowering currant (ribes sanquineum). We take it for granted now but when it was introduced it caused quite a stir because there were few early spring-flowering shrubs around at that time.

George Forrest was born in Falkirk in 1873. He trained in pharmacy and worked in Australia for 10 years before joining the staff at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. He was recommended to AK Bulley, an English businessman with horticultural interests, who offered to finance an expedition to China. Bulley was developing his garden at Ness in the Wirral and establishing the company Bees Seeds.

In 1904 Forrest arrived in Yunnan Province - an area so rewarding that he enjoyed many of his 28 plant collecting years there. His introductions include pieris formosa var forrestii, gentiano sino-ornata, acer forrestii, iris forrestii, cardiocrinum gigantium and camellia salvenensis.

Plant collectors needed to have many skills - and Francis Kingdom-Ward had them all. He was obsessively meticulous, packing seed with tremendous care to send back home. With an overwhelming passion for plants, he had the ability to write well about them. His 25 books and hundreds of articles are very informative and with a sense of drama that made his readers want to grow the plants whose stories he often wove into marvellous tales of adventure. Francis Kingdom-Ward's plant discoveries stride from marvel to marvel - rhododendrons like R. wardii and R. macabeanum, gentian species, cotoneaster, blue poppies and lilies.

* Ron McParlin is a member of the Garden Writers Guild, he lectures throughout the country. He may be emailed at or tel 07808 536 701.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 6, 2003
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