No pith helmet required

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The Himalayas, native home of many Bodnant plants

As we prepare for our plant hunters’ fair, gardener Fran Llewellyn looks back at some of the intrepid explorers whose adventures lie behind some of Bodnant Garden’s famous inhabitants – from redwoods to rhododendrons to primroses.

Bodnant Garden is hosting a plant hunters’ fair this Sunday. The Plant Heritage (North Wales Group) event will feature displays from specialist nurseries – and from our own nursery too.

But fear not, you won’t need your pith helmets. It’s a far cry from the plant hunting of old when explorers took their lives in their hands travelling to some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, facing the perils of terrain, disease, wild animals and war, all to discover and bring back new specimens to our shores.

Bodnant has a long and proud association with Britain’s famous plant hunters, but when strolling around the garden today it’s hard to imagine the dramatic tales behind the beautiful and serene landscape…

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Sequoiadendron giganteum

The house and parkland at Bodnant was bought  by Victorian industrialist Henry Pochin in 1874. It was he who had the vision to plant the great conifers on the steep valley sides. Pochin was establishing the garden in the heyday of Victorian plant hunting  – not long before, in the 1830s, Scottish botanist David Douglas had introduced the Douglas Fir into cultivation from North America and in the 1850s the Seqouiadendron giganteum was first discovered by Europeans in California. Both of these trees have pride of place as some of the earliest inhabitants of Bodnant.

But it was Henry Pochin’s daughter Laura and grandson Henry McLaren who fully developed the garden which we see today, with its formal terraces and famous plant collections – which include National Collections of rhododendrons and magnolias. The McLaren family supported plant hunting expeditions of the early 1900s; including those by Englishman Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson who travelled widely in China and the Himalayas.

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Primula pulverulenta

In all, Wilson brought back around 2,000 garden plants, more than any other collector, including an abundance of rhododendron seed. He is perhaps most remembered for the Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata), but also the silky-barked Acer griseum, the cerise primrose Primula pulverulenta, many azaleas and the lovely ivory King’s Lily (Lilium regale) – all of which can be seen at Bodnant Garden. On one of his many expeditions Wilson’s leg was crushed during an avalanche of boulders as he was carried along the trail in his sedan chair. After this he walked with what he called his ‘lily limp’.

Wilson introduced Asian magnolias too, such as Magnolia dawsoniana and M. sargentiana of which we have towering examples in the garden which are now more than 100 years old.

Another plant hunter who contributed to Bodnant’s collections was the Scot George Forrest who travelled in China, Tibet and Burma. His trips were certainly action-packed, taking him through mountains and dense jungles where he encountered a population ridden by smallpox and ravaged by war. Of the first expedition team of 15 which went to Tibet in 1905 he was the only one to survive.

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Magnolia campbellii

However he returned to Britain in 1906 with hundreds of pounds of seeds, roots, tubers and plants. Over the next two decades he was responsible for introducing about 600 species of plants, 300 of which were rhododendrons – including Rhododendron forrestii which has been used in successive decades to produce our famous Bodnant hybrids. Forrest also brought back camellias, Himalayan poppies and primulas and introduced Magnolia campbellii to Britain.

Also featured in Bodnant’s hall of fame is Manchester-born Frank Kingdon-Ward, who clocked up around 25 expeditions over a period of nearly fifty years, exploring Tibet, North Western China, Burma and India.  Among his collections were the first viable seed of Meconopsis betonicifolia (Himalayan blue poppy) and Rhododendron wardii, a yellow flowered species.

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Meconopsis betonicifolia

He survived many accidents on his expeditions including being impaled on a bamboo spike, falling off a cliff, being lost for two days with no food, having his tent crushed by a tree in a storm and escaping an earthquake. As if that wasn’t enough excitement, he also served as a spy for the British India Office.

These are just three of the plant hunters without whom the landscape of Bodnant Garden and many others, large and small, up and down the land, would look very different today. So spare a thought for these intrepid men when you stroll through our garden fair doing your own collecting this Sunday!

George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward and Ernest Wilson

The Plant Heritage (North Wales Group) fair takes place on Sunday, April 7, from 10am to 4pm, on the top lawn of the garden. Normal admission applies. For details contact the garden on 01492 650460.

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