Have pith helmet, will plant hunt

downloadWe’ve dusted off the pith helmets this half term for a trail and exhibition to celebrate a famous plant hunter close to Bodnant Garden’s heart… and maybe inspire a new generation of explorers.

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Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson was a botanist at the turn of the 20th century. A passionate plantsman, he graduated from Birmingham Botanical Gardens to travel inhospitable regions of China, bringing back to Britain the seeds of exotic trees, shrubs and flowers. In the early 1900s Lord Aberconway of Bodnant was a sponsor of the expeditions by Wilson and other plant hunters, which filled our garden with thousands of ‘new’ plants.

These plants – from magnificent UK Champion Trees to lilies, clematis and poppies – now form part of our historic, horticultural collection. Many have tales to tell; Wilson having encountered avalanche, war, disease and all manner of adversity to bring them to Bodnant Garden. And so, inspired by Wilson’s spirit of adventure, we’ve recreated an expedition of our own to inspire our younger visitors (but with the Health and Safety aspects covered.)

Ernest’s Tree Treasure Trail takes families around the garden tracking some of Wilson’s discoveries – which can be found in the living form of trees and shrubs, some more then a century old, grown from seeds brought back from his travels.

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A mature Handkerchief Tree at Bodnant Garden

One of the most famous is the Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) which Wilson tracked down against the odds. This tree, with its delicate, paper-tissuey ivory flowers, had been first spotted by French botanist Armand David in 1869. His specimens were lost when his ship sank on the return journey. Tasked by Veitch Nursery in 1899 to find the tree, the 22-year-old Wilson set off armed with just a simple cross on a hand drawn map covering hundreds of square miles of the Yunnan region of China.

Find the spot he did – only to discover the tree had been felled. However he continued searching and found a grove of more, from which he collected a batch of the large, hard-shelled seeds. Back home at Veitch Nursery, gardeners sowed the seeds, but a couple of years later threw them onto a compost heap when they failed to germinate. The following year the precious seedlings popped up through the compost – and some were despached to Bodnant Garden where they have thrived.

Our tree trail takes in these and other Wilson finds, leading to the Old Mill in The Dell which has been transformed by events officer Charlie Stretton and our volunteers into an expedition base camp. Here children can see what life was like for intrepid explorers like Wilson, warm up in front of the ‘camp fire’ and collect their own Davidia seeds to take home and grow.

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The exhibition will remain in the Old Mill after half term, including pictures and stories from Wilson’s life and work. Come along and find out more about his incredible legacy which can be seen at Bodnant Garden throughout the year.

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Bodnant Garden events and engagement officer Charlie with our Handkerchief Tree seeds

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Young volunteer Gethin tending to some of Wilson’s plants

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Young visitors enjoying the base camp in the Old Mill…especially trying on the pith helmets and Wilson moustache

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For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or catch up with us on Facebook  or Twitter.

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