Our Plant Archive
A remarkable archive of over 75,000 records
The History Behind Our
Unique Plant Collection
Our nationally important collection of plants, trees and shrubs originates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Great Plant Hunters undertook hazardous and hostile expeditions through uncharted territory to collect unique specimens from all four corners of the world. Col. Stephenson R Clarke, who purchased Borde Hill in 1893 and sponsored the Great Plant Hunters, was himself an adventurer who embarked on several gruelling plant-hunting trips in America, Africa and India. He understood the importance of his fellow plant-hunters’ expeditions and between 1893 and 1937, he sponsored many in their pursuit of shrubs and trees from across the world.
Plants poured into the Garden at Borde Hill for more than 40 years from all corners of the world and original specimens still thrive today. The Garden has since continued to be planted with passion by five generations of the Stephenson Clarke family.
Collected for Borde Hill between 1899 and 1921
Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson, better known as E. H. Wilson, was a British plant collector and explorer who introduced around 2,000 Asian plant species to the West. He began collecting for Borde Hill in the early 1900s and undertook many perilous missions to China, returning with acers, camellias, magnolias, michelias, oaks and rhododendrons.
One plant, the Lilium regale was originally discovered by Ernest during a trip to China in 1910. During his search, he broke his leg and was left for the rest of his life with what he called his ‘lily limp’.
In 1927, Ernest wrote to Col. Stephenson R Clarke to congratulate him on being the first gardener in Europe to flower the Liriodendron chinense he had collected.
Every May at Borde Hill the deciduous tree Meliosma beaniana (now M. alba), flowers with beautiful creamy panicles. It’s one of only three trees in the UK and was introduced to the Garden by Ernest along with the ‘Goddess Magnolia’ which soars above the entrance to the Old Rhododendron Garden, the Fagus engleriana – a rare Engler beech with unusual sea-green foliage – and the larger of our two Emmenopterys henryi trees.
Plants: Picea, Pinus, Acer, Lindera & Chamaecyparis from China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India and Africa. Also the Handkerchief Tree – Davidia involucrata.
Collected for Borde Hill between 1904 and 1932
George Forrest was a legendary Scottish plant collector whose career spanned the decades before and after the First World War. He became one of the first western explorers of China’s then remote southwestern province of Yunnan, thought to be the most biodiverse province in China.
During Forrest’s four expeditions to China and Burma between 1917-1932 , he was meticulous: ensuring all seeds and specimens were correctly dried, labelled and packaged for sending and as a result, Borde Hill is now home to hundreds of species which Forrest collected. These include Decaisnea fargesii, Rhododendron maddenii subsp. Crassum, Magnolia campbellii and one of our Emmenopterys henryi, planted in 1928 from seed collected by Forrest in southern China. A slow developer, the henryi did not open its delicate creamy blooms until 2011 but has since flowered four times.
Plants: Rhododendrons, Rhus & Picea collected from China & Tibet.
Collected for Borde Hill between 1912 and 1956
Francis Kingdon-Ward OBE was an English botanist, explorer, plant collector and author of 19 books. Over the course of 50 years he undertook around 25 expeditions to Tibet, north western China, Myanmar and Assam in north eastern India.
During the 1930s, Kingdon-Ward travelled almost annually to Burma and Tibet and was rumoured to be a British government spy as well as a plant hunter.
Among hundreds of introductions from the expeditions that Col. Stephenson R Clarke sponsored, was a Cotoneaster conspicua and many varieties of rhododendrons, including wardii, imperator, leucaspis, auritum and pemakoense.
In 2016, we planted the Rosa Frank Kingdon-Ward, a hybrid of R. gigantea bred in India, to honour this great plant hunter. You can find this prickly, vigorous climber growing against the wall by the yew topiary in the Rose Garden.
Plants: Rhododendron, Primula, Lily, Gentian & Meconopsis from China, Tibet & Burma.
Collected for Borde Hill between 1914 and 1920
Reginald John Farrer was a traveller and plant collector. By the tender age of 10 he was a well-qualified field botanist and by age 14 he made his first rock garden in an abandoned quarry. This, along with his extensive travels to Asia, provided the inspiration for his most well known book, My Rock Quarry, a hugely influential book that was kept continuously in print for more than 40 years.
Farrer brought back plants from Asia that could be grown in a naturalistic style. In the words of Farrer’s biographer, Nicola Shulman, “He brought rock-gardening into the hearts of the British people. During a particularly ambitious expedition to Qinghai Tibet and the Province of Kansu in north west China he found numerous hardy specimens that today enrich millions of British gardens.”
For these early twentieth-century collectors, hearing from their sponsors was a lifeline, as Reginald told Col. Stephenson R Clarke in a letter from Upper Burma in 1919: “I was delighted today to find your letter waiting for me on my way down country.” He also mentions a magnolia species, one of his final sendings to Borde Hill: “I am sure you will spare no pains or methods known to science: could you also, from time to time, keep me advised as to your results with them as nothing so revives a collector’s heart.”
Plants: Dwarf rhododendrons, Jasmin & Viburnum from China & Burma.
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Our Garden & Grounds
Set within 383 acres of heritage listed Parkland, our formal Garden captivates and delights visitors with a series of intimate 'Garden rooms'. Beyond the formal Garden you can explore Woodland walks, the South Park and our lakes with outstanding views across the Sussex High Weald.
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