The Great Plant Hunters

The History Behind Our Unique Plant Collections

We owe our garden to the great plant hunters of the 19th century, who undertook hazardous and hostile treks through uncharted territory.

The History Behind Our Unique Plant Collections

We owe our garden to the great plant hunters of the 19th century, who undertook hazardous and hostile treks through uncharted territory. Col Stephenson R Clarke himself was an adventurer at heart, who embarked on several gruelling safaris and plant-hunting trips in America, Africa and India. He understood more than most the importance of his fellow plant-hunters expeditions and between 1893 and 1937 he sponsored many others 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 where they still thrive today. This investment benefitted not just collectors like Col Stephenson R Clarke, but the gardening public, whose interest was, and still is, stimulated by the unique range of flora and fauna.

The Garden has since continued to be planted with passion by five generations of the Stephenson Clarke family.

Ernest Wilson

Collected from 1899-1921

Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson, better known as E. H. Wilson, was a British plant collector and explorer who introduced around 2000 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, found in the X Garden 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 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.

The Growers Project. Image: Julie Skelton

George Forrest

Collected from 1904-1932

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.

Forrest’s four expeditions to China and Burma between 1917-1932 were incredibly dramatic and in regular correspondence with Col Stephenson R Clarke he wrote about warlords who murdered other plant-hunting missionaries, forcing him to go on the run for eight days. One letter said, “I have noticed several species of meconopsis, all of them surpassingly lovely, miles of rhododendrons and acres of primulas. These mountains have, rightly in my opinion, been called the flower garden of the world but I shall carry the marks of what I have come through till the day of my death. I am utterly changed.”

Despite this, Forrest was meticulous: he ensured all seeds and specimens were correctly dried, labelled and packaged for sending and as a result, and thanks to Stephie contributing around £20,000 (in today’s money), Borde Hill is now home to hundreds of species he 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, it did not open its delicate creamy blooms until 2011, since when it has flowered four times.

Plants: Rhododendrons, Rhus & Picea collected from China & Tibet.

Frank Kingdon-Ward

Collected from 1912-1956

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 Col Stephenson R Clarke sponsored was a Cotoneaster conspicua and many varieties of rhododendrons, including wardii, imperator, leucaspis, auritum and pemakoense.

In a nod to the man himself, in 2012 we planted the Rosa Frank Kingdon Ward, a hybrid of R. gigantea bred in India in 2012. You can find this prickly, vigorous climber growing against the wall by the yew topiary.

Plants: Rhododendron, Primula, Lily, Gentian & Meconopsis from China, Tibet & Burma.

The Growers Project. Image: Julie Skelton

Reginald Farrer

Collected from 1914-1920

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 – not just by the rich who could afford expensive greenhouses and personal gardeners. 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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