Flowers of Asia

Whether the Garden of Eden was a reality or just a myth, the fact remains that Asia has given to the world its most delicious fruits and many of its finest flowers. The ancient trade routes from China to India and Persia, Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean countries formed a line of communication right across the huge continent. Along this route seeds, plants and information on their culture gradually spread to the west, although it is now so long ago that nobody can prove it. We do know, however, that the apricot and the peach were originally grown in China, that the grape is almost certainly of Asiatic origin, and that apples, pears and plums were first cultivated there. The citrus fruits too are natives of south-east Asia, and the banana came from the islands between Asia and Australia.

The Asian countries west of India are mainly dry and rather barren areas, apart from the river valleys, but it is from here that many fine and colourful garden plants have been obtained. Wild tulips, fritillaries and anemones decorate the brown hills in spring, and Cyclamen persicum, the parent of the large-flowered greenhouse varieties, was collected here. The flaming oriental poppy is a native of Turkey and Iran, and so are a great many irises. These include the marvellously veined Onocyclus irises, whose beauty intrigued even the mighty Egyptian Pharaohs 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Lilies, roses and almond trees were grown in Persian gardens many centuries before there were any proper gardens in Europe at all, and cultivated magnolia trees in China were already old and gnarled in the days of the Roman Empire.

The southern mountain ranges of the Himalayas are a treasure house of fine plants, but it was not really until the beginning of this century that plant hunters from the west were able to explore the area thoroughly. One of the most noted was George Forrest who made several expeditions before he died in the mountains. He was later followed by Frank Kingdon-Ward, who concentrated his attention on the mountains on the borders of Yunnan, China and Tibet.

The rhododendrons of these mountain ranges are extremely numerous and variable. They may be giants like the rose-pink R. giganteum, reaching 80 feet in height, or tiny creeping shrubs like the red R. repens and the curious R. forrestii, whose crimson bell-shaped flowers cling like ivy to the rocks. Many of the evergreen azaleas came from Japan, and the little Azalea simsii, which is the parent of the modern greenhouse azaleas, has been grown in Europe since early in the nineteenth century. The strongly scented yellow Azalea pontica is now known as Rhododendron luteum and came to western Europe from the Caucasus in 1793. Rhododendron ponticum came from the same area but had already arrived some twenty years earlier. It was thought at first that rhododendrons and azaleas were botanically distinct, but they are now all classified together as members of the genus Rhododendron. Innumerable garden forms and hybrids have been raised, using both Asiatic and American species as parents.

The high mountain slopes have yielded many fine plants including the autumn flowering gentian, Gentiana sino-omata, whose intense rich blue rivals that of the Alpine G. acaulis. In the moist valleys and well-watered meadows grow many different primulas of coppery yellow, orange and white or with tiers of reddish-purple flowers. George Forrest brought many of these plants to Europe. He also discovered the dainty Primula malacoides in Yunnan, and was responsible for re-discovering the exotic-looking but perfectly hardy Incarvillea delavayi This has large, rose-pink flowers, and had been lost to cultivation after it was first sent to France by Abbe Delavay. Several other French missionaries in China were also interested in plants and made many new discoveries. The butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii is named after Abbe David, and Pere Giraldi was the first to find the pretty pink bush, Kolkwitzia amabilis, which is known in the USA as the beauty bush.

The Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg was the first to notice cultivated Japanese forms of Hydrangea macrophylla in the late 1870s. These became the parents of our present-day mob-cap and lace-cap hydrangeas, and other species were later found in China and Korea. The sweet-scented jasmine came originally from northern India and Persia. Its rich perfume was much appreciated and it reached Europe as early as the sixteenth century. The Persian lilac arrived about a hundred years later. The wisteria came from-Japan in 1830, and in 1850 Robert Fortune found in China the large-flowered Clematis lanuginosa, which became the ancestor of many fine garden forms.

The Japanese countryside was at one time full of lilies, but once they became known in the west a commercial demand was created, and so many bulbs were dug up for sale that very few wild lilies now remain there. The most famous of the Japanese lilies is the golden-rayed lily, Lilium auratum, which has huge brown-spotted white flowers streaked with gold. Another of their treasures is Lilium speciosum, which is spotted and flushed with crimson and has a powerful scent. The tiger lily has been cultivated in China, Japan and Korea since ancient times, not so much for its flowers as for the bulbs, which are edible. The regal lily, Lilium regale, is one of the world’s top flowers but was not introduced to western gardeners until 1910, when the American plant hunter, E. H. Wilson, came upon it growing in great abundance in the Min valley, on the borders of China and Tibet. Several thousand bulbs were sent to America, and it is from this one consignment that all the regal lilies now in cultivation are descended.

The giant lily, Cardiocrirnum giganteum, came from Yunnan. It grows over ten feet tall and has narrow trumpet-shaped white flowers a foot long. Nearly all the Hosta species are Japanese, and so are the excellent, trouble-free day lilies (Hemerocallis). The bergenias or bear’s ears which make good ground cover arrived from central Asia. There are probably many interesting flowers still remaining undiscovered in remote parts of Mongolia.

The tropical regions of south-east Asia are of quite a different character. Here are the steamy green rain forests whose trees carry their flowers high up out of sight. One of the most remarkable of these, Amsherstia nobilis, is a native of south Burma, and has crimson and yellow flowers. Cassia fistula, often called the Indian laburnum, grows wild in the jungle, while another lovely deciduous tree with pink flowers, ‘the queen of flowers’, Laegerstroemia speciosa is found more often in open country.

South-east Asia is the home of many fine orchids, of the curious insect-trapping nepenthes, or the climbing hoyas with their waxy, scented flowers, and the beautiful blue climbing Thunbergia grandiflora. The ginger family, which includes about ninety different species, comes from here and so does the genus Rafflesia. These curious plants have no leaves at all and produce only strange fleshy flowers. The most famous is Rafflesia arnoldii from Sumatra, whose enormous red and cream-blotched flowers measure 100 cm across and sit flat on the ground.


Anemone coronaria

Family Ranunculaceae

This lovely plant, with three-inch flowers in scarlet, blue or purple, is a native of the Middle East. In the Sermon on the Mount the lilies of the field were mentioned as being more gorgeously arrayed than ‘Solomon in all his glory’. In fact they were probably these anemones, which make such a wonderful show in spring. Legend has it that they first arrived in Europe as corms in the ballast of ships returning to Pisa after taking the Crusaders to the Holy Land. They have certainly been long in cultivation and are the ancestors of the modern St Brigid and De Caen anemones.

Sacred lotus

Nelumbo nucifera

Family Nelumbonaceae

The pink-flowered lotus is as often associated with the Nile that it has come to be regarded by many as an Egyptian flower, but its real homeland is India and the Far East. It was probably introduced to Egypt sometime in the sixth century BC. It is esteemed as the sacred flower of Buddha, and at the same time it is also a plant of considerable economic importance. It is cultivated for food and both the seeds, leaves and rhizomes are prepared and eaten in various ways. Even the stamens are used for flavouring tea.

Epiphytic orchid

Phalaenopsis amabilis

Family Orchidaceae

Although it is not brightly coloured, this beautiful gold and white orchid has all the style and elegance that one associates with these splendid flowers. Like most of the large orchids it is an epiphyte, growing in nature on the rough bark of jungle trees, where its roots manage to find enough nourishment through symbiosis with certain fungi. The orchid Family is a very large one, with something like 18,000 different species found all over the world, and new ones are still being discovered. They are very much sought after as greenhouse plants and innumerable hybrids and cultivars have been raised.

Indian Balsam

Impatience glandulifera

Family Balsaminaceae

This stately annual from the Himalayas is a water-side plant, which grows very rapidly to a height of five feet or so and flowers in late summer. Like all the balsams it has stems which are so full of water that they are more or less translucent, and as well as producing plenty of nectar in its flowers, it also carries nectar glands on the leaf stalks. This plant was introduced to England in 1839 and now can be found along streams and river banks all over the country. When ripe, the seeds jump out of the pods, scattering in all directions, they are carried by the water downstream and so the flower is spread from place to place.

Blue corydalis

Corydalis cashmeriana

Family Fumariaceae

This delightful plant belongs to the same Family as the bleeding heart, and has a similar delicate air. It hails from Kashmir and needs a cool situation and moist, peaty soil. Even when given these conditions it does not always thrive and is generally considered rather difficult to grow. There are a number of corydalis species, all of them with finely cut, soft foliage. One of the yellow-flowered forms. Corydalis lutea, is naturalized in England and prefers to grow in crevices in shady walls. It flowers almost perpetually throughout the summer.

Blue poppy

Meconopsis grandis

Family Papaveraceae

When Frank Kingdon Ward discovered the blue poppies in the Himalayas and introduced them to England in 1924, they aroused immediate interest and admiration. The only European Meconopsis is the yellow Welsh poppy and these Asiatic species are much more exciting. They are mainly blue in colour, but also in some cases pale yellow or purple. Unfortunately they tend to be monocarpic, which means that they flower only once and then die, so new plants have to be raised from seed or offsets. The intensity of the blue colouring-depends on the soil and climate and they will not grow in chalk.

Fox-tail lily

Eremurus robustus

Family Liliaceae

These imposing plants carry their thick trusses of bloom on stalks up to twelve feet tall, and are found right across central Asia from Turkey to western China. The greatest concentration however is in Afghanistan and in the mountain areas in the south of the Soviet Union. There are about fifty separate species, with pink, white or yellow flowers and they often grow in large groups on the arid, stony slopes where grazing flocks of sheep and goats have eaten most of the other herbage. They are related to the asphodels of southern Europe and have similar strap-shaped leaves.

Mucuna bennetti

Family Leguminosae

A great many colourful creepers grow in south-east Asia and this example from New Guinea is one of the most brilliant. The genus Mucuna includes over a hundred different kinds, found both in the Old and the New World. Another very beautiful species is Mucuna atropurpurea, a native of Ceylon and India. It carries trusses of fine violet-purple flowers, and the large seed pods which follow are covered in short red hairs which later drop off. It is unwise to handle the pods while they are young and furry because the hairs are poisonous and can cause severe skin irritation.

Wild rose

Rosa macrophylla

Family Rosaceae

Asia is the home of a great number of wild roses and many of them have contributed to the breeding of present-day garden varieties. Rosa macrophylla is at home in northern India, Kashmir, the Himalayas and western China. It is a strong grower, reaching ten feet in height. The stems are reddish in colour and the bottle-shaped hips are bright scarlet and rather bristly. It was introduced to English gardens at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was given an Award of Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1897.


Hibiscus rosa – sinensis

Family Malvaceae

The red hibiscus is now the national flower of Malaysia although it originated in China and is commonly grown in tropical countries all over the world. Many different varieties have been raised, some of them with enormous flowers, and the colours vary through many shades of pink, red and yellow. They are always characterized by a long stamen tube with numerous yellow stamens and red stigmas at the tip. The only kind of hibiscus hardy in England is Hibiscus syriacus, a shrub with much smaller flowers than the Chinese species. The tropical hibiscus can be successfully cultivated as a pot plant in greenhouses.

Rhododendron cinnabarinum

Family Ericaceae

The rhododendrons, in all their variety, are undoubtedly the most striking members of this family. The great majority are natives of Asia, especially the Himalayan region, but they are also found in China and Burma. A few species are natives of North America. One of the most distinctive types is the Cinnabarinum, which is indigenous to the state of Sikkim. These rhododendrons are characterized by their abundant narrow, tubular flowers which are often tinged with yellow or orange. The rounded evergreen leaves are of an unusually attractive blue-green colour.


Euphorbia wallichii

Family Euphorbiaceae

The herbaceous spurges which have become very highly regarded as garden plants in Britain since the 1950s, occur in many different forms throughout Europe and Asia. The flowers are insignificant but surrounded by coloured bracts, usually more or less yellow or occasionally orange. Spurges cannot be called conventionally beautiful, but they have an arresting architectural quality which sets them apart from other garden plants. Some are evergreen, like the creeping Euphorbia myrsinites and the large Euphorbia charachias with its enormous green flower trusses, while others die down to ground level in winter. Euphorbia wallichii is a native of Kashmir.

17. October 2013 by admin
Categories: Featured, Flower Garden | Tags: , , | 7 comments

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