Plants from the Far East
Meanwhile, the enterprising Horticultural Society became interested in Chinese plants. Although China was closed to British travellers, there was some British trade with the ports, and fortunately a certain John Reeves, tea inspector in China for the East India Company, had developed a successful technique for sending plants home in the care of the Company’s captains. These plants included paeonies, chrysanthemums, camellias and azaleas.
In 1842 a treaty opened further ports to the British, and the Society (of which Reeves, now retired from China, was an active member) decided to send out Robert Fortune of Kelloe, County Durham, as a collector.
Fortune was helped by a new invention, an airtight plant case produced by the amateur naturalist, Dr. Nathaniel Ward. The introduction of plants by seed, even in the days of sail, was not too difficult. The seeds were sealed up in containers and so protected against changes of temperature on a long voyage. But to keep plants alive at sea for weeks on end through the changing temperatures and climates was another matter. Ward’s invention much improved their chances of survival.
Fortune made several journeys, but although he was never allowed to go far inland, he ranged more widely than any previous collector. He had a flair for picking out from the wealth of Chinese plants those that would both thrive and be liked in the British Isles. To him are owed the winter-flowering jasmine, the so-called Japanese anemones, one of the first forsythias, Primus triloba, Primula japonica, and many rhododendrons, azaleas, tree paeonies and chrysanthemums. He also obtained the tea plant from China and introduced it into India.
William Lobb’s brother Thomas was a pioneer collector of orchids. In 1843 he visited parts of India, Burma, Malaya and Borneo, and orchids soon became immensely fashionable.
In the middle of the 19th century, the Bavarian Philipp von Siebold was appointed physician and naturalist to the Dutch East Indies Company, which had a trading station in Japan. Siebold had graduated as an eye specialist, and was therefore readily accepted by the Japanese, who suffered badly from eye trouble. With their help he collected and sent to Europe numerous Japanese plants, many of which are so popular in gardens today — notably camellias, azaleas and primulas.
But only the fringes of China and Japan were explored, and the plants collected were mostly those grown in gardens. It was realized that many Japanese plants had originated in China, and later, that the plants in the gardens of China itself had originated far from the coast, in the mountains of western China and Tibet, which were then unknown to Europeans. This discovery was made by Russian naturalists who approached these regions from Europe, and by French Jesuits who were allowed to open missions in these remote areas. Among the French priests were several naturalists, including Father David, who discovered countless new plants, of which he sent specimens to France. The purple buddleia, now common every-where, is named Buddleia davidii after him. Father Delavay also sent to Paris 200,000 specimens of plants, neatly pressed and labelled.
Another 19th-century collector was an Irish doctor named Augustine Henry, who, disliking doctoring, joined the Chinese Customs Service. At a remote station high up the Yangtze River he combated his boredom by collecting the local plants. From this accidental start he became one of the greatest authorities on the plants of western China. He sent his dried specimens to Kew Gardens, hundreds of which were new to Great Britain.
So it was that during the latter part of the I9th century, the museums of France, Britain and Russia were enriched by the pressed and desiccated specimens of a flora of unbelievable richness. For long no one grasped the fact that much of it could be grown in new surroundings.
One of the first to realize the possibilities of this new world of plants was Harry Veitch, a descendant of the family that had commissioned the Lobb brothers. At Kew Herbarium he saw pressed specimens of a remarkable tree discovered by Father David and sent home by Augustine Henry — the ‘handkerchief tree’, so called because of the huge, flapping, white brackets that surround its tiny flowers. Its botanical name is Davidia, after its discoverer.
Veitch decided he must have seeds and grow the plant in England. He asked the Director of Kew Gardens to recommend a collector, and Ernest Henry Wilson from Chipping Camden was selected.
After an appalling journey and a great many vicissitudes, he found a davidia and was able to collect quantities of seed.
On another trip Wilson found and sent back to England quantities of that great favourite, the regal.
Wilson made other journeys, and his additions to the gardens of the British Isles included flowering, clematis, primulas, , azaleas (which he brought from Japan) and rhododendrons. Many of these, although now al-most commonplace, are among the most beautiful of plants.
Other great collectors followed Wilson, among them Frank Kingdon-Ward, who discovered Meconopsis, the blue poppy.