THE SCOTSMAN 13 April 2002
Today's gardeners have history's intrepid botanists to thank for the exotic plants available in the garden centre, writes Jim Gilchrist
They were driven men, not lightly deterred from their quests by pirates, hunger, disease or wild beasts. Characters from the Boy's Golden Wonder Book of Adventure Yarns? No, just some of the plant collectors whose extraordinary determination we have to thank for the floral abundance of even the humblest garden.
"Never take the herbaceous border for granted," is at least one message from David Stuart's latest book, 'The Plants That Shaped Our Gardens', in which the botanist stresses it was gardeners responding to this influx of exotica, rather than designers, who shaped the gardens of today.
"The plant collectors often had this complete obsession and were often burnt out by it," he muses sitting in the garden room of his Berwickshire cottage. He glances over his shoulder at a Meyer's lemon flourishing from a pot behind him. This ancient cultivar now grows all over the world, thanks to the detennination of Frank Meyer, the solitary Dutch-American collector who made expeditions to Asia and eventually disappeared overboard from a Yangtze riverboat, his body found by a fisherman a few days later; "In his cabin trunks," writes Stuart "Seeds were discovered that are still influencing our lives,..
The exploits of some collectors read like Hollywood scripts. Take the l8th century French collector Philibert Commerson, who was accompanied across the Pacific by his faithful valet Jean. On Tahiti, during a fracas with an amorous local chief, the valet's clothes were ripped, revealing the faithful Jean to be Jeanne Baret, Commerson's Paris housekeeper, who had disguised herself be to be with him on the voyage, and became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Commerson named a genus of plants after her though, sadly, it has never become the household word like another of his discoveries, the ubiquitous bougainvillea.
Justas extraordinary was William Dampier, notorious pirate and idustrious botaniser. He was the first European to explore much of the north-east coast of Australia and made an astonishing solo canoe voyage across 200 miles of the Indian Ocean. Some of his plant collection is preserved at Oxford University.
Scotland has produced more than its fair share of collectors, such as George Forrest, whose travels in China made an immense contribution to rock gardens, but often at great cost. He narrowly escaped, two poisoned arrows in his hat, from one Himalayan encounter that saw his companion,a lrish missionary priest, riddled with arrows and hacked to death.
Then there was Robert Fortune, born near Duns in 1812, who brought back anemones, lilies, chrysanthemums, peonies and primulas from China and japan. He had a gunfight with pirate junks and sometimes wandered in disguise making "a pretty fair Chinaman" of himself. His distinguished predecessor, David Douglas from Scone, after whom the Douglas fir is named survived attacks from native Americans and animals, only to be gored to death by a wild bull in Hawaii, after falling into the pit in which it had been trapped. "It makes the plants in your garden a bit more resonant when you know that people went through this terrible stuff just to get your tulips or your saxifrage," says Stuart.
While he has never had to dodge arrows or wild bulls, he convesses to being obsessed himself. "I can't say no. I started collecting when I was ten, in Berkshire, and by the time I was fifteen, had a greenhouse full.
As somone particularly interested in 'antique' garden plants - he used to run a nursery outside Dunbar called Plants from the Past, does he look back to a 'lost age' of gardening? "No" he promptly replies. "I think we are in it now. The potential for having a stunning garden is greater now than at any time in the past."
His main interest these days lies in "the interaction between plants and humans, of which gardening is one enormously important expression - gardening is one of the most important aspects of civilisation."
"We should be treating the planet as a garden," he adds, and in the light of widespread concern about shrinking biodiversity, he has no qualms about widespread plant hybridising. "It keeps the gene pool mixing," he says very enthusiastically. echoing the exhortation with which he ends the book. "Let plants in all their fantastical diversity pour themselves into your garden. Diversity is everything."