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“The Great Gardens reaped huge benefits from plant hunting expeditions, notably in the profusion of richly coloured rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas and magnolias that are so central to their beauty.”


Photo: Nymans


Photo: Borde Hill


Primula pulverulenta and the much sought-after Davidia involurata or handkerchief tree. Kingdon-Ward brought primulas, poppies, cotoneaster and rhododendrons, including Rhododendron wardii. At Leonardslee its beautiful lemon-yellow blooms are considered “the finest yellow flowers in the genus”.


The hunters paid a heavy price. Douglas died a gruesome death when, due to extremely weakened eyesight, he fell into an animal trap already containing an angry bull. Forrest wrote on an expedition in 1904: “I am heartily sick of China and everything Chinese, but will have to stick to my guns.” Forrest was only 59 when he died. Kingdon-Ward recorded suffering from malaria and the unwelcome attention of leeches. On his 1903 expedition Wilson wrote amusingly of waking at 2am to find his blanket missing and “…pulling it over me again I disturbed


four half-drowned chickens whom my thoughtless men had tied to a post alongside my bed. These chickens, resenting the loss of the blanket, tried to follow it and succeeded in nearly blinding me with mud.” Yet Wilson shows the other side of the coin, writing that such hardships “…count for nothing, since I have lived in Nature’s boundless halls and drank deeply of her pleasures….where does the hardship figure when the reward is such?” It was fortunate for the Sussex owners that the plant hunters showed such spirit as the great gardens reaped huge benefits from their expeditions, notably in the profusion of richly coloured rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas and magnolias that are so central to their beauty. No wonder they supported their expeditions. In 1917 George Forrest’s 4th expedition was supported by Colonel Stephenson (Stephy) Clarke and Gerald Loder. Colonel Giles Loder subscribed to his 1924 expedition and Colonel Stephenson Clarke, Gerald Loder and


Leonard Messel contributed to his seventh expedition in 1930. Nymans did very well from seeds brought back by Forrest and Kingdon-Ward and their ‘own’ plant hunter, Harold Coomber, son of the talented and knowledgeable head gardener, James Coomber. The plant hunting tradition of the gardens has continued into the present day. Tony Schilling, who ran Wakehurst Place for Kew, from 1967-91, was a leading plant hunter in the Himalayas and Anne Boscawen and her husband at High Beeches have made expeditions to Nepal and Bhutan.


Commercial nurseries also supported the plant hunters, helping the dissemination of their material throughout the British Isles. Foremost of these was James Veitch and Co. which introduced an extraordinary 1,281 new plants into cultivation before it closed in 1914. At that point Colonel Giles Loder bought two lorry loads of plants for The High Beeches. Colonel ‘Stephy’ at Borde Hill bought plants from the Hillier nursery at


SUSSEX LIVING October 2011


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