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Postcards from the hedge

We are sending plant postcards from across the globe this year as we invite you to travel the world in your garden.

A new exhibition tracing the ancestry of many of our most popular plants forms the centre piece for this year’s autumn theme, Postcards from the Hedge. 

With the vast array of varieties now available in the UK, it’s easy to forget that the roots of many plants stretch to the four corners of the planet, brought to our shores by intrepid plant hunters who risked life and limb to discover the delicate and the dramatic.

Find out how camellias came all the way from China, which adventurer discovered our favourite beverage, and imagine what life would be like if a certain Henry Wickham had not travelled to Brazil and collected seeds from Hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree!

Like most of mankind’s marvellous achievements, there has been a downside to the plant revolution. Less welcome invaders, once revered as exotic additions to our boring English borders, have found their way on to the UK’s list of most unwanted baddies. Giant Hogweed, Japanese knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and Rhododendron ponticum were all brought to our shores for ornamental use, but are now regarded as serious threats to the British countryside.

Raiders of the Lost Parks 

In true Hollywood style, generations of fearless plant hunters have fought off bands of marauding bandits, pirates, pestilence, dangerous terrain and unfriendly locals in tales that would put Indiana Jones to shame! 

Reginald Farrer travelled from his native North Yorkshire to Asia in search of new species. Regarded by many as the ‘father’ of the British rock garden, Farrer favoured naturalistic planting, using a shotgun to spread seed on rock cliffs and achieve the desired effect.  He died on the Burmese/Chinese frontier in 1920 aged just 40.

Scottish born David Douglas travelled to North America in 1823. For two years he lived in tents, deerskin lodges and Thuja bark huts travelling thousands of miles on foot, on horse and by canoe. His lasting legacy is, of course, the Douglas Fir, but he is also credited with discovering lupin, penstemon and the California poppy.

One of the most famous and prolific plant hunters was Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson who gathered the seed of hundreds of new species and discovered one of the most popular flowers of all time, Lilium regale or regal lily. 

Find out more in the Plant Nursery Pavilion. BBC Radio York's Nigel Harrison will also be giving special talks on the plant hunters each day at 12 noon in the Dig It Garden Theatre.

Pictured above: Our very own Ben Wray sets the scene for tales of daring deeds as he relives the work of shotgun gardener and plant hunter Reginald Farrer at Plumpton Rocks, near Harrogate.

Pictured right: Reginald Farrer in Chinese costume during one of his many expeditions courtesy of the Farrer Family Collection c/o Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Archives