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Plant hunters - the raiders of the lost parks

31st August 2017

They fought off bands of marauding bandits, pirates, pestilence and dangerous terrain in tales that would put Indiana Jones to shame!

Now Harrogate Autumn Flower Show is paying tribute to a band of brave hunters, who risked life and limb to bring us plants from around the world.

The theme for this year’s autumn show (15 – 17 September 2017) is Postcards from the Hedge, inviting visitors to travel the world in their garden by tracing the global ancestry of many of our most popular plants.

One of the intrepid explorers to feature in the show’s new exhibition is Reginald Farrer, who travelled from his home in Clapham, North Yorkshire, to Asia in search of new species. Regarded by many as the ‘father’ of the British rock garden, Farrer was renowned for his eccentricities and unorthodox approach, including a habit of using a shotgun to spread seed on rock cliffs to achieve a natural effect.

Other raiders of the lost parks include Scottish born David Douglas, who journeyed to North America in 1823 living in tents and deerskin lodges, and travelling thousands of miles on foot, on horse and by canoe. Douglas was killed in Hawaii aged 35 after falling into a pit. His lasting legacy is, of course, the Douglas Fir.

Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson was perhaps the most famous and prolific of the plant hunters. He brought back over 300 different species from China, including one of the most popular flowers of all time, Lilium regale or the regal lily.

Harrogate Show Director Nick Smith said: “With the vast array of plant varieties now available to us, it is easy to forget that most of them have roots that reach the four corners of the globe and that a small band of dedicated people risked and, in some cases, lost their lives to bring us the exotic species to brighten our flower borders.

“We should also remember that less welcome invaders found their way to the UK during this great age of discovery - 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.”

In addition to a range of travel-themed displays and exhibits throughout the show, Postcards from the Hedge includes special talks on the Plant Hunters by BBC Radio York gardening expert and former horticultural lecturer, Nigel Harrison. Lucy Cornwell, from the Non-Native Species Secretariat, will also be giving tips on how to recognise Britain’s most unwanted plants, and what you can do if you find them in your garden!

Staged at the Great Yorkshire Showground, the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show also features show garden borders, a giant vegetable competition, spectacular plant nursery displays and over 5,000 autumn blooms in Britain’s biggest exhibition by specialist gardening societies.

Tickets: Fri & Sat: £18.00 on the gate, £15.50 when purchased by Tuesday 5 September 2017. Sun: £16.50 on the gate, £14.00 in advance. Under 16s FREE when accompanied by an adult. PARKING IS FREE. Visit or call 01423 546157.

Editor’s notes:

1. Travelling through northern China in 1914, Reginald Farrer is said to have been just hours ahead of a notorious bandit army, who would almost certainly have killed him had he been discovered. He died, aged 40, on the Burmese/Chinese frontier in 1920 and is buried in Konglu.

Farrer’s books include The Garden of Asia (1904), My Rock Garden, his most influential title published in 1907, Alpines and Bog Plants (1908), In a Yorkshire Garden (1909), Among the Hills (1910), and The English Rock Garden (1919). His lasting legacy is also a spectacular display of plants from the Himalayas growing wild around Ingleborough and Clapham in North Yorkshire.