Our expert visits an exhibition that shows how indebted we are to the Victorian plant hunters
The Garden Museum's beautifully curated new exhibition, The Plant Seekers, is an absorbing introduction to the lives and achievements of these intrepid men, and increasingly in modern times, some equally fearless and determined women. The stories are wonderful, and sometimes unexpected: the cherry specialist, Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981), for example, on a visit to a private garden in Sussex in 1923, was enchanted by a moribund white-flowering cherry tree. He was unable to identify the tree, but took some cuttings, which he raised in his own Kent garden.
Two years later, Ingram was visiting Japan when he was shown an old botanical illustration. This, he was told, was the Tai Haku cherry, which had since died out. Recognising the white flowers, Ingram informed his host that it was 'growing, at this very moment, in my garden in England'. Thanks to Cherry Ingram, the Tai Haku cherry was reintroduced to Japan and made commercially available in Britain.
The exhibition has been organised in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society, and most of the material, including previously unseen artefacts, is from the RHS Lindley Library, augmented by items from the Garden Museum's own collection. The exhibition sets the visitor on a beguiling path through a wealth of material, exploring the journeys made by plant collectors working with and for the RHS over the last 200 years. We see the plant seekers preparing for their trips, read in their journals of the perils they encounter, follow their journey home and discover how the plants they collected and the knowledge gained contributed to medicine and science, as well as the glory of the British garden.
The RHS first sponsored a planthunting expedition in 1821 and directly sponsored people until 1861. Preparation was arduous: documentation needed to be in place, equipment assembled, and regulations issued. Two copies of the collector's journal were expected by the RHS on their return: a 'rough' copy and a 'fair' one. Some of these journals, often in exquisite copperplate hands, provide graphic accounts of triumphs and hardships in the field – leeches, illness, kidnapping.
Many plant seekers were accomplished artists and produced meticulous drawings of specimens. Striking examples in the exhibition include Galanthus nivalis maximus by EA Bowles (1865-1954), a passionate collector of snowdrops. Also on show is his 1911-12 notebook, recording an expedition with Reginald Farrer to the Austrian Alps, where he deplored the 'cow-bitten pastures'. Reginald Farrer, a flamboyant writer and plant collector, travelled extensively in Asia, sending specimens to botanic gardens and for cultivation in his nursery. Gentiana farreri was one of 200 plants collected on a trip to Tibet and China.
Getting plants home was fraught, involving elaborate packing, suitable boxes – there is a fi ne one in the exhibition – and sealed greenhouses, such as the Wardian case. Many specimens failed to thrive in Britain, while others, thanks to the specialist nurseries and seed merchants, were resounding horticultural and commercial successes.
Catalogues, photographs from the Garden Museum collection showing proud garden owners posing among the exotics, a recreated lecture by Reginald Farrer, from his 1915 slides of the people, plants and landscape of China, and a short fi lm in which contemporary plant seekers talk of the thrill – and perils, still – of the chase, complete this exhilarating exhibition.
The Plant Seekers runs until 21 October 2012 at The Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1. Open Sunday to Friday, 10.30am to 5pm (closed the first Monday of the month), Saturday, 10.30am to 4pm. Admission: adults, £7.50; concessions, £6.50; special offer: RHS members half price: www.gardenmuseum.org
In praise of gardening
The Garden Museum is a ravishing small museum, whose mission, imaginatively pursued, is the celebration of gardens and gardening and the prompting of debate on issues to do with growing and the environment.
Its home is a rescued church next to Lambeth Palace, with some successful internal remodelling by architects Dow Jones.
In addition to permanent and temporary exhibitions, talks, workshops, plant fairs and a host of other activities, the museum has an exceptionally beautiful garden, with a 17th-centurystyle knot garden as its centrepiece, a wild garden, a gravel garden and a long border, currently a riot of Berkhaya purpurea (see below). There are plants and seeds for sale, a gorgeous shop and an excellent vegetarian cafe, with seating in the garden.
Chef Sorrel Ferguson and her team create delicious, unusual salads, a hot main course each day and wonderful homemade cakes, including courgette and lime and orange, almond and rosemary. Great prices too – a generous bowl of soup and sourdough bread costs an affordable £4.75.
More information: www.gardenmuseum.org
Plant of the week
Berkhaya Purpurea is a South African thistle – a striking, reasonably hardy perennial, with large mauve to white flowers above very prickly dark foliage. Height: 45cm to 60cm; position: full sun; grow from seed: September to October or February to June; plant out after the last frost. A packet (25 seeds) costs £1.49: www.thompson-morgan.com
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931