Since our return, I have planted it in our garden, where it thrives on our poor, chalky-flinty Chilterns soils, has taken over a section of the hedge and fence, and invaded my neighbour's garden with its deceptively demure yellow, lantern-like flowers, and its lovely fluffy seedheads.
Cut it down and it sprouts up again within a very short time. Note the Chinese bee enjoying the pollen! A huge amount of our garden plants come from China and many of those from Sichuan, and it's easy to take them for granted and forget what it was like for those who first collected them.
The plant hunters were part of the great Imperialist endeavour; sometimes ruthless plunderers
Wilson was born in 1876, and it was in 1903, when he was collecting in Sichuan for the Veitch nursery, that he travelled up to Songpan.
|houses in Songpan|
'By the wayside,' he wrote, in rock-crevice by the torrent's edge and hight up on the mountainside and precipice this Lily in full bloom greets the weary wayfarer. Not in twos and threes but in hundreds, in thousands, aye, in tens of thousands. Its slender stems..overtop the coarse grasses and scrub and are crowned with one to several large funnel-shaped flowers, each more or less wine-coloured without, pure white and lustrous on the face, clear canary yellow within the tube and each stamen filament topped with a golden anther. The air in the cool of the morning and in the evening is laden with delicious perfume exhaled from every blossom.'
I can almost smell the scent as I type out that description, and a photograph seems almost superfluous, but here they are in my garden.It was on that journey that Wilson got his leg broken in several plances, and was lucky not to lose it. He was tended by Dr Davidson of the Friends (Quaker) mission in Chengdu, who expertly set the leg.
Sadly, the arrival of the horrible lily beetle in England means that it's a struggle to cultivate them now: I have almost given up. They used to be trouble-free and reliable, and their scent a joy in July. Wilson lifted six thousand bulbs from that rock garden, and took them to America. I suppose the ones I grew are their descendants. When we travelled up the Min River it was July, and too late to see them, but I believe they haven't all been pillaged by plant hunters.
Other flowers that Wilson mentioned include the 'Anemone vitifolia, with white and pink flowers like the Japanese anemone'. Here are some we saw growing wild in the enchanting national park of Jiuzhaigou Valley. It is wonderful to see the kind of plants we grow in the garden, in their wild homeland. As a child, I somehow assumed that all large-flowered garden plants were bred from smaller ones, but of course this isn't the case. (I began to be enlightened when I saw my first wild cranesbill, geranium pratense, growing at Strelley, Nottinghamshire, were we used to walk the dog. They were a vision of delight to me and are still one of my favourite flowers and a star of my pocket-handkerchief wildflower 'meadow.')
|unidentified gentian, possibly gentiana altorum?|
Of course, Victorian plant hunters also harvested irresponsibly and often destructively. Wilson lost an entire consignment of Lilium regale bulbs on the way home, and on the following year, when he returned, his team plundered complete valleys. No longer would any traveller enjoy the beautiful, fragrant scene he so vividly described. One of the worst stories I have read is aboutorchid hunters who destroyed the habitat of the orchids they had harvested, felling large areas of forest so that they would henceforth have the monopoly on that particular species. Responsible modern plant hunters, such as Roy Lancaster of the RHS, operate with permits, and only take seeds.
But however unethically the plant hunters operated, their introductions - with a few notable exceptions, such as Japanese knotweed - have not only added much beauty to our gardens, they have also helped our pollinators by extending the amount of pollen available to insects throughout the year. Through December and early January 2015-16, the lonicera fragrantissima has been feeding bumble bees awoken by the unseasonable mildness, as has also the viburnum tinus. Snowdrops, another excellent food source for early-waking bees, are another introduction, for they're not thought native to Britain. And hollyhocks (which in my garden always seem to have a bumble bee behind visible at their hearts), originate from China; apples (a quintessential British fruit?) from central Asia. That's only a very few examples among a wealth of plant life, and it's been shown that native insects, animals, and birds benefit from a wide range of introduced plants.
Colour photos by David and Leslie Wilson