Close up of capsule from George Forrest herbarium specimen of Rhododendron forrestii
In the Autumn of 1914, George Forrest was travelling in China. His letters written at the time mention the difficulties he was facing in getting permission to cross the river into the Mekong-Salwin divide. He also describes the difficult weather conditions. In August he wrote:
‘The whole country is under water, the hills and mountains bathed in dank mist, every 48 hours we have a thunderstorm of several hours’ duration by way of breaking the moist monotony! Most of the neighbouring provinces are worse off than we. Canton especially has suffered severely, nearly, or over one million people having lost their lives through the floods.’
This was only a few months after Britain had declared war on Germany and his letters show the early belief that the war would be over by Christmas:
‘Poor Germany cannot stand long against so many and such powerful enemies.’
A later letter, dated 30 September 1914, shows that he did, in fact, manage to cross the river and was collecting plants in the Mekong-Salwin divide and in this letter he describes some of the new collections and encloses small quantities of seed. One of the plants he collected at this time was Rhododendron forrestii, a species which had been named after Forrest by the German botanist, Friedrich Diels in 1912 from a specimen that Forrest had collected on his first expedition in 1905. It is likely that the seeds mentioned in the letter included this plant, whilst the herbarium specimen would have been sent back later.
The plant was grown on at RBGE in Edinburgh, where the collection is still growing in the Rock Garden. The flowers are displayed in the spring and are a vividly rich, waxy red. The collection is also important as it is one of the specimens drawn by Lilian Snelling, during her time working for Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, Keeper of the Botanic Garden, and the drawing now forms part of the extensive botanical art collections within the RBGE Archives.
The specimens shown here are both the original collection made in 1914, as well as a later specimen which was made from the plant growing in the Rock Garden in 2006.
Currently flowering profusely but tucked away at the back of a bed near Inverleith House is the large shrub Rhododendron campanulatum ‘Roland Cooper’
This plant was collected as seed in what is now the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh on the 20th of October 1916 by Roland Edgar Cooper. This was his last plant collection expedition for A.K. Bulley of Ness; cut short when Cooper volunteered to join the Indian Army Reserve of Officers, serving initially with the 1st Reserve Ghurkha Rifles on the North West Frontier of India which is now in Pakistan.
Rhododendron campanulatum is a widespread species in the Himalaya occuring from Bhutan in the east to Kashmir in the west and as a result show a fair bit of variation in colour and form. The original scientific description of R. campanulatum was published in 1821 by the Scottish Botanist David Don who went on to write the first Flora of Nepal. The original material was collected in Nepal and formed part of the large East India Company Herbarium distributed by Natanial Wallich.
This plant was given the cultivar name after recieving an Award of Merit at the 1964 Scottish Rhododendron Show which was held in Glasgow. It was described as being as being a distinctive form with its scented, predominantly white flowers extensivley shaded with mauvette with scattered crimson spots on the upper lobe and persistant sandy brown tomentose on the underside of the leaf.
From this time of year onwards Scottish gardens are coloured with Rhododendrons in flower. At RBGE Rhododendron meddianum var. atrokermesinum is flowering in the lower woodland garden. Native to NE Myanmar where collections were made by Frank Kingdon- Ward. These packets of seed returned to many gardens throughout Britain and are now seen as mature plants through the country.
This evergreen species holds many flower trusses and adds considerably to the interest of the Rhododendron collection at RBGE. Scarlet red petals on opening. In bud it is just as attractive. The flower truss shedding brown papery bracts on opening.
A flowering shoot from a specimen growing at Logan garden was selected in April 1954 by the then owner of the Logan estate, Ronald Olaf Hambro, of the banking dynasty, to exhibit at the RHS show in London where it received an Award of Merit. This was in the decade before Logan was gifted to the nation (1969) and became a regional garden of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
The International Dendrology Society is an organisation for tree enthusiasts from around the world, most of whom grow trees in their gardens and arboreta, and many join the tours which are regularly run to many parts of the world, where trees feature strongly in the native flora, particularly those hardy in western gardens. IDS had already visited Bhutan in 2004 and explored the more accessible parts of western Bhutan, but felt that a second tour would be popular, to see more of the colourful culture, extensive forests and diversity of conifers, oaks, rhododendrons and other woody plants with which Bhutan is richly endowed. The organiser of the 2014 tour was Anke Mattern from Germany, who had visited RBGE to discuss the plan with me two years ago. I strongly favoured a focus on east Bhutan, entering Bhutan from Guwahati in Assam, and later traversing Bhutan to the capital Thimphu, to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens at Serbithang, before departing out of Paro airport.
My appointment as ‘guest botanist’ was confirmed and with some trepidation I spent many hours brushing up on Bhutanese trees, studying the Grierson & Long field books from the 1980’s, and photographing herbarium specimens of oaks to refer to in the field. On 12 October our group landed in Guwahati close to the massive Brahmaputra River. We had 18 enthusiasts from many countries, with three students: Jonathan Davies-Coleman from RBGE and Wella Chubb and Katie Nichols from Cornwall and myself. After entering Bhutan through the ceremonial arch at Samdrup Jongkhar we met our four Bhutanese partners – tour organiser Tsewang Rinzing, a senior Bhutanese botanist and friend from the 1980’s Raling Ngawang, Thimphu herbarium curator Rinchen Yangzom and her assistant Tshering Dorji.
Brokpa mother and son in traditional dress
Basing ourselves in the capital of East Bhutan, Tashigang, dominated by its historic Dzong (both religious and administrative in function) we prepared for a trek up to the remote valley of Sakten, close to the border with Arunachal Pradesh. Our party being extremely diverse in ages, and a number of those never having camped before, Sakten Tours indulged us with luxury trekking with comforts such as hot water bottles and roaring camp fires with local villagers in traditional costumes brought in to dance and sing in the evenings. The daily treks were relatively leisurely, giving us ample time to study and photograph plants and collect specimens for the Thimphu herbarium. Each day I led the ‘student group’ which included Raling (nicknamed the ‘Professor’ for his excellent local knowledge of plants) and some of the non-students and had much enjoyment over our daily botanising (though we inevitably lagged well behind the others).
Sorbus macallisteri – first record for Bhutan
Sakten proved to be a beautiful village with broad meadows dotted with yaks, surrounded by forested mountains in all directions and overlooked by the monastery or ‘Lakhang’. The delightful local people (the Brokpas) are famous for their colourful costumes and unique hats made from Yak wool – like French berets but with 5 tails hanging down for drainage. In the Fir/ Rhododendron forests were many plants of interest to our group, most identifiable, even the non-flowering rhododendrons such as R. grande which Jonathan named successfully using the Flora of Bhutan – 24 species in total. Spectacular trees included abundant Pinusbhutanica (a species first described by RBGE botanists), Hemlock (Tsugadumosa), Magnoliacampbellii, Fir (Abiesdensa), Birch (Betulautilis) and many interesting shrubs such as Mahonia, Juniperus, Rosa and so on. Many of the deciduous trees, particularly the Maples, were coming into fine autumn colour. A small Rowan caught our eye, with beautiful white flushed pink berries, and we were able to identify this as Sorbusmacallisteri, known before only from Arunachal Pradesh, and named in honour of Hugh McAllister, the British Rowan expert who later confirmed the identification. This was a most unexpected addition to the Bhutan flora.
Itoa orientalis – new to Bhutan and Himalayas
After returning to the comforts of Tashigang which lies in a deep hot valley with a totally different flora including Cycaspectinata and the tropical Duabangagrandiflora, we visited the spectacular stupa at Bomdeling before starting our four day journey to the west. Our second major discovery came after our stop in Mongar, following the Shongar Chu valley past the ruined Shongar Dzong. Our old friend Sadruddin (who teaches botany in Sherubtse College near Tashigang) had told us about a mystery tree in east Bhutan with peculiar fruits he had tried unsuccessfully for many years to identify, so when our colleague Raling suddenly shouted out that here was the tree right beside our road, the excitement grew. He too had known the tree all his life under the local name Golonang Shing but now was our chance to collect and work out its botanical identity. Its peculiarity was that the large fruit capsules, containing many winged seeds, dehisced first from the top down, then later from the bottom up. Browsing the Flora of Bhutan drew a blank so later I sent images to David Boufford in Harvard, specialist on Chinese plants, who solved the mystery – the tree is Itoaorientalis in the tropical family Flacourtiaceae. Previously it was known only from China and Vietnam, so it is new not only to Bhutan but the whole Himalaya.
Our journey to Thimphu was punctuated by another, two-day camping trip in the upper Dang Chu Valley north of the Pele La. Here was another remote village (Tokaling) rather similar to Sakten, but with the bonus of a health-giving spring, whose water was used in outdoor wooden baths heated for us by boulders from the camp fire. However, for botanists it was the spectacular giant Cypress trees (Cupressushimalaica) which dominate the valley, both close to houses and in natural forest in a nearby valley, which created huge excitement. The very durable timber is highly prized for Dzong construction, and the villagers expressed their fears that for the reconstruction of Wangdu Phodrang Dzong, recently completely destroyed by fire, their precious cypresses would be felled. We agreed to try to help to save the trees and IDS will try to raise funds to grow young trees for replenishing the wild population.
Finally we reached the ever-expanding capital Thimphu where progress with the Serbithang garden was admired before leaving Bhutan on the spectacular Druk Air flight from Paro.
Today marks the 100 year anniversary since this date in August 1914 when Britain entered what was to become the First World War. As a tribute to all those who fell during the war RBGE sowed a poppy field on the front lawn. We are pleased to see the red petals of the Corn Poppy, Papaver rhoeas, reflecting this sombre moment in time.
Preparation for this display started in 2013 with timed sowings of Poppy seed to gauge the optimum sow date to ensure flowering at the start of August, we are of course weather dependant as no two consecutive growing seasons will replicate climatic conditions. We also had to take into account the much shorter growing season resulting from a later sowing as traditionally Poppies in a cornfield would germinate the previous autumn or from late March with spring sown wheat, in this case an extra 7 or 8 weeks of growing, allowing them to flower above the sheaves of grain. Native to Eurasia and North Africa the poppy is associated with agriculture and probably spread with the transport and sale of seed crops. Loving sun, the crooked neck of the flower stem will straighten with the bud opening to flower for one day as the sun shines.
In early May we marked out the area, lifted the turf, rotovating and power harrowing to create a tilth. In mid-May we were joined by veterans from Poppy Scotland who helped sow the seed. The seeds are small, round and black in colour, about 10,000 per gram. They are long lived in the soil, germinating when soil is disturbed as in agriculture or more poignantly on battlefields.
This area of the garden was established during 1968 when the front range glasshouses were completed and the area of lawn to the south of these graded and seeded. As you would expect of an area that has been down to turf for almost five decades many seeds, in addition to the cornfield annual mix we sowed, germinated once the soil was disturbed through cultivation. The most prolific of these weed seeds to germinate being Shepherds Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, with its characteristic seed pods. Fast growing it rapidly exceeded the height of the Cornflowers and if not removed would, as it ripened, give a brown sheen to the area. In addition to exploding and adding to the seed bank in the soil.
We used a mixture of native cornfield annuals to complement the Poppy; Cornflower, Centaurea cyanus; Corn Marigold, Glebionis segetum; Mayweed, Triplospermum inodorum. This mixture extends the flowering season as Poppies flower for a couple of weeks at most. It also draws in pollinating insects and will later act as a host to seed eating birds.
In France the Cornflower or “Bluet” is used on Remembrance Day. The French soldiers of the First World War known as les bleuets from their grey/blue uniforms, the flower of the same name is used to remember them.
Many staff members from the Garden volunteered for service; some returning, some did not.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914, 110 staff worked at the Garden of whom one fifth were women. Of the men, 73 joined the Forces. Twenty men lost their lives, mostly in Flanders or Gallipoli.
The War Service Roll indicates that one RBGE staff member was killed in 1914; nine men fell in 1915, two in 1916, three in 1917 and five in 1918.
There are three interpretive plaques in the vicinity of the poppy field, one detailing what happened at RBGE during WW1; the story of the men who fought from the Garden especially David Hume who died three weeks into the start of the war; how Poppies became symbols of remembrance.
The Regius Keeper of the day, Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, decided to commemorate some of the staff who lost their lives by naming plants in their honour.
Roscoea humeana for Private David Hume, killed 26th August 1914, Flanders.
Buddleja fallowiana for Sergeant George Fallow died 19th August 1915 from wounds received at Gallipoli.
Syringa adamiana for Private Thomas Adam, killed 16th May 1915 at Flanders.
Primula menziesiana for Private Alan Menzies, killed at Loos, 25th September 1915.
In addition there is a memorial tablet, unveiled in 1925, set on the wall in the Herbarium reception area as a lasting testimony to the members of staff who sacrificed their lives in the Great War.
In the library foyer the display cabinet holds an exhibition; “The Garden at War 1914 – 1918”. A wealth of information and artefacts collated by Leonie Paterson, the archives librarian.
Corylus ferox is a native to the Himalayas and NW China, found in association with Acer, Viburnum, Hippophae, Salix, spp. Seed was collected from a 6m x 5m deciduous tree in Sichuan Province where the parent plant was growing in a gravelly loam at 2410m on a NW facing mountainside. The multi stemmed plant growing in the copse is fruiting for the first time since grown from seed in 2005. A mass of spikes not dissimilar in looks to that of a Horse Chestnut carcass. However, these spikes are attached to both the nut and cup as protection and not as a complete shell casing. The colouring is intense red going creamy white as it matures.
The delicate long light linear white petals making up the flowers of Gillenia trifoliata contrast with the red calyx. An herbaceous member of the Rosaceae family native to E.N. America. Of sturdy growth, the stems have a rough surface growing to about one metre. Not strong, they gently collapse under the weight of the branching growth and foliage.
Enjoying a dry, sunny border in the alpine area where the rhizomatous roots spread forming a clump of dancing white petals in the slightest of breezes.
R. orbiculare ssp. orbiculare on left R. vernicosum on right
A walk through the Garden will prove rewarding with so many Rhododendrons in flower. In the copse R. orbiculare ssp. orbiculare and R. vernicosum are full of colour. Both native to SW China where seed was collected and gradually following sowing and germination we now appreciate the full beauty of these wide spreading evergreen shrubs.
An added bonus this year has been the relatively frost free climate. So often a frosty night followed by early bright sun will ruin these blooms.
I have a fair interest in Rhododendron because the are such a ubiquitous Scottish garden plant, but at Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh we have a world class collection which means there is always something new and interesting to discover.
There are about a 1000 known species and RBGE cultivates almost half of them across the four gardens.
This particular plant is grown in the research collection at Edinburgh because it is fairly tender but plants of the same accession can be seen outside at Logan.
I had never heard of Rhododendronhorlickianum before yesterday but the accession number and collector were enough for me to do some digging.
The Rhododendron accession began its time at Edinburgh as seed sent from Francis Kingdon-Ward who collected it in North Burma close to the borders of India and China on the 16th of April 1931 – conicidentally yesterday was the 16th of April.
The plant sat in the collection at Edinburgh under the name it arrives with as “Rhododendron series Maddenii” until it was described as a new species in 1972 by Hagop Haroutune Davidian who did a huge amount of work on describing the diversity of Rhododendrons much of which was published here at RBGE.
The epithet ‘horlickianum’ was used by Davidian to commemorate Sir James Horlick who died the same year this Rhododendron was named. Sir James owned Achmore House on the Scottish island of Gigha where he created a well known Rhododendron garden, which is still open to the public.
This accession has the collection number of 9403 which is also the Type collection used by Davidian to describe this species from Kingdon-Ward’s voucher specimen which is held at the Herbarium the Arnold Arboretum. This plant is therefore one of those rare examples of a living Type specimen.
If you have been watching the Masters 2014 Golf from Augusta, Georgia, USA you may have spotted the Rhododendrons (Azaleas) in flower particularly at the 12 and 13 holes; there will be an equally spectacular display at RBGE in the coming weeks. One of the first to flower on the Azalea Lawn is Rhododendron (Azalea) albrechtii from Japan.