Plants of India: Introduction

India does not spring immediately to mind as a major source of plants for British gardens. The reason for this is largely environmental – as the larger part of India lies within the tropics, plants from these areas must be grown under glass in temperate Britain. However, the mountainous parts of northern India include substantial parts of the Himalayan range. While many Himalayan plants have been introduced from Nepal and China, introductions of temperate plants, hardy in British gardens, have been made from three Indian areas: the NW Himalaya (the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, especially the districts of Kumaon and Garhwal), Sikkim and Darjeeling in the Eastern Himalaya, and the north-eastern states formerly loosely known as ‘Assam’.

Historically speaking, the original interests of the British (preceded by the Portuguese and Dutch) were with the tropical parts of the Subcontinent – for spices and other plants of economic importance. It was thus, rather surprisingly, tropical plants that were the first to be introduced – as early as the seventeenth century. As these had to be grown in hothouses this was restricted to the gardens of certain wealthy individuals and a few institutional botanic gardens. The first record of an Indian plant growing at RBGE occurs in James Sutherland’s 1683 catalogue of the Garden – the grass Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi). Coix had been cultivated by John Gerarde in London a hundred years earlier and came to him via Italy, so the link with India is probably very indirect. The Dutch were among the pioneers of Indian botanical exploration and plants were sent back to the botanic gardens of Amsterdam and Leiden from the late seventeenth century onwards. Charles Alston (Regius Keeper of RBGE, 1716–60) studied under Boerhaave in Leiden and must have seen Indian plants growing there and possibly brought some back to Edinburgh. Certainly John Hope (Regius Keeper, 1761–86) grew some Indian plants (when the Garden was in Leith Walk) and even conducted physiological experiments on them. Hope was interested in the leaf movement of legumes and studied sleep movements in leaflets of the tamarind (Tamarindus indicus) and the diurnal movements of the telegraph plant (Codariocalyx motorius). Much work remains to be done on the history of Indian plants in the RBGE, but large numbers certainly began to arrive in the time of Robert Graham (Regius Keeper, 1819–1845). These were tended by his gardener William McNab. Graham was a friend of Nathaniel Wallich, who distributed plants from the Calcutta Botanic Garden widely. Some of these Graham described as new species in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.

The exploration of the Himalaya may be said to have started with Hope’s pupil Francis Buchanan (Buchanan-Hamilton) who in 1802 was the first western botanist to make a detailed study of the flora of Nepal. This continued with visits to Nepal by Wallich in the 1820s. It was the influential John Lindley (of the Horticultural Society and later Professor of Botany at the University College, London) who realised the importance of the Himalaya as a source of hardy plants for British gardens. This led to a steady stream of introductions from the 1830s onwards by amateurs (such as Lady Amherst), botanically inclined soldiers (such as Thomas Hardwicke and Edward Madden) and by professional botanists including John Forbes Royle and plant collectors such as Thomas Lobb. The culmination of this phase came with Joseph Hooker’s expedition to Sikkim in 1848/9, which literally changed the face of Scottish gardens, with the first steps towards large-scale introduction of rhododendrons and to a lesser extent of primulas (Primula sikkimensis) and Himalayan poppies (including Meconopsis simplicifolia). Hooker also visited the Khasia Hills (now in Meghalaya) and, along with the plant collector Thomas Lobb, became aware their richness – especially for orchids.

In the twentieth century Himalayan imports from India reached a new peak, perhaps in competition with the craze for Chinese plants. Roland Edgar Cooper and George Herbert Cave introduced plants from Sikkim, as did Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff (whose major work, however, was in Bhutan and Tibet). Frank Kingdon-Ward collected extensively in ‘Upper Assam’ in what are now the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur, building on the work of pioneers such as Gustav Mann.

A note of warning: many plants with ‘India’ in their common or Latin name are misnomers; for example the Indian shot (Canna indica) comes from South America, and the Indian bean tree (Catalpa bignonioides) is native to south-eastern USA. Others have names from a time when the whole region east of Arabia (including India, Indo-China, Malaysia and Indonesia) were known as the ‘East Indies’, especially in early times when the exact origin of a plant was not considered very important, or had been confused.

Currently about 700 Indian species are grown at RBGE, although the wild distribution of most of these is not restricted to India. The collection is particularly strong in Himalayan plants, mirroring RBGE’s research interest in the Sino-Himalayan region.

  • Part 2/2: 'Sensing and Presencing the Imperceptible', Siân Bowen's Micro-conference
  • Part 1/2: 'Sensing and Presencing the Imperceptible', Siân Bowen's Micro-conference
  • Siân Bowen's Leverhulme Research Fellowship Exhibition: After Hortus Malabaricus: Sensing and Presencing Rare Plants
  • Ficus benghalensis
  • Dimocarpus longan
  • Leea guineensis
  • Stephania glandulifera
  • Alpinia zerumbet
  • Tacca chantrieri
  • Tabernaemontana divaricata
  • Kaempferia rotunda
  • Agapetes odontocera
  • Coelogyne corymbosa
  • Peganum harmala
  • Dichrostachys cinerea
  • Schima wallichii
  • Dichroa febrifuga
  • Camellia sinensis
  • Magnolia hodgsonii
  • Trachycarpus latisectus
  • Musa sikkimensis
  • Carex baccans
  • Rhaphidophora glauca
  • Cupressus cashmeriana
  • Nelumbo nucifera
  • Oryza sativa
  • Saccharum officinarum
  • Cycas pectinata
  • Calamus flagellum
  • Crinum asiaticum
  • Molineria capitulata
  • Bambusa vulgaris
  • Reinwardtia indica
  • Duchesnea indica
  • Polygonatum oppositifolium
  • Rhododendron dalhousiae
  • Codariocalyx motorius
  • Hedychium gardnerianum
  • Wallichia disticha
  • Himalayacalamus falconeri
  • Platanus orientalis
  • Cupressus torulosa
  • Picea smithiana
  • Cedrus deodara
  • Corylus jacquemontii
  • Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Rafill'
  • Mahonia acanthifolia
  • Clematis montana
  • Rhododendron hodgsonii
  • Rhododendron thomsonii
  • Pinus bhutanica
  • Dryopteris wallichiana
  • Yushania anceps
  • Pinus wallichiana
  • Cryptomeria japonica
  • Aesculus indica
  • Fraxinus xanthoxyloides
  • Prunus cornuta
  • Primula denticulata
  • Bergenia stracheyi
  • Anemone trullifolia
  • Pieris formosa
  • Persicaria campanulata
  • Rhododendron macabeanum
  • Lithocarpus elegans
  • Cardiocrinum giganteum
  • Cupressus himalaica
  • Ephedra gerardiana
  • Persicaria affinis
  • Geranium himalayense
  • Iris clarkei
  • Roscoea auriculata
  • Betula utilis var. jacquemontii


Part 2/2: ‘Sensing and Presencing the Imperceptible’, Siân Bowen’s Micro-conference

Alessandra Leruste has been a Volunteer gallery assistant with Inverleith House since 2019. Alessandra has an MA in History of art from the University of Edinburgh and has her own art-writing blog. Here, Alessandra shares her experience from the afternoon of Siân Bowen's micro-conference at RBGE.

Part 1/2: ‘Sensing and Presencing the Imperceptible’, Siân Bowen’s Micro-conference

Klaudia Jaworska is in her third year at Edinburgh Napier University, studying International Festivals and Events Management and Marketing. As part of her course, she is currently carrying out a work placement in RBGE's Public Engagement Department. Here, Klaudia shares her experience from the morning of Siân Bowen's micro-conference at RBGE.
Room 3 Artist BookAL

Siân Bowen’s Leverhulme Research Fellowship Exhibition: After Hortus Malabaricus: Sensing and Presencing Rare Plants

After Hortus Malabaricus: Sensing and Presencing Rare Plants marks the culmination of my four-year collaboration with the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). Having held my first solo exhibition in Scotland at Inverleith House at RBGE in 1995, it is wonderful to be able to exhibit here once again. In 2017, I was awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to carry out the project. The Leverhulme Trust is known for supporting experimental proposals with an emphasis on outward facing journeys. The journey that the award facilitated has certainly been extraordinary – opening up possibilities to work with botanists, ecologists, historical researchers, cultural geographers, taxonomists and curators. It has allowed encounters with rare plants in darkened herbaria and light-filled South Indian forests and swamps; epistemologies used to ‘reveal’ specimens and sensory differences between plants’ live and preserved states.
1.FicuBeng 1

Ficus benghalensis

1. Ficus benghalensis L. MORACEAE Banyan, बनयान The banyan, a species of wild fig, is one of the most iconic of all Indian trees. Its characteristic appearance as a mature...

Dimocarpus longan

2. Dimocarpus longan Loureiro SAPINDACEAE Longyen, longan; Bengali: ashphal, आशफल A small tree related to the lychee and native of South and South-East Asia. It is cultivated for its...

Leea guineensis

3. Leea guineensis G. Don VITACEAE The name of this genus commemorates James Lee, a Scottish nurseryman, who, with Lewis Kennedy, owned one of the most important of the...

Stephania glandulifera

4. Stephania glandulifera Miers MENISPERMACEAE An extensive climber, which grows from a large tuberous root; it is ‘dioecious’ (having male and female flowers borne on separate plants). This species...

Alpinia zerumbet

5. Alpinia zerumbet (Persoon) B.L. Burtt & R.M. Smith ZINGIBERACEAE Shell ginger It is not certain where this plant was originally native, but somewhere in tropical South or South-East...

Tacca chantrieri

6. Tacca chantrieri André DIOSCOREACEAE One of the so-called ‘bat flowers’, with brownish flowers surrounded by pairs of paler, petal-like bracts and drooping, thread-like bracteoles. This species occurs from...
7.TanInd 1

Tabernaemontana divaricata

7. Tabernaemontana divaricata (L.) R. Brown APOCYNACEAE Crepe jasmine, moonbeam, East Indian rosebay; Hindi: chandani, चांदनी This small tree is native to India but it is widely cultivated...
8.KaempRot 1

Kaempferia rotunda

8. Kaempferia rotunda L. ZINGIBERACEAE Hindi: bhumichampa, भूमी चम्पा This plant is a member of the ginger family from tropical South-East Asia. It is widely cultivated, and possibly also...

Agapetes odontocera

9. Agapetes odontocera (Wight) J.D. Hooker ERICACEAE This subtropical relation of the blaeberry (or blueberry) comes from the Khasia Hills in the Indian State of Meghalaya, where it was...
10.CoelCory 1

Coelogyne corymbosa

10. Coelogyne corymbosa Lindley ORCHIDACEAE A common orchid of the broad-leaved forest zone of the Sino-Himalayan region, from Nepal eastwards to China, including the Indian states of Sikkim, Arunachal...

Peganum harmala

11. Peganum harmala L. NITRARIACEAE A plant with many uses, both mystical and practical. It is one of the possible identifications for the Vedic plant ‘soma’, and the origin...
12.DichCin 1

Dichrostachys cinerea

12. Dichrostachys cinerea (L.) Wight & Arnott LEGUMINOSAE Hindi: Kunali, कुणाली The genus name Dichrostachys, which was given by the Indian surgeon Robert Wight and the Scottish botanist George...
Schima wall1

Schima wallichii

13. Schima wallichii (de Candolle) Korthals THEACEAE An evergreen tree that can reach a height of 30 metres; the generic name may be derived from the Greek skiasma, on...

Dichroa febrifuga

14. Dichroa febrifuga Loureiro HYDRANGEACAE Hindi: basak This shrub is related to the hydrangea. It has attractive blue berries and is widespread in subtropical South-East Asia, occurring up to...
15.Cam .Sin alt

Camellia sinensis

15. Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze var. assamica (Masters) Kitamura THEACEAE Tea; Hindi: chai, चाय The source of the world’s major caffeine drink exists in two wild varieties – the...
16.MagHodg 1

Magnolia hodgsonii

16. Magnolia hodgsonii (J.D. Hooker & Thomson) H. Keng This large magnolia is native from Central Nepal to Northern Burma eastwards to Thailand and Yunnan. Its name commemorates...

Trachycarpus latisectus

17. Trachycarpus latisectus Spanner, Noltie and Gibbons PALMAE The Windamere palm On an RBGE expedition in 1992 two trees of this hardy palm were spotted growing outside the Windamere...
18.MusSik 1

Musa sikkimensis

18. Musa sikkimensis Kurz MUSACEAE Unlike the cultivated bananas, the fruits of this wild species are full of large, hard seeds. Whereas most species of banana are truly tropical,...

Carex baccans

19. Carex baccans Nees CYPERACEAE Whereas most sedges have green or brown fruits, this species is unusual in having brightly coloured ones. Although the specific name ‘baccans’ means bearing...

Rhaphidophora glauca

20. Rhaphidophora glauca (Wallich) Schott ARACEAE This is a climbing member of the aroid family. It resembles a smaller form of the familiar Swiss-cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa), a popular...

Cupressus cashmeriana

21. Cupressus cashmeriana Carrière CUPRESSACEAE This tree, with very attractive, drooping, grey foliage appears to be a cultivated form of the native East Himalayan species Cupressus himalaica which can...
22.NelumNuc 1

Nelumbo nucifera

22. Nelumbo nucifera Gaertner NELUMBONACEAE Sacred lotus, Egyptian Bean; Hindi: kamal, कमल This aquatic plant is important in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu iconography. The beautiful flower (which can be...

Oryza sativa

23. Oryza sativa L. GRAMINEAE Rice; Hindi: dhan, धान, chaval, चावल; Bengali: chal The grain of this cereal grass is the major carbohydrate source throughout tropical Asia. Cultivated for...

Saccharum officinarum

24. Saccharum officinarum L. GRAMINEAE Sugar cane; Hindi: ganna, गन्ना Sugar cane is a giant grass, widely cultivated for the juice expressed from its crushed stems, from which sugar...

Cycas pectinata

25. Cycas pectinata Buchanan-Hamilton CYCADACEAE This species is a native of North-East India and mainland South-East Asia, where it occurs on subtropical hill slopes at altitudes of up to...

Calamus flagellum

26. Calamus flagellum Griffith PALMAE This is one of the native Indian species of rattan (climbing palms), occurring in subtropical parts of the East Himalaya, North-East India and Bangladesh,...
27.CrinAsi 1

Crinum asiaticum

27. Crinum asiaticum L. AMARYLLIDACEAE Hindi: Nagadamani, नागदामिनी This large, bulbous herb is widely cultivated in the tropics, and as a hothouse plant in temperate regions. It is native...
28.MolCap 1

Molineria capitulata

28. Molineria capitulata (Loureiro) Herbert HYPOXIDACEAE A herbaceous plant of the shady floor of subtropical and tropical forests in South and South-East Asia. In India it occurs in West...
29 BamVul replacement

Bambusa vulgaris

29. Bambusa vulgaris Schrader ex Wendland GRAMINEAE Hindi: bans, बांस A tree-sized species of bamboo, widely cultivated in the tropics, but probably native to South and South-East Asia including...
30.ReinInd 2

Reinwardtia indica

30. Reinwardtia indica Dumortier LINACEAE Hindi: basanti, बसंती A member of the flax family which is unusual in having individuals with three different flower forms (a condition known as...

Duchesnea indica

31. Duchesnea indica (Andrews) Focke ROSACEAE In its creeping habit and red fruit, this plant resembles a small strawberry, but its flowers are bright yellow and the fruits are...

Polygonatum oppositifolium

32. Polygonatum oppositifolium (Wallich) Royle CONVALLARIACEAE This subtropical relative of the native European Solomon’s seal was discovered by Nathaniel Wallich on his expedition to Nepal in 1820 to 1821....
33.RhodDalh 1

Rhododendron dalhousiae

33. Rhododendron dalhousiae J.D. Hooker ERICACEAE Lady Dalhousie’s rhododendron Native of the Eastern Himalaya, this species, which has fragrant flowers, often grows as an epiphyte on mossy tree trunks....
34.CodarMot 1

Codariocalyx motorius

34. Codariocalyx motorius (Houttyn) Ohahsi LEGUMINOSAE John Hope’s ‘moving plant of Bengal’ Around 1775 the Scottish surgeon James Kerr sent a drawing of this plant by a Bengali artist...
35.HedyGard 1

Hedychium gardnerianum

35. Hedychium gardnerianum Ker Gawler ZINGIBERACEAE Mr Gardner’s garland flower According to Nathaniel Wallich this plant was ‘the queen of the genus if not of the whole [ginger] order’....
36.WallDis 1

Wallichia disticha

36. Wallichia disticha T. Anderson PALMAE This is a very unusual palm in its leaf arrangement. The leaves are borne ‘distichously’, that is, in a single plane on opposite...
37.HimFalc 2

Himalayacalamus falconeri

37. Himalayacalamus falconeri (Munro) P.C. Keng GRAMINEAE A clump-forming bamboo that occurs in cool, broad-leaved forests at altitudes of between 2000 and 2550 metres, from Uttarakhand (Kumaon) eastwards through...

Platanus orientalis

38. Platanus orientalis L. PLATANACEAE Eastern plane, chinar This species has commonly been considered to be one of the parents of the more widely planted London plane (Platanus ×...

Cupressus torulosa

39. Cupressus torulosa D. Don CUPRESSACEAE Twisted cypress When Hugh Cleghorn was surveying the timber resources of the Western Himalaya in the early 1860s, he noted that this species...

Picea smithiana

40. Picea smithiana (Wallich) Boisser PINACEAE West Himalayan spruce; NW Himalaya: rai, tos; Kumaon: morinda A Western Himalayan tree, occurring from Afghanistan to Central Nepal. It was named by...
41a.CedDeo 1

Cedrus deodara

41. Cedrus deodara (G. Don) G. Don PINACEAE Deodar, Himalayan cedar; Hindi: devdar, देवदार With its gracefully pendent branches and pyramidal shape, this was perhaps the most familiar of...

Corylus jacquemontii

42. Corylus jacquemontii Decaisne CORYLACEAE Jacquemont’s hazel This tree was named for the French botanist and writer Victor Jacquemont, who travelled in the Himalaya in 1830. The tree is...
43.MagCamp 1

Magnolia campbellii ‘Charles Rafill’

43. Magnolia campbellii J.D. Hooker & Thomson, cultivar ‘Charles Rafill’ MAGNOLIACEAE In the wild Magnolia campbellii occurs from eastern Nepal to western Yunnan in China, including the Indian States...

Mahonia acanthifolia

44. Mahonia acanthifolia Wall ex. G. Don BERBERIDACAEAE This shrub, which has attractive, scented, yellow flowers, occurs from Uttarakhand in India to South-West China, at altitudes of 2000 to...
45.ClemMon 1

Clematis montana

45. Clematis montana De Candolle RANUNCULACEAE A widespread and very variable Sino-Himalayan species, this is one of the best-known Himalayan plants in British gardens, occurring in a variety of...
46.RhodHodg 1

Rhododendron hodgsonii

46. Rhododendron hodgsonii J.D. Hooker ERICACEAE This large shrub or small tree of the eastern Himalaya (Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan) was named by Joseph Hooker after Brian Houghton Hodgson...
47.RhodTho 1

Rhododendron thomsonii

47. Rhododendron thomsonii J.D. Hooker ERICACEAE Dr. Thomson’s Rhododendron A native of the eastern Himalaya, this is one of the many species of rhododendron discovered by Joseph Hooker in...

Pinus bhutanica

48. Pinus bhutanica Grierson, Long & Page PINACEAE This species was distinguished from the blue pine (Pinus wallichiana, Number 13 of the Trail) only in 1980, as part of...

Dryopteris wallichiana

49. Dryopteris wallichiana (Sprengel) Hylander DRYOPTERIDACEAE A fern, very similar to the native British male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas), first described from Nepal, where this specimen was collected. It has...

Yushania anceps

50. Yushania anceps (Mitford) W.C. Lin GRAMINEAE A temperate bamboo from Jaunsar in the North-West Himalaya (Uttarakhand), where it occurs in cool temperate forest at altitudes of 2000 to...

Pinus wallichiana

51. Pinus wallichiana A.B. Jackson PINACEAE Blue pine; Hindi: kail, काएल The needles of this pine are grouped in bundles of five. The tree occurs in the Himalaya from...

Cryptomeria japonica

52. Cryptomeria japonica (L. f.) D. Don CUPRESSACEAE Japanese cedar This conifer is native to China and Japan, but is planted as a fast-growing timber tree in the East...

Aesculus indica

53. Aesculus indica (Cambessedes) Hooker HIPPOCASTANACEAE Indian horse chestnut; Hindi: ban akhrot, वन अख्रोट A large, deciduous tree that can reach a height of over 30 metres in the...

Fraxinus xanthoxyloides

54. Fraxinus xanthoxyloides (G. Don) A. De Candolle OLEACEAE Crab ash, Afghan ash This specimen was grown from seed collected in 1984 by RBGE horticulturist and alpine-specialist Ron McBeath...
55.PruCor 1

Prunus cornuta

55. Prunus cornuta (Royle) Steudel ROSACEAE Himalayan bird-cherry This specimen was grown from seed collected in Nepal in 1950 by Donald Lowndes. The plant has a widespread wild distribution...
56.PrimDent 1

Primula denticulata

56. Primula denticulata Smith PRIMULACEAE Drumstick primula, purple Nepal cowslip, Kirrie dumpling This spring-flowering plant is native to the Sino-Himalayan region (from Afghanistan to South-West China). In India it...

Bergenia stracheyi

57. Bergenia stracheyi (J.D. Hooker & Thomson) Engler SAXIFRAGACEAE This species is a more distinguished relative of the rather coarse, but more commonly grown, Bergenia purpurascens. It is an...
58.AnemTrul 1

Anemone trullifolia

58. Anemone trullifolia J.D. Hooker & Thomson RANUNCULACEAE A widespread Sino-Himalayan plant occurring in alpine turf at altitudes of 3500 to 4500 metres from Nepal to South-West China, including...

Pieris formosa

59. Pieris formosa (Wallich) D. Don ERICACEAE This attractive, but poisonous, evergreen member of the heather family is a widespread Sino-Himalayan species occurring from Nepal to Central China. It...
60.PersCam 1

Persicaria campanulata

60. Persicaria campanulata (J.D. Hooker) Ronse Decraene POLYGONACEAE This pink-flowered herbaceous plant is native to the Sino-Himalaya from Uttarakhand eastwards to western Yunnan. It was first found by Joseph...

Rhododendron macabeanum

61. Rhododendron macabeanum Watt ex I.B. Balfour ERICACEAE One of the most handsome of the large rhododendrons, which can reach a height of 15 metres. Its flowers are a...

Lithocarpus elegans

62. Lithocarpus elegans (Blume) Soepadmo FAGACEAE The genus Lithocarpus is closely related to the oaks (Quercus) and occurs in South and South-East Asia, with a single species in North...

Cardiocrinum giganteum

63. Cardiocrinum giganteum (Wallich) Makino LILIACEAE Giant Himalayan lily This ‘prince of lilies’ is a Sino-Himalayan species, occurring from Kashmir to South-West China. It was first discovered by Nathaniel...

Cupressus himalaica

64. Cupressus himalaica Silba CUPRESSACEAE Weeping Himalayan cypress; Bhutia: chandang, tchenden This tree, with beautiful drooping foliage, occurs wild in Bhutan at altitudes of up to 3000 metres. Its...

Ephedra gerardiana

65. Ephedra gerardiana Wallich ex Stapf EPHEDRACEAE Hindi: Somlata, सोमलता A dwarf Himalayan shrub, which occurs at high altitudes of up to 5,200 metres. Although it looks rather like...
66.PerAff 1

Persicaria affinis

66. Persicaria affinis (D. Don) Ronse Decraene POLYGONACEAE According to Joseph Hooker, who explored Sikkim in 1848/9, this plant was ‘one of the most beautiful features of the...

Geranium himalayense

67. Geranium himalayense Klotzsch GERANIACEAE A popular garden plant, with several cultivars, which forms carpets by means of creeping rhizomes. Its large flowers are produced over a long period...

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    Gives appreciable details of plants in India by British