The plant hunters of Suffolk

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Cedars of Lebanon on Hardwick Heath in Bury St Edmunds

Suffolk is an unusual place, irregularly defined more by water than its land which has presented a peculiar and unpredictable challenge for various invading forces. However it has also been the home of people who travel far beyond its confines in their own lifetime and the results of these expeditions can be seen growing in our gardens and parks and town centres.

The tales of the great plant hunters are epic, ranging across seas and the unmapped heart of continents. Often centred upon the grand male narrative, these treks were deemed unsuitable for women although some did manage to penetrate the closed world of botany and plant collection. Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, of whom we will hear more from later, said this, barely 100 years ago: “Gardening, taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life’s work [for a woman], it is almost an impossible thing.”

Think of David Douglas who sought out and introduced the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Escholtzia (Californian poppy) and lupins and ended up dying after falling into a pit designed to trap wild bullocks in Hawaii and Alice Eastwood who rescued the herbarium at California Academy of Sciences after the building was felled by the big San Francisco earthquake and fire, by clinging to the banisters. Then there’s Paul Winder and Tom Hart-Dyke who went to Columbia and Panama in search of the rare orchids and were were kidnapped by Farc guerillas, remaining captive for nine months in more recent times: this has never been a sedate and genteel past-time. Plant fever, that glint eye obsession for discovering the new, whether that be a plant or place to forage for them has driven humans to trade in and import plants since the Romans first imported plums, walnuts and roses into Britain and elaborate preparations were made to store and transport plant material home, from Wardian cases to mule trains clinging precariously to scree covered mountain slopes.

Two of the countries most famous botanists and plant hunters came from Halesworth in Suffolk: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker who went on to become scientific confidant to Charles Darwin and became Director of Kew Gardens between 1865-1185 and his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker who was Kews first Director and Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University.

Joseph Hooker combined a thirst for discovery and an inexhaustible hunger for travel with rigorous taxonomic innovation and investigation which soon led to a developing reputation as the foremost botanist of his time. Beginning his career as an assistant surgeon on HMS Erebus for Antarctic expeditions (a way of overcoming a lack of fiscal means by which to fund his own expedition), he roamed the southern oceans, India and the Himalayas, even getting himself imprisoned by the Rajah of Sikkim for ranging far into territories he had received no invitation for- Tibet. If you wander around a plant nursery of a weekend, check out the labels on Rhododendrons because the varieties with ‘Hookerii’ as part of their Latin name were his Indian discoveries: 25 of them in total and Hooker was hugely responsible for the passion the Victorians had for these plants. The restored Victorian gardens at Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds and the Edwardian gardens in Brandon are both home to giant specimens, their apparent domesticity and British suburban ubiquitousness giving little clue of the real dangers involved in bringing them here. Hooker adored his plants but he was no romantic with his head in the clouds and he didn’t suffer fools either: he collected plant specimens whose discovery really put him through the wringer. As he commented about the rhododendrons one day, ” If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am.”

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Joseph Dalton Hooker

In those extensive diaries now being digitised at Kew, Hooker frequently expounded on the arduous nature of his expeditions: “I staid [sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect the seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy… Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous… certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever” as he wrote to William Hooker from Darjeeling in 1849. Joseph took few luxuries with him: apart from the tools of his trade he packed a supply of cigars for each evening and a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff named Kinchin. A devoted companion, the dog one day fell to its death and was swept away by a river.

Described as ‘an interrogator of the natural world’, Hookers work helped to support Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species because he understood botanical context- he interpreted what he saw around him and his own publications were many. Containing exquisite botanical illustrations, works such as the Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya and the Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India culminated in The Genera Plantarum, prepared with co-author George Bentham over more than 25 years and published in 1883. It has been called the most outstanding botanical work of the century, describing over 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species. The work underpinned the Bentham-Hooker model for plant classification.

Joseph’s father, William, the first Director of Kew Gardens came to Halesworth to take up the position of superintendent of the brewery, staying for eleven years until his botanical passion drive him to London and his directorial post at Kew Gardens. His son clearly followed in his footsteps and mighty ones they were too: he increased the size of the garden from 11 to 600 acres and oversaw the construction of the Palm House. On 1 November 1865, Joseph succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens, aged just 48.

One of my personal favourites of all his plants is the Winter flowering Sarcococca ‘Hookeriana’ which is possessed of an understated appearance but a fragrance that is anything but. Tiny lime green pendulous blossoms, dangling from the undersides of leathery leafed branches give off a powerfully spicy and verdant sweet scent which wends its way down our garden and into the kitchen whenever we open the door. Often used by municipal gardeners because it is tough and low maintenance, the Sarcococca often makes its home outside multi-storey car parks, on median strips of urban clearways and on council office borders and most of us walk past without paying it a moments notice.

But unlike many of you, when I think of the plants that best typify Suffolk, what does not spring to mind are romantic images of rose bowers, cottage gardens or woodlands with great hazy swathes of bluebells although all these are without doubt easily found in our county and much celebrated. I think of the Scots Pines and Cedars of Lebanon standing sentinel in the grounds of the West Suffolk Hospital and on the neighbouring Hardwick Heath. They populate the ancient and characteristic twisted pinelines of the Brecklands (‘broken lands’) and tall cedars grow among the yews in St Mary’s churchyard in Barking near Needham Market, a legacy of its 19th century vicar, Robert Uvedale. He was another botanical enthusiast who collected seeds from around the world and was believed to have planted one of the trees at his former home, Uvedale Hall nearby after a pupil brought the seeds back from Jerusalem.

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Around 1860, Joseph Hooker developed a yen to visit the Cedars of Lebanon that grew in the eponymous country and in Syria too, despite strong advice to not go because of the civil war that had broken out between the Druze and Christians. Many thousands had been massacred. Even Darwin counselled against it, telling Hooker ” ‘For God’s sake do not go and get your throat cut. Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane.” As he arrived in Damascus in the October, his diary told of what he encountered: ” The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses” but the expedition found, what they believed to be the only remaining group of these trees on Mount Lebanon, about 400 of them with an estimated age was 350-400 years. Hooker collected the seeds and added to the UK population of a tree which has gone on to contribute so much character to our landscapes, both rural and urban. Its shape is etiolated and those distal flat level branches with their clearly defined clouds of bristly leaves are well suited to the coastal regions where it provides tall shade for the wild ponies that graze there and shelters the acid yellow gorse that perfumes the late spring air. Reminiscent of the region from which it originated and mentioned in the bible, “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92 v12), the tree has been a great success and is my living memorial to Joseph Hooker.

Hooker’s own botanical illustrations straddle the fields of art and science being both wondrous objet d’art and scientific record. The history of botanical painting and illustration stretches back centuries, being used for medicinal purposes (Culpeppers) alongside its aesthetic and decorative properties. In Santon Downham, the Iceni Botanical Artists now offer tutorial workshops free of charge to the public at the village hall, funded by the HLF ‘Breaking New Ground’ project. There are guest speakers, the chance to gain skills in watercolour and receive tuition on how best to depict local flora from Breckland wild flowers to its fungi and pine tree landscapes. Artists can tap into a landscape suffused with stories which stretch back to the Stone Age: rabbit farming, glacial pingos, flint mines and over 12,845 species of plants and animals.

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