Thursday, December 15, 2011

echoes of plantsmen past

Oh so typically, municipal tree planting is bland, uninteresting and functional. This is something I often bemoan. I like to imagine that if I had responsibility for such things, in 30 years time people walking through the town or city I had responsibility would frequently wonder at the beauty and weirdness growing, fruiting and/or blossoming amidst the concrete. Every now and again though, I walk through a park or suburban area and am pleasantly surprised by evidence that a like-minded soul was here before me. This is a park in Exeter and this is the biggest Acer griseum I've ever seen.


Acer griseum is a maple native to central china which typically tops out at less than 30 feet (this one was all of that). It was introduced to western cultivation 110 years ago by Ernest "Chinese" Wilson for Veitch's nursery. Wilson is a legend among plant hunters - more than 2,000 species introduced to cultivation (including the Pocket Hankerchief tree discovered by Pere David and the Regal Lily) and namesake to 60 species. The Veitchs meanwhile introduced 1200 species to cultivation in Europe including 49 conifers and such famous species as the giant pitcher Nepenthes rajah while dispatching famous planthunters like the Lobbs and Wilson to what were then the furthest frontiers of exploration. The Veitchs also had one limb of their nursery in Exeter. So Acer griseum comes with serious historical pedigree plus it is rather ornamental. It's common name is paperbark maple.....because it does this:


Spectacular and I love seeing a big one of these in a park in Exeter, thinking of the Veitchs and Wilson out in the wilderness and then thinking of a plantsman 30 or so years ago pondering that history, thinking of the link to the town and a beautiful tree and then beginning to dig a hole.

At the other end of the park was something rather different, arguably more surprising and also with some history.

This is Pinus wallichiana, the Bhutan Pine which is, as its name suggests found in Bhutan and indeed across the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush, from eastern Afghanistan across northern Pakistan and India into Yunnan province. It is named for Nathaniel Wallich who sent seed to Europe in 1827 and who like Wilson has a fair bit of planthunter pedigree.


Edited highlights of Wallich's resume include:
  • First Honorary Curator and First Superintendent of the Oriental Museum of the Asiatic Society.
  • Superintendent of East India Company's Botanical Garden at Calcutta

  • In 1822, at the behest of his friend Sir Stamford Raffles he travelled to Singapore to design the botanical garden.
  • Prepared a catalogue of more than 20,000 specimens which is known informally as the "Wallich Catalog". Today, Wallich's personal collection is housed at the Kew Herbarium as a separate collection, known as the Wallich Collection. In addition to the specimens in the Wallich Collection, Wallich also distributed duplicates of his specimens to herbaria, of note are the duplicates he sent to Sir Joseph Banks, which are in the Kew general collection, outside of the Wallich Collection.
  • Published two important books, Tentamen Floræ Nepalensis Illustratæ (vols I-II, 1824–26) and Plantæ Asiaticæ Rariores (vols I-III, 1830–32), and went on numerous expeditions.
  • Regularly offered assistance to the many plant hunters who stopped in Calcutta on their way to the Himalaya.
To the extent that sounds nice but garden oriented bear in mind the significance of rare plants in those days, Wallich was involved in assessing the possibility of tea growing in Assam (you may have subsequently heard of Assam Tea) and both rubber and quinine plants flowed through the Botanic Gardens established in India and Singapore with significant economic results. Pinus wallichiana by contrast simply looks nice.


It is a little tender in the more northern UK (ie mine died) but good in the south and has rather beautiful delciate drooping needles and long drooping cones. There is a monstrous specimen in RBG Kew and I'd thoroughly recommend it to those planning to plant a pine......especially those in public gardens with a sense of showmanship, history and a kindred spirit with plantsmen o the past.

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