21 Apr 2011

Reading with Teza: Seeds of Adventure – In Search of Plants

book review

I recently turned the last page of a book that I was most interested in adding to my growing library. I’d received a companion book [Roy Lancaster’s ‘Plantsman’s Paradise: Travels in China] from a previous employer – a brilliant planstman who I credit for finally pushing me over the precipice into the intoxicating world of plant collecting, a hobby that in part has resulted in an increasing collection of not only plants themselves, but also books that are in great part responsible for my discovery of new and intoxicating plants that undoubtedly end up on my ‘MUST HAVE’ wish lists!

As a self professed collector of the rare and unusual, anytime I come across a book that allows for me to traverse the globe in search of new and exciting plant materials, all from the comfort of an arm-chair, its pretty much guaranteed that it will become part of my collection. Roy Lancaster’s epic tome was my introduction to Garden Art Press. A heavy, coffee-table formatted book, its pages were filled with not only Roy’s astute prose, but also included well labeled maps, place names, plant index, to say nothing of the jaw dropping sumptuous photography of this incredible landscape, to say nothing of the actual plant materials! A book review in my favourite gardening periodical, Gardens Illustrated convinced me that this new book, ‘Seeds of Adventure: In Search of Plants’ was a necessary companion.

Peter Cox was brought up at Glendoick near Perth, and as he states in the introduction, ‘… with interests connected with plant hunting in south-east Asia all around me. The house was filled with books by Frank Kingdon-Ward, Robert Fortune, Ernest Wilson and Reginald Farrar, plus my father’s own works, including ‘Farrar’s Last Journey,’ and ‘Plant Hunting in China.’…’ The gardens at Glendoick had many plants grown from seed collected in the wild. Cox was also privileged to meet both Joseph Rock and Kingdon-Ward! His father, Euan H.M Cox, had been to Burma with Reginald Farrar in 1919. When one says that ‘gardening is in the blood, Peter is a living epitome!

Peter Hutchison, who readily admits that his early life was less connected with the famous plant collectors than that of Peter Cox, confesses that his early life did not lack the influence of plants and gardens. ‘There can be few places more intriguing for a child to grow up than a Victorian walled garden as we had at the family home of Rossie, near Perth. It was during a trip across the desert in 1957 that inspired Peter, by then an archeology student at Cambridge, that, ‘took my interest in growing plants on to seeing them in the wild and collecting them!’

The book details the story of extensive travels made by Cox and Hutchison, in their quest for hardy plants. In all, the book describes sixteen journeys that resulted in a host of seeds worth treasuring and propagating from amongst the wildflowers of the Himalayas, the highest peaks of China and Turkey. Many of their journeys followed the hallowed footsteps of plant collecting legends of the likes of Frank Kingdon-Ward. Every trip was an adventure, sometimes dangerous, often arduous, and occasionally humorous! Where the Himalayan mountain range meets the gorge country of south-west China lies the richest temperate flora in the world. ‘Here the plants can mate, mutate and migrate in an evolutionary stew that challenges botanists to classify!’ Here, the Peters introduced many plants, especially Rhododendrons, new or lost to cultivation, in the process, saving them from extinction, many of which can be grown outside in the temperate regions of Europe and the US and yes, even Canada!

The photography, at once sumptuous and stunning, covers every intimate step of their journey, often acting as a catalyst between new and exotic topography and the indigenous peoples who make these adventuresome places their home. With over 700 photographs of the mountain flora, there is sure to be something of interest to the intrepid collectors as well as the intrepid arm-chair traveler. Of special interest to me were the vast references to the genera Rhododendron, Primula, Meconopsis and Gentiana! Although I have yet to try my hand at cultivating Rhododendron, the remaining three genera remain within my top favourites!

I can confidently say that this is the perfect complement to Lancaster’s work, and am now contemplating ordering the last of what Garden Art Press refer to as the ‘trio’ – that being Frank Kingdon Ward’s, ‘Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges.’

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