23: Spring 2009

Author: Valerie Livesey

Plants from the edge of the world

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Plants from the edge of the worldValerie Livesey

Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham’s book Plants from the edge of the world: New explorations in the Far East came about as a result of the Great Storm of 1987. On the 15th October warm tropical air spun off from Hurricane Floyd, was pumped into the jet stream high above the Atlantic Ocean travelling north-eastwards and gathering speed. At the same time an area of low pressure developed over NW Spain and moved north over the Bay of Biscay. That evening, the weather forecaster Michael Fish told viewers about a lady who had rung the BBC, concerned as she had heard ‘there was a hurricane on the way’. His now infamous comment was, ‘Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t’. But as the warm air from the south met the high speed column of cold air from the hurricane, a savage blast of energy was released over the southeast of England and north-western France during the small hours of 16th October. Winds of more than 100 knots were recorded over Sussex and Kent causing widespread damage to property and infrastructure.

At the Royal Botanic Garden Kew, the destruction amounted to some eight hundred mature trees including those which subsequently had to be felled as they were deemed unsafe. At Wakehurst Place, Kew’s country garden high above the Sussex Weald, losses were estimated to be a staggering 15,000, although many of these were natives and plantation species. A media frenzy ensued, with the press, television and radio all wanting details of the trees damaged and many people were deeply affected by the loss of such well-known specimens. But slowly, after the massive clean-up operation, came the realisation that the huge gaps in the landscape could be turned to advantage. They provided the space to accommodate new material that could be collected from around the world. Particular areas were targeted especially where plants were under-represented – eastern Asia for example.

We, in the British Isles, are very fortunate in having a temperate maritime climate which can support the growth of many tree species. Unfortunately at the present time our native or indigenous species have been reduced in number down to less than forty. This is due to the effects of the various periods of glaciation – the last occurring only as recently as eighteen thousand years ago. As the earth cooled and the glaciers advanced, the climate became harsher and less suited to the growth of forest trees. The climatic zones moved southwards, temperate becoming arctic and subtropical temperate. Throughout Asia evidence suggests that the glaciations were less severe and the forest survived largely intact. In North America the mountain systems run from north to south and at the height of the glaciations central America became the repository for the flora, recolonisation occurring northwards when the conditions became more favourable once again. However, in Europe the glaciations were harsh and the east-west mountain ranges made southwards migration more difficult. Classic studies of the fossil record of deposits lying beneath the south and east of England tell us that the remains of trees which are no longer part of the European flora, genera now restricted to North America and eastern Asia, flourished here millions of years ago. Indeed even as recently as three million years ago a great temperate forest extended unbroken across the landmass of Eurasia and North America. Notwithstanding, gone are the magnolias, hickories, wingnuts, catalpas, sweet gums, katsuras, tupelos, gingkos and many conifers including Sciadopitys and Sequoiadendron. In contrast to the meagre flora of the British Isles, the diversity of tree species in China and the east is staggering – there are more species of woody plants on the single peak of Emei Shan in Sichuan province alone than in the whole of Britain.

Kew has always been associated with plant collectors, benefiting from seeds brought back by E. H. Wilson, George Forrest, Frank Kingdon Ward and Joseph Rock in the early part of the twentieth century. Opportunities and funding for travel then became more limited, although collecting trips were made to Iran in 1977, the eastern Himalaya in the 1970s and 80s and South Korea in 1982. Contact was made with important Chinese officials in the 1980s which culminated in an expedition to Sichuan province in 1988. The visit to South Korea had left unfinished business – some areas of the country had not been visited and a few collections failed to germinate or establish successfully. A follow up expedition was planned for the autumn of 1989, led by Tony Kirkham and to include Mark Flanagan, the newly appointed manager at Wakehurst Place.

So begins the first of four expeditions which are described; the other three being to Taiwan in the autumn of 1992, East Russia and the island of Sakhalin in 1994 and Japan (Hokkaido) 1997, closing the temperate loop. The emphasis is on woody plants, of course, but not exclusively so; many herbaceous species are also referred to. The highs and lows of seed collecting are vividly described together with the strategies for dealing with ‘basic’ accommodation, strange food and vicious mosquitos. Early starts and long days feature heavily; in addition to seed collection and cleaning, herbarium specimens and field notes are also taken. No wonder then that peculiar dreams seem to occur regularly!

The final chapter records some of the plants now growing at Kew and Wakehurst Place from the collections made. Trees and shrubs from Hokkaido and South Korea seem to have given the best results so far -probably because their climate is most similar to ours. Many species have made rapid progress, particularly when the roots were not confined into a cramped pot but field grown instead. In all, a total of 426 different species and varieties were contributed to the collections at Kew and Wakehurst from the trips – not too bad!

Plants from the edge of the world: new explorations in the Far East.
Mark Flanagan & Tony Kirkham (2005) Timber Press. 312 pp. Colour photographs.
ISBN 0-88192-676-0 (Hardcover) £25.00

First published in the Correspondents Group Newsletter, March 2006
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 23
© Copyright for this article: Valerie Livesey

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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