Tucked away in a valley not far from Loch Long, on the Cowal Penisula in Argyllshire, is the Benmore Botanical Gardens. In May, when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom, the mountainside gardens are an abundance of colour: deep reds, purples and yellows; and scent: honey, pepper and lemon. I grew up in Scotland and our garden was filled with rhododendrons, their blowsy petals reminiscent of sumptuous underwear — frilly bloomers, perhaps. Larger, more colourful, more voluminous than other flowers, they were the exuberant cabaret star to the more modest rose, bluebell or snowdrop. And yet my interest in horticulture did not develop. Flowers were flowers and gardens were only worth visiting if there was a decent café.
As anyone with a botanical education knows, however, the rhododendron is not a native Scottish plant. It grows in a number of continents and climates from the subtropical mountains of Indonesia to the far north of Canada. Like so many of the plants that fill our landscapes, species of rhododendron were ‘collected’ by plant hunters and introduced into Britain over a period of 250 years. Ever since 1753 the Species plantarum in which each plant is named according to the system developed by naturalist Carl Linnaeus, with a binominal, double name, denoting the genus and defining feature, has recorded new botanical discoveries. Gardens, far from being simply displays of decorative flora, are living history, filled with narratives that reflect and record culture, taste, ambition and explorations from other eras.
There are a pair of golden gates in Benmore Botanical Gardens installed by the previous owner, sugar magnate James Duncan, in the 1870s. Beyond the gates are a wide avenue of Sierra Redwoods, a reconstructed Victorian fernery, a glade of Chilean monkey puzzle trees and over three hundred species of rhododendron from all over the world. The estate is now managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, an organisation that has been a hothouse, literally, of plant collection and documentation for over three hundred years. Thanks to Linnaeus’ system of classification, each plant is labelled, some of them named after the collector who found them and brought them back to Europe. For example, Douglas Fir trees, as well as Hosta fortunei and Rhododendron forrestii, carry the names of their Scottish plant collectors — David Douglas, Robert Fortune and George Forrest.
To paraphrase that perennial question beloved of book groups, what inspired me to write about flowers and plant hunters? How did I end up exploring Benmore’s gardens in search of interesting plants on a rainy day in the late spring of 2017? I write historical fiction and after researching the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1887–89 for my novel To Capture What We Cannot Keep became interested in Victorian Britain and in Scotland in particular. A geekish fascination with modern materials, with iron and steel, led to an interest in the construction of hothouses. I discovered that the Kibble Palace in Glasgow, a Victorian glasshouse, had originally been part of entrepreneur John Kibble’s country estate in Coulport near Benmore on Loch Long. In 1873 he gifted the glasshouse to the city, dismantled it, and shipped it up the river Clyde on a barge to be reassembled in its current location in the West End near the university. It’s a wonderful story – a bit like the glass church in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda – and although I have yet to find a use for it, sparked my imagination.
The world of Victorian gardens, where wealthy industrialists such as James Duncan or John Kibble amassed impressive collections of rare plants and constructed huge glasshouses or ferneries to house them in, led to an interest in plant hunters. Why were so many of them Scottish? Why did they travel to remote and inaccessible places and succumb to death by disease or tragic accident? What was the fascination with rare plants and what motivated plant collectors? It seemed that one way to find out was to write a novel featuring a fictional Scottish plant hunter, who like so many others aimed to find and name a new species eponymously, thus granting himself immortality in the Species plantarum. I decided to set my novel in a fictional country estate, not unlike Benmore. The story is told from two points of view: by a Scottish plant hunter’s Anglo-Indian wife who has returned to Scotland from Darjeeling to raise money for her husband’s latest expedition, and by the plant hunter’s sister who lives on the estate after the death of their father.
My biggest inspiration was a plant hunter called George Forrest (1873–1932). While Douglas and Fortune are quite well known – Robert Fortune was responsible for introducing tea from China to India in 1851 – George Forrest is a little more obscure, despite the fact that he collected over thirty-one thousand plant specimens. He made seven trips to China to a remote area near the border with Tibet. At that time it was a land of hostile tribes and extreme weather, of civil unrest and disease. Forrest came down with malaria, lost thousands of seeds, his equipment and – almost – his life when pursued through the jungle by Tibetan lamas in 1905. China also boasted a huge number of uncatalogued botanical species such as Rhododendron protistum var. giganteum, that measured seventy-nine feet in height (the majority of rhododendrons grow to between three and six feet) and Rhododendron traillianum, which Forrest named after his father-in-law, G.W. Traill. Moments of high drama, however, were in sharp contrast to Forrest’s more lyrical view of the landscape. ‘In the morning – the sun as it touches the tops of the Mekong divide,’ he told the Royal Geographical Society in 1908, ‘sends wide shafts of turquoise light down the side gullies to the river which seems to be transformed to silver.’
Of course, botanical exploration was primarily a product of the British Empire, where everything that could be lifted was catalogued and claimed. Rare botanical species weren’t new to the people who lived in an area and many must have already been named. And yet it was a way of claiming the world, naming it and of seeing it afresh, which is, one could say, not far from what a novelist aims to do. When I began to research Scottish plant hunters I discovered enough adventure and passion to populate a film franchise or two. Although very few of my subjects became wealthy, horticultural explorers all went to extreme lengths to find new plant species. Since the rarest specimens were usually discovered in the most inaccessible and sparsely populated locations, plant hunters traversed borders, scaled mountains and endured all kinds of bad weather, disease and attack by ferocious insects in the name of science. So what drove them to do it? How does it feel to discover a new specimen?
I met up with contemporary plant hunter and former neighbour, Peter Hutchison. The author (with Peter Cox) of Seeds of Adventure: in search of plants (Garden Art Press, 2008), he made eighteen expeditions to Asia to trek through remote areas of China or the foothills of the Himalayas in search of rare species. He explained the thrill of discovering a new species in an uninhabited valley in upper Assam in 1965. ‘Each valley has a slightly different climate,’ he told me. ‘It had been raining for days and we had to deal with all sorts of nasties such as leeches and dim-dam flies. I remember we came over the brow of a hill and saw a fizz of scarlet on the horizon. It was a rhododendron, a new one.’
A fizz of scarlet, a wide shaft of turquoise light, the poetry of horticultural expeditions not only transport readers on a page. On a spring day in Benmore, colours and scents, transplanted, literally, from other climates and other continents fill the air with memory of human endeavour and adventure. To me at least, a flower will never be just a flower again.