Last Monday we were all transported miles and miles away, to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Tim Lever, from the Aberconwy Nursery, came to talk to us about a plant-hunting trip – not like the old plant hunters, though, in that all they brought back was photographs – in this beautiful place, in 2008.
In a way, he ended up in Bhutan by accident; he was supposed to be going to Tibet, but the trip fell apart due to the political situation there. And so Bhutan became an alternative, but what an alternative. Thinly populated, the country rises to extraordinary heights – some parts of their journey were at over 7000 metres, almost 3000 metres above the tree line – and what an amazing wealth of flowering plants: Tim described it as ‘staggering’.
He had been inspired by A Quest of Flowers, describing the plant-hunting journeys of Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff. There was a plate in the book of the ‘pink poppywort’ – Meconopsis sherriffii – and the particular aim of the trip was to see if it still flourished in the wild.
It wasn’t an easy journey; the best time to travel if you want to see plants at their best in Bhutan is during the monsoon season, as the weather conditions bring plants into flower. So there was rain, low cloud, wind, leeches – and plants. Lots of plants, from huge lilies Cardiocrinum giganteum) and the strange giant rhubarb (Rheum nobile), to tiny orchids, barely the size of a 50p coin. There’s such a short growing period that plants are much more compact than they would be elsewhere – after all, why put all your energy into growing a tall stalk when what you really need – for reproduction – is a flower?
Tim’s photographs were stunning, and the primulas they found were particularly lovely. One was potentially a new primula, but it would have needed pulling apart to be certain – and they didn’t, thankfully.
They asked all the locals about the pink poppy. Where was it? Had it gone? Had it died out? Nobody knew. And then they were crossing a big boulder scree one day and suddenly, in a gap between two boulders – a pink meconopsis. This was it: Meconopsis sherriffii. They suddenly realised they were surrounded by them; hundreds of them, a very healthy population. The locals hadn’t seen them because they were in the boulder field, and no one in their right mind would cross an unstable scree slope when there was a perfectly good path. Fortunately botanists would!
And what a beautiful plant. Unfortunately it’s very hard to keep in cultivation – the last lot succumbed to a freak spring heatwave. But it wouldn’t look the same in our gardens, anyway…