Travelling to Colombia

ColombiaBleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones have been plant hunting for many years now (in the spirit of the nineteenth-century explorers, if not – thank heavens – with their rapacious techniques). And this month we were privileged to have Bleddyn come and speak to us about their recent trip to Colombia.

Most of us probably had rather hazy ideas about the country – not realising, perhaps, just how large it is (roughly twice the size of France) or how varied the countryside is, or how much of it is at an altitude which can make working difficult, or just how very hot it can be. (And when we think of Welsh settlers in South America, we automatically think of Patagonia, but now we know that there are people of Welsh origin in Colombia too.)

We can also understand a bit more about the amazing flora…


Bleddyn had helpfully come equipped with plant lists, which were useful. The one thing that stunned us all was the sheer size of some of the plants at lower altitudes; putting people in the photographs really gave an astonishing impression. But even higher up, some (like the Espeletias above) were enormous. Not all though; we were shown a pretty mat-forming geranium, G. sibbaldioides, which as ‘an inch tall, at best’.

We learned a bit about the realities of a plant-hunting expedition: getting licences, the perils of poisonous seeds, the methodical approach needed. A good day ends not in a big supper but in processing and recording. Plant material is stored in Ziploc bags; dried seeds in paper. Records are made of the altitude, any companion plants; all necessary details are noted down, and then each collected item is given an accession number. Of course, it’s essential to collect ripe seed, and we learned that a vital tool is a telescopic pole with a sharp hook on the end. And that, even so, some plants can be quite uncooperative.

It was very impressive – and so were the plants we were shown. In Colombia even the street planting, apparently, is spectacular. ‘It’s so easy to grow things there’, said Bleddyn. Lucky them!


Travelling to Bhutan…

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.

Meconopsis sherriffii

M. sherriffii – photo courtesy of Meconopsis World

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…

Meconopsis sherriffii in its habitat

Photo courtesy Meconopsis World