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16 Feb 2022

The plant diaspora

Written by Roddy Hamilton, Ranger in the North East region
A colour photo of a red-barked tree growing out from a garden bed, with Crathes Castle in the distance. The sky is a very deep blue.
The plant hunters had a huge influence on Crathes Castle Garden and the designed landscape.
For the most part, world travel is a good thing. I am looking forward to hearing many different languages at our places in the coming season, and I admire the diversity of plantings throughout North-East Scotland which have resulted from global travel.

As travel hopefully opens up, our places should see more overseas visitors this year and will benefit from the new perspectives they bring. These visitors will no doubt want to enjoy our gardens, parklands and arboreta as they explore Scotland’s rich natural heritage.

I often wonder if they recognise their plants from back home, or if they feel an affinity with these much-admired plants that have made the same journey as they have, albeit more than a century ago!

Down the west drive at Crathes, I remember hearing Spanish voices near one of the monkey puzzle trees. I’d like to think the visitors were from Chile, like the monkey puzzle itself – there would be an elegant circularity in that. I remember meeting a group of Americans at House of Dun, just before Lady Augusta’s Walk, and wondering if they knew the Monterey pine near the entrance came from the west coast of California, like their accents. And then there is the Scottish diaspora, who return as tourists to see the plants of their new home growing in their native land.

But do any of these well-travelled visitors ever give a passing thought to the plant hunters who brought these plants here in the first place?

Tall tree stand in almost silhouette against a deep blue sky. On the hill in the background, the turrets and flagpole of Crathes Castle can just be seen. In the foreground grow red-leaved shrubs.
Crathes is home to many different species of trees from all over the world, providing year-round interest.

As Victorian trade routes opened up the world to British people, there followed a soaring demand for new and exotic plants. British landowners, just like the Burnett family at Crathes Castle, wanted to populate their gardens with prestigious plants and trees. The more botanical knowledge increased, so too did the thirst to own and grow these ‘new’ plants. Elite families were prepared to pay for these status symbols in their landed estates. To satisfy this demand, botanical societies began to commission what became known as ‘plant hunters’ to bring home seeds to propagate.

Were it not for these Victorian plant hunters, the topography of our designed landscapes would be very different today, almost certainly less diverse. While this might generally be a positive thing, there were some negative aspects to the process.

Rhododendrons are an imported species from Europe and Asia that indisputably add dimension and colour to many Scottish gardens. However, the ponticum variety has done too well in Scotland and has become problematic. It is now often viewed as an invasive species; it has escaped from our gardens and arboreta to nearby woodlands, where it crowds out native flora.

Find out more about how the National Trust for Scotland is handling the ponticum problem.

A close-up of a bright purple rhododendron flower
The bright purple flower of Rhododendron ponticum is one of the reasons it became very popular.

Other imports from the plant-hunting era changed the landscape of Scotland in far-reaching ways. At many of our places, you will see Douglas firs. These are often notable trees, prominently positioned to complement the grandeur of our castles. Douglas fir is also a forestry tree, and in Scotland it revolutionised our commercial forestry operations.

So you might think the plant hunter who first imported it to the UK became a wealthy man. Not so. For the plant hunters themselves, there was sometimes a very high price to be paid.

The Douglas fir is named after David Douglas, whose bravery and skill as a botanist led to this species being grown in Scotland. The Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine and grand fir were also introduced by him. But plant hunting was a dangerous business, and for David Douglas it ended very badly indeed. Plant hunters often had to run from or evade local people, who considered seed collecting theft; they also faced challenges of diseases, weather events, wild animals ... even pirates. David Douglas was not a trained explorer, but a gardener from Perthshire who was commissioned by the Royal Horticultural Society to undertake a plant-hunting expedition in North America. His trip resulted in the introduction of over 200 plant species in Britain. However, this success led not to immense personal wealth, but to the bottom of a pit trap in Hawaii where he was mauled to death by a wild bull. It’s suspected that the man who found him, a known criminal, may have been involved.

A view standing on the forest floor and looking up into the very tall trunks and branches of Douglas fir trees.
Douglas firs tower above you as you walk through the woodland at the Hermitage

Going back to that monkey puzzle on the west drive at Crathes again, I consider that the plant hunter Archibald Menzies fared considerably better. In addition to the monkey puzzle, he is celebrated for finding the Douglas fir before David Douglas began importing it (a fact reflected in its scientific name Pseudotsuga menziesii). He also brought back the Lawson’s cypress and the western red cedar. His long life ended in wealth and fame; he had a successful career, becoming a doctor at Aberdeen University, a naturalist and a ship’s surgeon. In the end, he even had streets named after him. And of course, his trees will continue to delight visitors to Scotland’s gardens and estates for many, many generations to come.

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