I’m taking a leaf out of SomeBeans’ book and using a blog post to write a reminder of a book I’ve just read. The book in question is ‘A Pioneering Plantsman – A K Bulley and the Great Plant Hunters’ by Brenda McLean, courtesy of Chester library.
Over the past 12 months I’ve read several books about the great plant hunters and the trials they endured to bring new species (and even new genera) of plants to the attention of the British gardener. If you’re interested in this subject, there can’t be a much better illustration of the dangers and privations that plant hunters suffered than the biography of David Douglas – the man who brought the Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) into cultivation. Although this tree commemorates Douglas’s successful seed saving in its common name, its Latin name celebrates its discoverer, Archibald Menzies. If you’re interested in reading about Douglas and his arduous (and ultimately fatal) plant hunting expeditions, I’d recommend this book.
But what of the people who financed these expeditions? They did not have to put themselves through the dangers of hunting out the plants, but without their backing our gardens would have been a lot poorer. Perhaps one of the most famous backers of plant hunters in the Victorian time was the Veitch Nursery of Exeter and Chelsea. This link gives some information on the Veitch Nursery, and this one lists some of the introductions of plants by plant hunters employed by the Veitches – an impressive list which includes the beautiful Davidia involucrata, the seeds of which were collected by E H ‘Chinese’ Wilson, one of their most famous hunters.
A less well-known sponsor of plant hunting in the early 1900’s was A K Bulley. Born in 1861 to a cotton merchant family in Liverpool, Bulley developed an early love for natural history and plant cultivation. He was a committed socialist, standing unsuccessfully as a Parliamentary candidate in three elections, including as a Women’s Suffrage candidate.
In 1897, Bulley bought some land at Ness, on the Wirral peninsula, where he built a house, Mickwell Brow, and started to develop the gardens. From the start, the gardens were freely open to the public between dusk and dawn, every day except Christmas Day. The gardens are still open to the public now, (although not freely!) after being gifted to the University of Liverpool by his daughter in 1948.
Bulley started a commercial nursery in the gardens in 1904 – Bees Ltd., as well as continuing his cotton trading. The title of this post comes from a Bees’ advertisement. The nursery sold seeds of all types of plants, many of which were displayed in the extensive herbaceous borders at Ness. However, Bulley’s main interest throughout his life was in alpine plants.
In the early 1900’s, the cotton trade was doing well, so Bulley felt that he had sufficient funds to be able to support a plant hunter to expand his plant collection. In correspondence with Sir Isaac Balfour, of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, the name of George Forrest was recommended. And so Forrest was sent to North west Yunnan, China. This area was decided upon as it was not quite on Veitch’s and Wilson’s stamping ground, but would supply the alpine and hardy herbaceous plants which Bulley craved both for his own interests and for his business interests. New introductions of seed could command high prices.
Forrest was subjected to difficult conditions and hostility, as well as the vagaries of Bulley’s purse strings. However, he discovered large numbers of new plants, and collected their precious seeds. Pieris formosa forrestii was discovered by Forrest, and a plant from the original seed still grows at Ness. As the Bees nursery grew, Bulley recognised the opportunity for advertising his nursery through the names of newly discovered plants, and so introduced Primula beesiana, Jasminium beesianum and Allium beesianum. Bulley himself is commemorated in many plant names, including Primula bulleyana (candelabra primula) and Androsace bulleyana. Forrest also collected seed of the previously discovered Primula viallii.
Primula viallii growing at Ness Gardens
Bulley continued to support Forrest’s expeditions for several years, despite Forrest’s concerns about payment – Bulley on occasions left Forrest without sufficient funds.
Another plant hunter supported by Bulley was Frank Kingdon-Ward. This was a man who loved the adventurous life of an explorer, but wasn’t quite as systematic in his plant-hunting as Forrest, which sometimes frustrated Bulley. Neverthless, Kingdon-Ward provided seed of many species new to cultivation which were subsequently sold by Bees. These included Gentiana wardii, Primula chungensis and Rhododendron wardii. Kingdon-Ward went on to collect seed from many rhododendron species in China, such as Rhododendron lanigerum.
Moving on from China, Bulley was looking to the Himalayas, and employed a young collector called R E Cooper. Cooper busily collected alpine plants from Sikkim, but to Bulley’s dismay these high alpine specialists were almost impossible to grow in the UK, and those that did grow were not marketable enough to make a profit. Cooper’s second trip for Bulley was to the ‘hidden kingdom’ of Bhutan, where he discovered plants such as Cotoneaster cooperi and Viburnum grandiflorum. However, Cooper’s finds were generally of more interest to botanical science than as plants to grow in a garden, and Bulley never recouped in sales the amount of money that Cooper’s expeditions cost.
With the onset of the First World War, Bulley reduced his sponsorship of plant hunters, though he had a part share in Reginald Farrer’s expedition to China. After the war, Farrer set off to Burma, where he found the beautiful Nomocharis farreri. There was tension between Bulley and Farrer, as Farrer was of gentrified stock as opposed to Bulley’s merchant background, and Farrer did not enjoy being beholden to Bulley’s rather stingy and often late financial support. Farrer unfortunately died and was buried in the Burmese hills whilst collecting.
Still obsessed with alpines, Bulley also supported exploratory expeditions to the areas surrounding Mount Everest, providing money for the expedition in return for seed collecting. A range of new rhododendrons were collected, as well as a new primula – Primula wollastoni, named after the naturalist on the expedition, Dr A F R Wollaston.
With his obsession for rare and beautiful alpine plants, Bulley was always looking for new ways of growing his precious collection. This led to an experiment which caused a backlash in the press of the time, and something which we would consider very bad form nowadays. Bulley had seen the alpine gardens which have been made on some mountains in the Alps, and thought that they could be emulated in the UK.
He rented 500 acres of land on Mount Snowdon in Wales and planted up a range of alpines, many of which had been discovered by his plant hunters. His idea was to naturalise and experiment with exotics in the wild. He was aware that there might be concern over this, but knew that the plants were temperamental and very unlikely to escape from the ‘garden’ and outcompete native plants. However, the press exaggerated the scale of his experiment, and the negative publicity associated with the scheme, as well as poor survival rates of the plants, meant that he eventually had to abandon it. Bulley continued to support plant hunters, though now as one of a number of subscribers rather than the sole sponsor.
After his death his daughter, Lois Bulley, gifted Ness Gardens to the University of Liverpool, who still own it. Nowadays it is a botanic garden, still containing many of the plants that were grown from seed by Bulley’s gardeners. The rhododendrons and camellias impress in the Spring, as do the candelabra primulas.
We are both ‘Friends of Ness’ and visit it regularly. If you get there when it opens, you often have the place to yourself and it is easy to imagine that the gardens belong to you. But of course, that was never how Bulley intended it. The gardens were always for everyone. Partly a showcase for his seed company but mostly because he felt it was his duty to make his gardens available, for free, to anyone who wanted to visit them. As he said to other gardeners in a radio talk given in 1934: “I want you to throw them open. It is your delightful privilege. …every now and again, you will get the exceptional pleasure of seeing someone like yourself, who goes round really understanding and appreciating the difficulties you have met, and the successes you have scored. It’s fine. Start this spring. Goodnight.”
Thanks to VP for pointing me in the direction of this book.