A century ago plant hunters were the heroes of the day, risking life and limb in far-flung corners of the world to bring home new species of plants.
Among the big names such as EH ‘Chinese’ Wilson, George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward, was Edinburgh-based botanist Roland Edgar Cooper who was sent to Sikkim, Bhutan and the western Himalayas from 1913-17 to find new plants for cultivation.
Funded by wealthy cotton trader Arthur Kilpin Bulley, owner of a botanic garden at Ness, near Liverpool, Cooper discovered many new species on his travels, including Primula calderiana, Viburnum grandiflorum and Lobelia nubigena.
Following the First World War and nine years working in Maymyo Botanical Gardens in Burma, he returned to a post as assistant curator at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) where he became one of the founding members of what is now Scotland’s largest horticultural society – the Scottish Rock Garden Club (SRGC) – which this year is celebrating its 80th anniversary.
At the time, Cooper compared the club to societies set up during the Scottish Enlightenment, when intellectuals would meet in the city’s teahouses to discuss and share ideas.
The first meeting of the SRGC, on 27 July, 1933, was less grandiose, taking place as Cooper described it, in “a darkish parlour at the back entrance to a pub at the west end of Princes Street where we sat below the high windows of the Rutland and commenced proceedings with a glass of beer”.
However, as the Greek playwright Aeschylus said, “From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow” and the SRGC now boasts thousands of members in 38 countries around the world.
At its inception, the club, which was formed with the support of the RBGE, was centrally run, with two annual shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow aimed at creating an interest in rock plants. This has evolved into 13 local groups in Scotland and the north of England, with shows from the Highlands to Blackpool held between February and October.
With many familiar garden species having alpine relatives that have adapted to grow in extreme conditions at high altitude, they are hardy plants.
For Bette Ivey, honorary president of the club, this is one of the attractions of growing alpine plants.
“It’s the challenge of trying to grow something that’s alien to our climate in Scotland,” she says.
The SRGC prides itself on being inclusive and is open to plant enthusiasts around the world, from botanists and collectors to general gardeners.
Ian Christie, one of the country’s leading alpine plant experts and a former president of the club, says: “That’s the appeal of alpine plants. There is something for everyone whether you’re a beginner or expert. As you progress it gets into your bloodstream.”
Another advantage is that rock plants – which range from the tiniest cushion plants to trees – can be grown in any type of garden, whether it is large or small, bog or woodland. They can also grow in alpine houses, raised beds, troughs or pots, or in specialist borders such as crevice or rock gardens.
“You can make a container at your front door, on your decking or patio,” says Christie, who lives near Kirriemuir. “People are getting more interested in gardening but gardens are much smaller now. Alpines suit that.”
Alpines, which include cacti, succulents, orchids, bulbs, corms and tubers, as well as dwarf, evergreen, coniferous and deciduous trees and shrubs, have big flowers for small spaces and are generally low growing.
“They are true jewels of the world,” says Christie. “I have a passion for every single plant that grows on the planet. I have had the privilege of seeing them grow in the wild. When you see the harsh conditions they tolerate to suddenly emerge from the frozen ground, it’s a triumph.”
The plant hunters of yesteryear also had to survive some extremely tough conditions during their expeditions, with Forrest pursued by local Tibetan Buddhist lamas on his trips to Yunnan and Kingdon-Ward surviving an earthquake in Assam, being impaled on a bamboo spike and falling off a cliff among other mishaps.
While today’s SRGC members still travel the world hunting for rarities, laws now restrict the removal of rare plants from their natural place, with collectors limited to recording the locations, habitats and cultural needs of plants before photographing them for future reference.
Meanwhile, since 1948, the club has operated a seed exchange, with people from as far afield as the USA and New Zealand donating seeds, many of which are unavailable commercially.
From Abies koreana to Zigadenus venenosus, the list contains an impressive 5,360 species of plants, with 60,000 packets of seeds sent out on request in the first two months of every year.
Ivey, who lives in Fife, says: “There is such a variety of plants. There are new ones coming in all the time. That’s the thing that’s so good about it – just the range of plants you can grow. You never get bored.”
The international membership of the club has come about largely as a result of the internet, with the SRGC website proving popular worldwide and outgrowing several servers in the process.
Devoted to rock gardening, it includes a forum where today’s members can chat and share advice on anything from the weather to the pronunciation of ‘Jelena’. In addition, the club publishes a journal twice a year which records many plant-hunting expeditions and other club activities.
“I have always said that the SRGC is like a big family spread around the world,” says Christie. “Everyone is passionate about the plants they grow and shares their knowledge, either in the journal or via the forum. We are also greeted with such friendship wherever we go. There are no barriers anywhere within the plant world that is SRGC. We reach out to everyone.”
Next Saturday the SRGC will hold its Stirling show at Kincardine, followed by shows in Edinburgh and the Lothians, Perth, the Highlands and Glasgow, among others.
To mark the anniversary, the club will also be creating a large rock garden exhibit at the Gardening Scotland show at the end of May.
• For more information visit the website at: www.srgc.net