From the Himalayas to Highgate Hill

Highgate Gardener Stuart Bull potting on Himalayan Ginger Plant seedlings

Highgate Gardener Stuart Bull potting on Himalayan Ginger Plant seedlings - Credit: Nigel Sutton

In an innovative subscription scheme rare seeds from a high altitude plant-hunting trip in Nepal are now thriving on the gentler slopes of a north London garden thanks to a keen Devon nursery owner, his Sherpa friend Lhakpa and a local horticulturalist

Last year Highgate gardener Stuart Bull subscribed to a planthunting expedition to Nepal. The deal was that he would receive some of the seeds that Ray Brown and his two companions would gather. When Stuart told me about this the expedition had yet to set off. Being intrigued by both the Highgate and the Himalayan aspects of this endeavour, I contacted Ray Brown.

It turned out there was a Devon aspect as well. Indeed Ray’s amazing garden, Plant World, is a story in itself… four acres of Devon hillside transformed to represent the vegetation of different parts of the world. Open to the public, the garden is also the source of his business as a supplier of rare seeds. Ray and I agreed that it was pointless to write about the expedition until it had happened. Then Stuart and I came to the same conclusion about his seeds – better to wait till they arrived and some of them had germinated.

There were moments, as Ray has since told me, at which it looked as though neither he nor the seeds might come through in one piece. However, his luck held, Stuart and his fellow subscribers got their seeds. Now that quite a few of them have come up, it seemed a good time to revisit this subject.

Ray Brown has been on plant, to be precise, seed hunting expeditions before. He chose Nepal this time because of his friendship with Lhakpa, a Sherpa whose local knowledge and contacts made the trip possible. In the autumn of 2014 the party set off in a car from hot Kathmandu, but were soon on terrain too rough for driving. On foot they climbed up and up, getting into cooler conditions where, if European, they began to gasp for breath. Ray is full of admiration for the strength and hardiness of the Nepalese members of the group.

All the time they had their eyes peeled for plants – not flowers, but for their dried remains. There were gentians everywhere, and one of them is among the seeds that Stuart Bull has managed to propagate in Highgate. Ray isn’t sure which one it is, so he sent it out to his subscribers simply as Gentianella. Other plants coming up successfully under Stuart’s care include Selinum wallichianum, a pretty, white flowering umbellifer with very lacy leaves, a Halenia elliptica (spurred gentian) Polygonum vaccinifolium and the hardy Himalayan ginger of our photograph of Stuart. The polygonum did not need any hunting, it was growing all round the campsite at 4000m.

However, the star of Stuart’s show, so Ray says, is the Megacodon stylophorus. Ray collected the seed at 4,500m where the altitude was really getting too much for him, but after all that effort, his own ones have not come up. Megacodon stylophorus is another member of the gentian family (its common name is Dinosaur gentian, its Wikipedia picture making it look elegant, with a pale yellow flower, spotted on the inside).

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Gardeners are always being told to consider a plant’s origins when choosing the right place for it. Well, Highgate is on a hill and Stuart’s garden is on a slope, so that’s a good start… but 4,500m? Stuart is suitably cautious in his expectations of how his seedlings will grow on. On the other hand, plants can be wonderfully adaptable. In his Plant World, Ray has managed to accommodate, all on the same north-facing slope, specimens from more or less everywhere, including Africa, N and S America, Russia, Europe, Australasia, China, Japan and, naturally, the Himalayas. As we walked round the world on a recent breezy day, Ray pointed out more plants new to me than I could keep pace with – a hardy begonia (Begonia sutherlandii) a Houttuynia with leaves smelling, so Ray claimed, of orange (I’d agree they had a sharp smell) a Chilean climber called Mutisia, and shade-loving Kirengeshoma just coming into delicate, yellow flower.

In the Himalayan section we paused by Meconopsis napaulensis, its tall drying stalks full of seed and the handsome rosette of next year’s leaves already formed. Admittedly, in terms of frost, a Devon hillside is a bit more like the Himalayas than is Highgate, but still, Ray’s success should surely give Stuart hope.

Plant World Garden and Nursery, Newton Abbot, Devon, 01803 872 939