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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 22 January 2018 by Tim Ingram

Andrew Luke - Plant Collecting in Vietnam.

Plant Collecting in Vietnam - talk to the East Kent AGS, 8th December 2017.

At the beginning of the last century G.P. Baker wrote in the first volume of the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society that the dangers of plant hunting and collecting species in the Greek highlands of Mount Olympus were from the brigands that lived in these regions. Many of the foremost plant hunters of the past - notably in China - faced dangers often more from their fellow man than from the environments they travelled through. Over the intervening years - but most especially recently - a sea change has occurred in the perception of hunting for plants and the emphasis turned from collecting and personal risk to conservation and recording of  rare species in the natural world, faced with degradation and exploitation both from land use and development, and also at times the horticultural industry and desire of gardeners. The stories of plant hunting, which in the past were led and financed as much by wealthy patrons and competition between large estates as by botany and science, have changed with CITES, the IUCN Red Data List, and the Nagoya Protocol - and a much greater knowledge and understanding of ecology - to the importance of both in. situ and ex. situ conservation. In its 90-year history the Alpine Garden Society has followed these changes in the articles written by members, but throughout has shown that simple fascination and deep interest in plants which underlies any true gardener, and in which cultivation and conservation are really just two side of the same coin.

The great gardens of yesterday may have resulted from wealthy patrons and competition - and often privilege - but the gardens of today, of whatever size, have a more egalitarian role in connecting us to our environment, in the ways they share knowledge and the craft of gardening. Now-a-days introducing new plants from the natural world is more restricted and often done in more collegiate ways by Botanic Gardens and groups of skilled horticulturists.

 

This was the basis of Andrew Luke's talk to us in December on 'Collecting plant material for ex. situ conservation in N.W Vietnam'. Andrew is now head gardener at the English Heritage property, Wrest Park, in Bedfordshire, but for seventeen years previously worked as an horticulturist, Arboretum Nursery Manager and Supervisor of the Woodland, Order Beds and Grass Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. His talk to us in December resulted from expeditions to the Hoang Lien mountain range in Vietnam with colleagues from other Botanic Gardens including Cambridge, Glasgow, Logan in the UK and Vancouver and Longwood in N. America.

This mountain range, and its highest peak Phan Si Pan (3143m - the highest in Indo-China) lies close to the border with China and the Red River that carries on past Hanoi, 300km to the south-east,  and eventually into the Gulf of Tonkin and South China Sea. The climate is sub-tropical to temperate with very high rainfall (between 2 500 to 3 500mm annually) and humidity (76 to 96%). The aim was to study and collect plant material from the higher altitude and more temperate regions, based from the hill town of Sa Pa.

Andrew took us through all aspects of the expeditions from the initial planning and research to the practical processes of collecting seed, herbarium specimens and DNA samples in such a difficult environment (for example in using ethanol to help preserve specimens in damp conditions before they can be pressed and dried properly). He introduced us to a host of unfamiliar species, many of which have great horticultural potential - at least in mild and wet western gardens - including such plants as Polyspora speciosa (a long flowering relative of Camellia), Rhodoleia championi (a fascinating member of the Hamamelidaceae), the rare Aesculus wangii (which is simultaneously under threat from both forest clearance and horticultural exploitation of seed by collectors), and Callicarpa rubella (considerably more attractive in leaf than the more familiar C. bodinieri). The region is rich in evergreen Magnolia species, including M. sapiensis and rather striking M. foveolata (I've borrowed the earlier image from Andrew Luke on 'Twitter'). And there are a number of rare coniferous trees such as Taxus wallichiana, Cunninghamia konishii, Fokienia hodginsii and Xanthocyparis vientnamensis.

The wet and humid climate also results in extensive colonies of epiphytic orchids, ferns and mosses which give the understorey vegetation a great richness and diversity, contributing to the 2 000 plus species recorded in the region, with a high degree of endemism (18%).

Judging by the long question and answer session at the end of Andrew's talk - which included a fascinating excursion into the value of 'air pots' in growing woody plants - his talk was one of the most stimulating of any that we've had, even thought the closest to a true alpine plant we saw were species of the climbing gentians Crawfurdia. The ways that gardens can encourage greater conservation of plant diversity is bound to have increasing relevance around the world, especially in the countries of origin of threatened species. Andrew also mentioned the importance of collaboration with local botanists and nurseries in Vietnam. This has always been so, looking back to great plant hunters such as Frank Kingdon Ward, profiled by a modern day example, Tony Schilling, in the reference I give below. 

Our sincere thanks to Andrew for his talk to us, and his commitment to the specialist world of horticulture in the UK - beyond his professional position - is evident in the regular plant stories he shares on the website of the Hardy Plant Society.

References: 

http://www.dendrology.org/site/images/web4events/pdf/IDS_15_Trees_Phan-Si-Pan-Vietnam_LR-58023b9181827.pdf

http://www.botanic.cam.ac.uk/Botanic/NewsItem.aspx?p=27&ix=266&pid=2722&p

https://www.rhododendron.org/v45n3p140.htm

http://www.hardy-plant.org.uk/blog/potm-1801

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