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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 22 October 2015 by Tim Ingram

Paul Barney - 'Plant Hunting in Manipur'

Manipur - on the trail of Frank Kingdon Ward


Paul Barney’s talk to the East Kent AGS Group this October was the result of five trips to India’s north-east and the region of Manipur, bordering onto Burma. In the longer term though it has come from an innate instinct to travel which has taken him to over 90 countries, and a specialist interest in the edible plants of the world which is expressed in many of the species grown at Edulis Plants over the past 22 years.


Frank Kingdon Ward lived in Manipur for a while and wrote of his time there in his book ‘Plant Hunter in Manipur’ (1952). Yet still this is a relatively unexplored region with a flora familiar in some ways from these earlier days but much more diverse and fascinating after listening to Paul’s talk to us this autumn. From Manipur, at 8000 feet on Mt. Sirhoi, comes one of the most beautiful lilies in the world, Lilium mackliniae, named for KIngdon Ward’s wife who accompanied him to the region in the late 1940’s. Here also is the yellow Rhododendron macabeanum, a bevy of fragrant shrubs and climbers including Buddleja macrostachya, Eleagnus latifolia and Holboellia latifolia, roses - including huge specimens of R. gigantea with stems 80 to 90 feet long, a great variety of gingers, and a primula with leaves ‘as hairy as a blanket and... large flowers of milky mauve’ - P. sherriffiae. All of these are described in two compelling articles by Kingdon Ward in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society Vol. LXXIV, 1949, pp. 288 and 333. Kingdon Ward finishes his article with the sentence: ‘I am convinced that both collections [his and those of Dr. S. K. Mukerjee] together do not add up to a quarter of the flowering plants of East Manipur, one of the richest areas I have ever explored’. It is easy to see from this the draw of the region to modern day plant hunters such as Paul and Nick Macer (Pan Global Plants) and Steve Griffith (Abbotsbury Garden), who travelled with him at different times. The more inaccessible parts of Manipur are rarely visited and Paul met two villagers with a memory of Kingdon Ward and who had met no westerner’s again until now.


Climatically much of the region is sub-tropical rainforest with a monsoon - enhanced by the north-south topography of high ground and valleys - but above 5000 feet at Ukhrul becomes warm temperate evergreen broad-leaved forest. The highest hills such as Sirhoi reach 7000 to 9000 feet with many plants potentially suited to the climate of the UK and south-eastern USA, and grown in both of these places. 


In autumn there are alliums such as A. hookeri, grown all over S.E. Asia as a food but also an attractive ornamental flowering from May and June late into October. Allium wallichii is another good late flower valuable for moist shade. Species of Hedychium and other ginger relatives are common, growing in this wet summer climate but with quite dry and cold winters at altitude; forms of H. spicatum and H. coccineum can be good garden plants given suitable summer moisture. Even in our relatively dry garden Tony Schilling’s collection ‘Tara’ from the Himalayas grows and flowers well. Other interesting plants that Paul showed us included several mahonias, Quercus lamilosa, Sarcococca wallichii, the rather beautiful and elegant palm, Phoenix manipurensis, and Cornus aff. capitata (weighed down with a free crop of ‘custard-flavoured’ fruits). Many of these, along with herbs such as Bergenia pacumbis (close to B. ciliata) and species of Amorphophallus, Arisaema and Globba are likely to be of rarified interest and only hardy in mild and moist gardens. Others though, such as Daphne bholua, the orchids Pleione praecox and Cymbidium gracilis, and a range of polygonatums have strong horticultural appeal - as well as many of the other plants that Paul showed us in his talk. It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear of them first hand.


(from Kingdon Ward's articles in 1949 here are illustrations of Lilium mackliniae both in Nature and in cultivation. It is not an easy lily in our dry climate of the south-east but a superlative plant in northern gardens...).

Lilium mackliniae
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