Sunday, 28 February 2010

What's In a Name?

It has become easier and more frequent for individuals to travel in the past 50 years, as air flights have become more affordable and peer-group pressures have increased.  I have benefitted from this myself and have always been amazed by the range and wonder of the plants and culture of new places.  The experience for us, however, is so different to that of the intrepid plant hunters and travellers of the past.  When travelling to the Canary Islands, for example, I was first struck by my surroundings in a surreal sense.  In a warm climate with a friable volcanic soil I felt surrounded by pot plants growing outside.  It felt a bit like an enormous garden centre!  So many of our well-known plants travel almost more than we do and so we can recognise old friends or, more frequently, the genetic cousins of our old friends who have not been bred to show different characteristics to those you find in the wild.  For early travellers they must have looked very much more strange.

As a landscape architecture student I chose to base one of my projects at Wakehurst Place, based obliquely on a small project I had been involved with to investigate the possible site for a new visitor centre.  The undergraduate project, because it was not a real project, took the enormous conceptual leap of placing a large building on the sensitive site, so it was with some wry amusement that I watched the preparations only a few years later for the building of the Millennium seedbank!  I went rather whacky with my concept and got massively tangled up in whirls of time, spirals and the long-standing relationship of Wakehurst with China and plants of Chinese origin.  This also began a long-standing interest in the plants that have been used at different periods in the history of landscape and garden design.  I also dabbled with drawing in a pseudo-Chinese style.  Thankfully the drawing style shifted, but the interest in the history of our use of plants has remained.  This means that I intend to run occasional blogs based upon this, focussing on individual species or themes.

My first choice of plant may seem a strange one.  It is a far from fashionable species at the moment, sadly some of our neighbours have just removed a fine specimen from their garden within the past 6 months.  It is a plant that I have loved since childhood and I believe illustrates many factors that relate to the introduction of any plant, and there is also a special Wakehurst cultivar of it, which is appropriate.  It was also found by a Scotsman, possibly the greatest plant collector af all time, which has to be good news!  He was also strongly connected to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, a major haunt of my childhood.

The plant I have chosen is what I have always known as Pieris forrestii.  It was found by (and named for) a man called George Forrest, from Falkirk.  It can grow to considerable size, as is evident in this specimen that grows at RHS Wisley.  Forrest found the original plant in Yunnan Province in China and brought it back for his sponsor, AK Bulley, who ran Bees Nursery and whose collection is the basis for the Ness Botanic Garden, now part of the University of Liverpool.  It was named Pieris forrestii by RL Harrow in 1914, and then renamed Pieris formosa var. forrestii by Airy Shaw in 1934 after further work had been carried out on the specimen in RBG Edinburgh's herbarium.  It was decided that although its growth style was very different, it was still too closely related to Pieris formosa to be split off from it. The plant often used in cultivation is Pieris formosa var. forrestii 'Wakehurst'.  This cultivar from the early twentieth-century was bred to increase tolerance of frost and to encourage the bright red spring shoots and other characters that made the original plant so attractive.  It became very popular in the middle of the twentieth-century in particular.

China's hillsides remain less well-travelled than many other parts of the world, despite being the source slopes for many thousands of our favourite garden plants, brought home by many of the famous names of plant hunting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries.  Many of the plants brought back bear a passing resemblance to their forebears, but have been altered often to quite a degree, with emphasis on size and abundance of flowers in favour of dignity.  Sadly it appears that many rhododendrons and other woody species that share the diverse range of the Pieris family in China and also in the Americas are vulnerable to the new outbreaks of the terrible fungul attacks from Phytophthora ramorum. Inevitably this will reduce further their fashionability, which is a shame because their flamboyance and sense of fun are infectious and inspiring.

An old name for Pieris is Andromeda, which appears to relate to the beauty and form of the flowers they all bear, in mythology Andromeda became a constellation after her death.  This name was a Linnaean one, from which Pieris split in 1834 when Don named Pieris formosa from its previous name of Andromeda formosa, given to it by Wallich in 1820.  There is only one Andromeda left now, a cute little plant called Bog Rosemary in English.  The flower is special, but looks very different to the stellar florets of all Pieris.  All other larger members of Andromeda have been split off into Lyconias, Gaultherias and several more species including Pieris.

The original Andromeda formosa was found by Wallich somewhere in Nepal before he named it in 1820.  Wallich was originally from Copenhagen and started working for the British East India Company in 1814, where he was heavily involved with the Oriental Museum and the Botanic Gardens in Calcutta.  While he was Superintendant of the Botanic Gardens he sent large volumes of plant seed back to England.  Despite the description of the plant in 1820 and the renaming of the genus in 1834, records show Pieris formosa as having entered use as a garden plant only in 1856.  It really does appear that George Forrest's form with its young red shoots was what was needed to make it a fashionable and popular plant nearly 100 years later.

In my childhood I would watch impatiently for those soft red young shoots to start growing.  For me it was the moment when the year took on warmth and promise.  I would relish their apparent optimism and try to borrow some of it.  Even now, as an adult, I look with joy as the leaves start to form.  I do confess that I have always found the flowers a bit of an oddity, but when you look directly at them, their form is compelling and has its own charm.  It is interesting to reflect upon the name 'Pieris'.  David Don (another Scot) who restructured Andromeda in 1834 is considered to have taken as his inspiration for the name the Pierides, the Greek Muses.  It is so tempting to take a lateral shift on this and move across to the idea of the Pierian Spring as in Alexander Pope's “Essay on Criticism”    
   "A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again
and to have the genus as a spring flowering flamboyant intoxication.

1 comment:

  1. Brian and Alison Young22 April 2010 at 16:08

    Dear Amanda - Your mother directed us to your site! It's good to read about your multifarious interests. Alison and I see the Plant Hunters' Garden at Pitlochry when we go to theatre. George Forrest features there, as you know. The garden seems to be maturing nicely.
    Brian Young