Whenever I go abroad I find myself fascinated with the local flora. I have lived all of my life in the UK so I can wander around my local area and am confident I can identify many of the native species, as well as a lot of the cultivated ones.
When I go on holiday and find myself outside of my local patch it becomes much more complex. Even the most common of plants seems alien to me. I am caught in a mix of uncertainty, as I no longer have the confidence to identify what surrounds me, but also excitement at the prospect of learning a whole new vocabulary of plants. Usually by the second day I am wishing I had purchased a good identification guide before I came, and am rapidly burning through my data, furiously googling to see if I can get a rough idea what the strange plants that have been bamboozling me are.
Last weekend I arrived back in the UK from a week of visiting my wife’s family in Israel. In between trips to meet the relations we managed to ‘shoehorn’ a couple of botanical excursions in our itinerary to satisfy my plant curiosity. We visited the botanical gardens in Jerusalem, had a nosey around a local garden centre, paid a quick visit to the immaculately maintained, neo-classical, Bahai Gardens on Mount Carmel in Haifa, and had a tour of the wonderful Hula valley nature reserve, a vital site for migratory birds.
Touring the botanical gardens set my mind racing. I was like a kid in a sweet shop, in awe of the huge collections of plants from all over the world gathered there. It was peculiar to see plants we are so familiar with, like oaks, apples or pears grown as ‘exotics’ outside of their normal habitat. The reduced moisture and the intensity of the sun meant they were more wizened and gnarled, and didn’t quite look the same as we expect to see them when they are grown in the UK. The large collection of plants native to the region was impressive, but I was most impressed by plants such as the collection of Banksia, which are from Australia and were positively thriving in an environment similar to their native home range.
The desire to grow plants beyond their native range seems inherent in almost all gardeners and we have been doing this for centuries. Many plant hunters such as George Forrest, Ernest Wilson or Robert Fortune who have been immortalised by their introductions, were paid a tiny fee in comparison to the huge risks they faced to bring back seeds of exotic plants from the far reaches of the world. It wasn’t until the invention of the ‘Wardian case’ (a small, portable greenhouse) in the middle of the 19th century, that there was even any guarantee of bringing back specimens alive. I suspect that those explorers were not driven by ideas of riches, fame and glory through their discoveries, but by an innate fascination with the world around them and an all-encompassing desire to know more about it.
I am just as guilty as them. Whilst I will not undertake stripping a whole valley of rare orchids just to stop my rivals discovering them, I often find myself collecting a small handful of seeds from any interesting plants I spot, then slipping them in my back pocket to try and grow them at home.
They may prove to be successful. I have managed to grow ferula communis (a giant form of fennel) I collected from an abandoned army base in Malta, and echiums, which were collected from a front garden in Tenerife. When they thrive I am provided with a happy and lasting reminder of the fun I had on my holiday. If they don’t, then at least I have learnt a bit more about the plants of that region on my journey.