The Explorer’s Garden, a celebration of the people behind the plants

Every tourist coming to Scotland seems to escape the rain for a couple of hours by visiting a distillery. We made no exception, and landed in the small town of Pitlochry to discover the fine art of whisky making.


But Pitlochry is not only worth a stop for its two distilleries. On the edge of the town, accessed from the car park of a rather unattractive theatre lies a little gem, the Explorer’s Garden.
The plant collection is divided into geographical zones, which is a fairly common setting. But the originality of the Explorer’s Garden lies in what it trying to celebrate: not the plants as such, but the efforts of the Scottish plant hunters who took great risks to bring back the plants that make our gardens nowadays, and that we often take for granted.


The path through the various continents follows the life of 12 famous (and less famous) botanists, with very nicely done information boards. The first one we encounter is Archibald Menzies, mainly known for having introduced the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) to the UK.


His other discoveries included Arbutus menziesii, Sequoia sempervirens and Cupressus macrocarpa, all from North America:

Among the Northern American flora is the seldom seen shrub Fothergilla gardenii, discovered by the aptly named Scottish botanist, Dr… Garden, in South Carolina:

Fothergilla gardenii

The symbol of the garden is the blue poppy, Meconopsis. The genus comprises around 40 species, all native to the Himalayas, which grow particularly well in the Scottish climate. Meconopsis grandis shown here was introduced by George Sherriff, a Scottish botanist who has also brought numerous Primula to British gardens.


Of the many primulas he brought back from his trips to Asia, Primula chungensis was looking great, planted in huge carpets at the Explorer’s Garden:

Primula chungensis - Kingdon-Ward

George Sherrriff went on a number of collecting trips to Himalayan region with an other famous botanist, Frank Ludlow. His introductions include the pink-flowered Meconopsis sherriffii from Bhutan, the yellow tree peony Paeonia ludlowii, and the beautiful Tibetan bellflower Cyananthus sherriffii.


A view of the Douglas Pavilion, a large chalet used for events and (when we visited) great photographic exhibitions. Interestingly, its is made of Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir) wood. This North American conifer species was first described by Archibald Menzies in 1790, and subsequently introduced to the UK by another Scottish botanist, David Douglas.
Note the tall flower spikes of Cardiocrinum giganteum, the Himalayan lily in the foreground.


Looking down the Himalayan glade, with the George Forrest Pavillion in the distance:


A great range of Trillium grows in the Explorer’s garden. Native to North America and Asia, they are spectacular woodland plants. Several species were brought to cultivation in Europe by Scottish plant hunters, such as Francis Masson with its Trillium grandiflorum.

Numerous species of Rhododendron have also been named by or after Scottish botanists. The flamboyant, early-flowering Rhododendron thomsonii was named after Dr Thomas Thomson by Kew Gardens’ director, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker:


We visited the garden in May, which was a bit early for most of the rhododendrons, sadly. The garden in itself is fairly young, but has been built on a really great idea, and I’m sure it will develop into something even more beautiful over the next decades.

Despite being very accessible, it doesn’t seem to get the publicity it deserves though, even locally. When we asked for directions in town, several people looked at us in a puzzled way. Such a shame! :(

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A Scottish gothic folly, Mount Stuart

Advertised as “Britain’s most astounding Victorian Gothic mansion”, Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute is a rather impressive place. Home to the Marquesses of Bute, it was rebuilt in 1877 after a fire, and turned into a majestic Neogothic castle.


The most interesting feature of Mount Stuart is however the 300 acres (120 hectares) gardens surrounding the house. The magnificent lime tree avenue leads directly to the sea:


We start with the coastal path, which offers great views. The red sandstone is also ideal for rockpooling!


A couple of gentle coastal flowers with very revealing names, Armeria maritima (sea thrift) and Plantago maritima (sea plantain):


When we visited, the spring flowers were in full swing, from primroses (Primula vulgaris) to the Yellow Pimpernel (Lysimachia nemorum):


Mount Stuart holds a fine collection of plants from the Southern Hemisphere, growing in the so called “Wee Garden“. Two flowering examples with Drimys winteri and Azara serrata, both from Chile:


The gallery below shows other unusual plants from the Wee Garden: New Zealand daisy bushes (Olearia spp.) and Hebe, Argentinian Tabaquillo (Polylepis), Chilean protea tree (Lomatia ferruginea) and its Australian relative Lomatia myricoides, and the Chilean hazel (Gevuina avellana).

I was also very excited to see Trochodendron aralioides in flower. This small and fairly primitive tree native to Japan and Korea has flowers which look like little wheels (hence its latin name). It is still quite rare in cultivation. See this link for a full account of the species by taxonomist Susyn Andrews.

Trochodendron aralioides

Mount Stuart’s Rock Garden was designed by the English landscape architect Thomas H Mawson in the late 1890s, and contains interesting water features.


At that time of the year, of course, Meconopsis and primulas are stealing the show:


A range of nice plants in the Rock Garden, from trilliums to rodgersias (hover your mouse over the pictures if you want the names!)

The lower part of the rock garden is drier, and home to spectacular azaleas, dwarf conifers and heathers:


But I will leave you with a picture of Mount Stuart’s bluebell woodland, to make you yearn for spring !


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Southern Hemisphere in Scotland: Benmore Botanic Garden

Scotland’s flagship botanic garden, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is, contrary to its name not entirely based in the city of Edinburgh. The collection is split across four sites: Edinburgh, Dawyck, Logan and Benmore, each having their own specialties.

Benmore, set within the Loch Lomond &  Trossachs National Park, is distinguished by its mountain character, and high rainfall (>2000mm) which makes it such a good place for the cultivation of trees and woodland plants. At the time we visited (end May), the rhododendrons and primulas were displaying their lovely spring colours:


The main feature of Benmore Botanic Garden is a stunning range of conifers, some being over 150 years old. The garden holds three National Plant Collections: Abies (firs), Picea (spruce) and South American Temperate Conifers. The first two collections are held in the lower part of the garden, and with such a high rainfall, the moss carpet under the trees makes a stunning landscape:


Most people will see conifers as boring evergreen trees, but there’s so much diversity in the group. Here’s an example with just one genus, Abies:

Benmore is home to over 300 species of colourful Rhododendron, with many coming from Bhutan and China.

As we walk up, the dense conifer forest opens up to a rocky landscape, which is home to many Southern Hemisphere plants. It feels completely out of place, and at the same time strangely at home in Scotland:


Chilean conifer species grown at Benmore include showy Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle), but also Fitzroya cupressoides (Patagonian cypress) and Podocarpus salignus (the willow-leaf podocarp), both threatened by habitat loss in the wild:

Fitzroya cupressoides (2)Podocarpus salignus

Two colourful species of Berberis, B. darwinii and B. griffithiana, one from Chile, the other from Bhutan:

Berberis darwinii (2)Berberis griffithiana

I was very pleased to see many Nothofagus (the southern equivalent of beeches). Here are the tiny flowers of Nothofagus dombeyi, native to the Andes:

Nothofagus dombeyi (6)

Another striking feature of Benmore Botanic Garden is the fernery, originally built in 1870. As for Ascog Hall presented in my previous post, the fernery soon declined after the Victorian “pteridomania” died down, and was in ruins by the 1990s. It underwent extensive restoration and reopened in 2009. This fernery is not sunken, but stood on a rocky hill.


The elegant arched shaped of the fernery:


And some interesting species grown under the tree ferns:

At the entrance of the fernery, I notice an unusual looking plant with showy pink flowers. This is Valdivia gayana, a cave-dwelling plant from Chile which flowered for the first time in the garden in 2013 (see here for the story):


Benmore Botanic Garden is not really on the tourist path, but should be on every woody plant enthusiast’s bucket list. The temperate rainforest feel is amazing:


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A sunken jungle – Ascog Hall Fernery

After a day in Victorian Rothesay, we decided to visit one of the island’s attraction, Ascog Hall Fernery, which is located a couple of miles South, along the coast. We weren’t exactly sure of what to expect after reading the words “Victorian” and “sunken”, but got pleasantly intrigued after getting a glimpse of it for real:

Sunken fernery (2)

The fernery was built around 1870, using a unique shape and design. By being “sunken” into the ground, this allowed temperature and humidity to remain fairly stable, creating an ideal habitat for ferns. This is a print from the Gardener’s Chronicle in 1879, which shows the inside of the glasshouse…


And this is the glasshouse now:

Sunken fernery (9)

The fernery was rediscovered in 1986 by new owners of the estate, having been neglected for decades. There was no more glass, and most of the ferns had been replaced by brambles. With the help of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which re-supplied many of the plants, the fernery was reopened in 1997. Here’s a before- after:


In addition to the unique structure of the fernery, the plant diversity is astonishing:

One fern in particular survived the neglect over the 20th century, the now called “1000 year old fern” Todea barbara. This is an imposing plant, thought to be the oldest fern growing in the UK:

Todea barbara - the 1000 year old fernTodea barbara

In a very Victorian fashion, the fernery comes complete with a stream, little fountains, delicate cast iron railings and sculptures:

Sunken fernery (14)

The fernery is the most unusual feature, but certainly not the only reason to visit Ascog Hall! The garden around the fernery may be small for Scottish standards, but it is full of style. At this time of the year (May), the reds and pinks of Rhododendron and Primula contrast with the striking blue of Meconopsis, and the tender green of the tree ferns’ new leaves:


Some close-ups of interesting plants that can be found in the garden:

A nice sign on the story of Cedrus deodara (Himalayan cedar), and how the tree was brought to Britain by plant hunter Thomas Thomson, also famous for his introductions of rhododendrons. The climate at Ascog Hall seems to suit it well.

Story of Thomas Thomson, plant hunterCedrus deodara

A more formal garden, with huge gunneras and colourful borders:P1220368

There’s also a dry garden, with grasses and coastal plants:


Even the walk back to the house is stunning, the deep red maples and berberis contrast so well with the yellow rhododendron and grasses. Note the Araucaria at the back – monkey puzzles were popular at Victorian times, and there are many left on the island!


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A glimpse of Victorian Scotland

A change of scene (and country) for my next posts, which will be taking you to Scotland. The first stop on our trip is the Isle of Bute, a tiny piece of land located 30 miles West of Glasgow. Bute is usually reached by a ferry which arrives in the delightful town of Rothesay. This is the view from a golf course located above the town, with gorse in full flower:


Rothesay was a very popular tourist destination in the Victorian era, and a lot of that heritage is still visible, with seaside villas, a promenade and “winter gardens” pavilions. We even got to see the PS Waverley, the last passenger paddle steamer in the world:


The stone walls of the town are home to many ferns and mosses. But one plant in particular seems to be growing well on Bute, the fairy foxglove (Erinus alpinus). This is a native of Central and Southern Europe mountains (Alps, Pyrenees…) which has become naturalised in Scotland:


A walk on the heights of Rothesay led us to a nice little woodland path. At that time of the year (May), bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) is in full flower:


The flora of the area is not uninteresting, with pignut (Conopodium majus), opposite-leaved golden saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium), wood Speedwell (Veronica montana), Rustyback (Asplenium ceterach) and Dryopteris fern:

An interesting first-timer for me is the thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus, a North American bramble species with large pure white flowers:


After this quick botanical walk, we decided to visit Ardencraig Gardens, a small walled garden in Rothesay now owned by the local council. The garden, established in the 1910s, was part of a larger estate which was built on, so it is a bit weird to find it in the middle of 1970s housing. The glasshouses, restored recently, host a range of old-fashioned potted plants such as Solenostemon (coleus) and begonias:


Interestingly though, one of the glasshouses is home to a completely different set of plants – cacti, and particularly the National Plant Collection of Mammillaria:

National Collection of Mammillaria (10)

The Collection contains over 160 species and forms of Mammillaria, many of which are threatened in their natural environment (deserts in Mexico and Central America):

It was rather informative to see the progression of pea-sized seedlings to young and mature plants:

National Collection of Mammillaria (18)National Collection of Mammillaria (11)

The grounds of the garden are home to traditional bedding plants, which were not yet out in May (this is Scotland!), so unfortunately I can’t say much about it, but official summer pictures say it all…

The gardens


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Ten days in Vietnam part 9: a glimpse of the Mekong Delta

The Mekong river, which rises in Tibet, ends its 4350km course in the South China Sea via a large delta covering over 39000 km², close to Vietnam’s largest city Ho Chi Minh. This means a boat trip to the delta is a very popular day trip for tourists, and we obviously got tempted. The view we got from the boat after a two hour drive wasn’t exactly the most exciting, with dark skies, brownish waters, and industrial estates as surroundings…


After disembarking, we are led into a farmyard where a variety of crops are grown: from the big yellow flowers of luffa gourd (Luffa sp., eaten in Vietnam in soups and stir fried dishes), to the weird spikes of the Creeping spinach (Basella alba); tentacles-like stems of Hylocereus cacti (pithaya), and funny winged pods of the asparagus pea (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus).

Flowering shrubs are also grown in the plantation, such as the spectacular Pagoda Flower (Clerodendrum paniculatum) and the Vietnamese mickey-mouse plant (Ochna integerrima):


Closer to houses, orchids are abundant, mainly colourful Vanda and Dendrobium hybrids.


A nice surprise landed on a neighbouring leaf as I was trying to take flower pictures: the white tiger Danaus melanippus, a large butterfly, cousin of the most iconic North American butterfly, the monarch.


We embark on little trucks for a tour of the coconut palms and banana plantations. A bumpy tour I should say – the area is so wet that roads have disappeared in places.


The roads are lined with street merchants selling fruits, herbs or fibres:


After an hour or so, we are loaded onto small boats for a tour of the mangrove. The palms are all Nypa fruticans, the only species truly adapted to the brackish environment. The leaves which can reach 9m long are used for weaving and roofing; the fruits are eaten raw, and sap can be fermented to produce alcoholic beverages.


On the banks, it is very easy to spot the showy flowers of the tropical bindweed Argyreia nervosa. I was more puzzled by the plant on the right, which looked a lot like a holly. It is in fact called the sea holly, but has nothing to do botanically with the real holly (Ilex sp.) as this is  Acanthus ebracteatus.


We ended our tour with a funny fried fish meal, and headed back towards Ho Chi Minh for our last day in Vietnam…



For those who want a little round-up of our Vietnamese trip, here’s a link to all the blog posts: :)

Part 1: Hanoi
Part 2: Off to Sapa
Part 3: Mount Fansipan, 1940m to 2250m
Part 4: Mount Fansipan, 2250m to 2800m
Part 5: Mount Fansipan, 2800m to 1940m
Part 6: from Hanoi to Lan Ha Bay
Part 7: Cat Ba National Park
Part 8: Last day in Halong Bay

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Ten days in Vietnam part 8: Last day in Halong Bay

Our next trip in the National Park was the village of Viet Hai, which seems to be a forced stop for tourists who land on Cat Ba Island during their boat tours of the bay. The view, especially around sunset time is pretty:


The village in itself has little charm, with its shops selling overpriced fruits and drinks. Streets are lined with tropical crops, such as mango or litchis. I was quite shocked to discover the Australian tree Acacia mangium in plantations. This species is apparently widely planted in tropical countries to produce timber, and also to improve soil nitrogen levels.


Of all the trees in Viet Hai, the ones that get the most attention are probably the milk trees (Alstonia sp.), whose white clusters of flowers fill the village with a lovely strong scent:


After a nice calm night on the boat, we headed to a more open area of the bay to visit some rather smelly floating fish farms. Fishing boats carry light bulbs which are used to attract fish at night, particularly squids:


I am not sure of the health of the fishes which are farmed in those tiny enclosures, but the wildlife certainly looked interesting, with colourful sponges and clams attached to the floating plastic containers.

14953903983_a6df91d1cc_o (1)

Our final stop of the trip was a trip to Hospital Cave, a bomb-proof hospital which was built in the sixties, and used during the American War. Concrete was used to create 17 rooms, an operating theater, kitchen and even a swimming pool inside the natural cave. It is dark, wet and cold, which makes for a nice change from the exterior conditions.

P1180300 (Copier)
The entrance of the cave was cleverly devised to be hidden by vegetation, so the cave never got discovered by helicopters during the war. The top of the stairs by which it is accessed offers a great view over Cat Ba:

P1180295 (Copier)

And we even found the lovely gesneriad Chirita hamosa in flower at the entrance of the cave:

P1180296 (Copier)

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Ten days in Vietnam part 7: Cat Ba National Park

I have been ignoring the blog lately, but I think it is now time to finish my little Vietnamese adventure tales.
After a night on the boat in Lan Ha Bay, we stopped the next morning on Cat Ba island to visit the 160 km² National Park.

We opted for the walking option, which gently followed a concrete path before reaching the borders of the park:


The flora along the way is diverse, from large gingers (Hedychium sp.) to palm trees, cacti (Hylocereus undatus, which bears dragonfruits/pithayas), and shrubs such as the hemp relative Trema orientalis :

After a few minutes, we reach a small lake with rocky banks. Among the grasses I spot a distant, trailing cousin of acanthus, Dicliptera sp., and the ubiquitous weed Malvastrum coromandelianum.


The path gets shadier, with larger trees, and a succession of rocky tunnels. On the roadside,  there are palms, ferns, big Alocasia, and we are walking to the sound of crickets:

Then, suddenly, the landscape turns to mangrove forest:


After a couple of miles of climb, there is a noticeable change of flora to hill plants. One of the most striking features is young pinkish leaves on many of the roadside shrubs and trees. The coloration is mainly due to the presence of anthocyanins pigments, which are thought to act as a natural sunscreen, protecting the leaves from high sun levels in clearings or forest edges. They could also prevent the leaves from being eaten by animals.

Some nice plant surprises: climbing aroid (Pothos sp.), a delicate ginger (Globba sp.), and a tropical handkerchief tree (Mussaenda sp.):

And some beautiful ferns, such as a climbing fern (Lygodium sp.). In this genus, the edges of the leaves are lined with sporangia, the structure in which reproductive spores are formed. It is also one of the only genus of ferns that can twine around other stems.

But the most impressive encounters in the park were the insects. Stick insects (two species in photo here, the spiny Neohirasea maerens and the very large Ramulus sp.) could be seen  on almost every branch of every trees. There were countless of butterflies, like the colourful Punchinello (Zemeros flegyas), and intriguing leaf-mimicking katydids:

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Ten days in Vietnam part 6: from Hanoi to Lan Ha Bay

We leave Sapa in the afternoon, and head back to Lao Cai for the return overnight train journey to Hanoi. After a 2 hour train journey to Hai Phong, and an hour boat journey, we arrive on Cat Ba island, one of the two starting points to explore the very famous Ha Long Bay (think James Bond beach scenes…).
Cat Ba Town is a rather uninteresting port filled with cheap backpackers’ hotels. Note the very appropriate window paintings of Father Christmas and snowman (outside temperature: 29°C)! The street trees are far more interesting than the architecture, particularly Blackboard trees (Alstonia scholaris) and their green flower heads which fill the air with a strong fragrance (it reminded me of a woodland with lily of the valley).


At dusk the view from our hotel over the bay is very pretty…


The next day we embark for a three-day cruise around Ha Long bay and Lan Ha bay. Many tourists come here on a one or two day excursion direct from Hanoi, piling themselves on enormous luxury ferries with on-board spas and shops. We went for the slightly less comfy, but so much quieter private boat. Postcard view alert here!


Ha Long and Lan Ha Bay comprise over 2000 islands (some which barely emerging from the sea), mainly made of limestone. The karst landscape was formed by the erosion of the limestone to form small mountains, valleys and caves. The water level then rose massively to form the ensemble of little islands that we see nowadays.


A benefit of being on a smaller boat was the unlimited access to kayaks, which are the best way to come close to the rocky shores:


This gave me an opportunity for a closer look at the flora of these limestone walls. The flora is very diversified, from bamboos to palms, and changes gradually upwards (as salinity decreases and light increases). Many of the plants growing there have limited distributions and some, such as the amazing Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla) are threatened.

Animals are also threatened by the intensification of tourism, deforestation and poaching. We were very fortunate to catch a glimpse of the Critically Endangered Cat Ba Langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus), a monkey which has seen its population decrease to only around 60 individuals.


The boat is finally anchored in a tiny bay where we will spend the night. Before dinner, we swim to a small beach with a cave that is being used a shrine. There are offerings, so fishermen must come here to pray. Sadly, marine life is minimal, with mainly dead corals, rubbish (beer cans! :( ) and urchins (probably the widespread species Echinometra mathaei).


Dusk falls on the bay…tomorrow is another day.


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Ten days in Vietnam part 5: Mount Fansipan, 2800m to 1940m

After a good night sleep on the camp, we woke up to the smell of banana and (local) honey pancakes, ad were greeted by a nice blue sky.


A few nice plants around the camp include a Viburnum with striking berries, and a Gentiana:

P1170956Gentiana (2)

Soon however, we are back to clouds, and scrambling mode:


Many Scheffleras can be seen in the area, including some in fruit!


I was quite surprised to see these two fruiting shrubs, both species of Vaccinium (related to our common blueberries and cranberries).


We pause for a while on a flat area to take some pictures. Notice the tourist style on the left, and the local style on the right! I don’t think I would dare bringing a tablet over there… :D


Along the path, the layer of bamboos is very thick. But a few interesting plants can be spotted. Here are Aster ageratoides (a wide-ranging plant grown in many gardens), the bellflower relative Pratia montana…

Aster ageratoides (2)Pratia montana

…and another daisy in the genus Gynura :

Gynura lycopersicifolia

Arisaema bulbs grow everywhere on the mountain. With their large leaves and usually tall, exotic-looking flowers, they are very prized by rare plants enthusiasts. Here’s one in fruit:


I can’t say I have seen much wildlife over the past two days, maybe because the mountain was busy with climbers. Just before returning to the park entrance, I spot a very furry caterpillar and an interesting grey moth:


I hope you have enjoyed my tour of the Fansipan mountain in the last three blog posts. Sadly, this biodiversity-rich corner of Vietnam is under threat. While we were here, we enquired about the dynamite blasts that we could hear being fired all day long, and about the queues of workers going up and down carrying tools, cement, petrol etc… You can see one in the bottom right-hand corner of this pic:


It turns out a cable car is being built to the top of the mountain. It will carry up to 2000 passengers per hour, cutting the journey time to 15 min, and will be accompanied by a luxury hotel and golf course.  Read more about the project here: and see some pictures of the works:
All within a National Park. And with no Environmental Impact study. Wonderful world… :(

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