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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