Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mr Smith Goes to a Plant Hunt

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mr Smith Goes to a Plant Hunt

Article excerpt

Roy Lancaster is a plant-hunter. He hunts plants. The point bears a little repetition, I feel, because plant-hunting is at the big, beating heart of Roy Lancaster. If he was unfortunate enough to suffer an injury during one of his exotic expeditions--impaling himself on a prickly pear, perhaps--I bet he'd toss feverishly on his bed beneath a drip feed of chlorophyll.

We've been fobbed off with the idea that gardening is about decking and water features and making gullible homeowners cry. I don't know for sure, but I would guess that Roy Lancaster regards the smothered smallholding of today as a fallen Eden. He's all for going back to nature red in tooth and claw, or at least berry. "It takes a real gardener to make all the risks, all the dices with death, worthwhile," he told a symposium on plant-hunting in London. A real gardener? Surely he couldn't be referring to those gentle souls with sleeveless pullovers and seed catalogues? Well, some of them are like the 19th-century flora-fancier Ernest Wilson. Wilson was in remotest China, on the exquisite scent of Lilium regale, when his leg was broken by a rockfall. As a thank-you to the quack who set his bones, Wilson named a hitherto unknown bloom after him. "The excitement and delight of seeing new plants blots out every discomfort," Roy claimed.

In case the reader suspects a mature plant-hunter of coming over all rosy, I should add that his enthusiasm is shared by Tom Hart Dyke, whose passion for orchids is undimmed by the experience of nine months' captivity at the hands of Colombian rebels. …

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