The Spirit of Indiana Jones at Borde Hill Garden

The great Victorian plant hunters, who transformed our gardens through their brave travels off into the unknown, well before the advent of long-haul travel, were the true student backpackers of their day. Most of us know of Howard Carter’s magnificent discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in the 1920s but few have probably heard of Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and others, but they were no less ‘Indiana Jones’ heroes, in their quest to bring back camellias, rhododendrons and other rare and exotic plants from the remote corners of China and Tibet. Inspired by generous benefactors, including Colonel Stephenson R Clarke, founder of Borde Hill Garden, they endured swarms of insects, survived exposure to poisonous plants, escaped warring tribes and perilous unknown terrains, they risked it all on the promise of finding horticultural ‘treasure’.

If you had told me when I started that I would discover the spiritual birthplace of the quintessential English Garden that we so love today, I might have thought it would be a story filled with old, stuffy, stern and conventional ‘Mr Macgregor’ type Victorian men and dusty rather tedious old books. Far from it, what I actually discovered were stories of experimentation, adventure and breaking the rules. I have come to truly admire these early pioneers who rebelled against the stuffy, formal conventions of the time and struck out on their own, with a sense of the pioneering spirit and driven by a passion for plants and new ideas to challenge the status quo. I think the Resilience Garden at Chelsea Flower Show and the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, which strives to conserve 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020, are a fitting testament to these outstanding individuals as we look to the future whilst embracing the wonderful garden heritage on our doorstep.

Plant Hunter Treasures at Borde Hill Garden

  • The rare and exotic Chinese Tulip Tree (Lirodendron chinense) and Hankerchief tree (Davidia involucrate) both brought back from China
  • Champion Trees, such as Magnolia campbellii, boasting the largest girth in Great Britain, and the 3 ‘Sisters’ Magnolia obovate, Magnolia fraseri and Magnolia officinalis
  • Emmeopterys henryi, collected by George Forrest and Ernest Wilson