Novel Plants for Novel Times

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Hedychium and Begonia

Collected in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, this Hedychium (left) and Begonia may be new species

What a year this has been!

Events in the world outside rarely penetrate the tranquility of this garden, but 2020 hasn’t played by the usual rule book. While this year’s plague of slugs and snails has been devastating in the garden, it’s another plague that has really broken our calm. With staff and volunteers sent away, the garden was left to amble along with minimal supervision. Thankfully, it has thrived and all our staff have returned, though we remain lonesome for our wonderful army of volunteers.

But another activity that had to be curtailed is traveling. Heronswood is not just a beautiful garden, but it’s a living collection of curious, rare and vibrant plants collected from around the world. We’re a botanical zoo! Even better, we can propagate our plants and distribute them far and wide, not only ensuring that gardeners have wonderful plants in their own gardens, but also conserving these novelties for future generations. Few zoos offer cuttings from their collections.

Without the chance to explore distant horizons, we’ve had to focus on what we already have and wouldn’t you know, we’ve found something new. The Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (AP) lies in the far northeast of the country, abutting China, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Bhutan. Known as “Paradise of the Botanists”, it continues to produce species new to science. Our Director, Dan Hinkley, collected there in 2016 and 2018 and I’ll leave it to him to describe those adventures. However, some of those collections are flowering now for the first time and they are providing some much-needed distraction. Who needs to hop on a plane when you can find a new species on your doorstop?

A case in point is the begonia pictured above. Having sailed through last winter at Heronswood with only minimal protection, this gloriously lacy perennial surprised us by producing yellow flowers. Until recently, only two begonias from AP had been found with yellow flowers, and neither has leaves like this. So we may have a novelty on our hands, and perhaps not just one. On the same trip, several hardy gingers (Hedychium) were collected and the one pictured above may be new. Determining if a species is new is more difficult than you might think – herbarium specimens must be pressed and all other native species viewed and compared – but we will start the ball rolling.

We may be unable to travel to far flung nations in search of rare plants, but at least we have time to contemplate the plants we already have. And if you’d like to travel vicariously, visit Heronswood this weekend (open Friday to Sunday, 10am-3pm) and do some exploring of your own.

– Dr. Ross Bayton, Asst. Director