When it comes to plants, Bury St Edmunds columnist Nicola Miller associates Suffolk with a tree – the cedar of Lebanon
The tales of the great plant hunters are epic. They range across seas and the once-unmapped hearts of continents, every single one of them a film to be made.
There’s David Douglas, who sought out the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and Californian poppy (Escholtzia) and ended up dying after falling into a pit designed to trap wild bullocks in Hawaii.
Alice Eastwood rescued the herbarium at the California Academy of Sciences by clinging onto the banisters after the building was felled by the big San Francisco earthquake and fire.
In more recent times, Paul Winder and Tom Hart-Dyke went to Columbia and Panama in search of rare orchids and were kidnapped by FARC guerrillas, remaining captive for nine months.
This has never been a sedate hobby. Plant fever, that glint eye obsession for discovery has driven humans to trade and transport plants since the Romans first imported plums, walnuts and roses into Britain. Elaborate preparations have always been laid to store and transport plant material home, from Wardian cases to mule trains clinging precariously to scree- covered mountain slopes, to the possibility that the Romans preserved mulberry seeds in boiled wine or honey.
Two of the UK’s most famous botanists and plant hunters came from Halesworth in Suffolk: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, pictured, who went on to become a scientific confidant to Charles Darwin and director of Kew Gardens between 1865-1885, and his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker, who was Kew’s first director, and Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University.
If you wander around a plant nursery of a weekend, check out the labels on Rhododendrons, because the 25 varieties with ‘Hookerii’ as part of their Latin name were Joseph’s Indian discoveries, and Hooker was hugely responsible for the passion the Victorians had for these plants.
Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds and the Edwardian gardens in Brandon are both home to giant specimens, their British suburban ubiquitousness giving little clue of the real dangers involved in bringing them here.
Hooker adored his plants, but he was no romantic with his head in the clouds; he was not subsidised by a wealthy family, and he didn’t suffer fools either: he collected plant specimens whose discovery really put him through the wringer.
“If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am,” he said.
But unlike many of you, when I think of the plants that best typify Suffolk, what does not spring to mind are romantic images of rose bowers, cottage gardens or woodlands with their hazy swathes of bluebells. I think of the Cedars of Lebanon standing sentinel in the grounds of the West Suffolk Hospital, and on the neighbouring Hardwick Heath.
They populate the twisted pine-lines of the Brecklands and tall cedars also grow among the yews in St Mary’s churchyard in Barking near Needham Market, a legacy of its 19th-century vicar, Robert Uvedale. He was another botanical enthusiast who collected seeds from around the world and was believed to have planted one of the trees at his former home, Uvedale Hall, nearby, after a pupil brought the seeds back from Jerusalem.
Around 1860, Joseph Hooker developed a yen to visit the Cedars of Lebanon that grew in Syria, despite strong advice to not go because of the civil war that had broken out between the Druze and Christians.
Many thousands had been massacred and even Darwin counselled against it, telling Hooker: “For God’s sake do not go and get your throat cut. Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane.”
When Hooker arrived in Damascus, his diary told of what he encountered: “The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses”, but the expedition found what they believed to be the only remaining group of these trees on Mount Lebanon.
Hooker collected their seeds and introduced to the UK a tree which has gone on to contribute so much character to our landscapes.
Reminiscent of the region from which it originated and mentioned in the Bible “... the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon,” the tree is a well-loved local memorial to Joseph Hooker.