The hunt for Meconopsis

In 1904, James Veitch & Sons sent EH Wilson to China to hunt for seeds of the lampshade poppy, Meconopsis integrifolia. Here is The Gardeners' Chronicle report.

It is a curious coincidence that at the very time the news reached this country that a commercial treaty had been established between Great Britain and Thibet, there flowered for the first time in Europe a hardy plant introduced from the mountains of Thibet, which will be among the most valued papaveraceous species in cultivation.

In our issues for September 17 and 24 announcements were made that Meconopsis integrifolia was in flower in Messrs Bee’s nursery near Chester, and in that of Messrs James Veitch & Sons’, Chelsea. In Messrs Bee’s case the seeds were obtained through the Koslov expedition sent by the Russian Government to Central Asia, but Messrs Veitch’s plants were raised from seeds sent home by their special collector, Mr EH Wilson, who is at present in Western China. We have frequently had occasion to express the indebtedness of horticulturists to Messrs James Veitch & Sons for their enterprise in sending Mr Wilson into Western China to collect this new species.

By the process of hybridisation we are constantly increasing the number of "new" plants, but for some years past, with the exception of Orchids, there have been comparatively few introductions of new species from their native countries. It is only what we may expect as the field for exploration becomes smaller, and the area of untrodden ground gradually disappears. Therefore it is all the more important that the most should be made of the opportunities that are still open to us, and in this respect the results of Mr Wilson’s two visits to the Far East are most gratifying.

Some of the many species which Messrs Veitch have introduced that occur to our mind, are Davida involucrata, Astilbe Davidii, Rehmannia angulata, Jasminium primulinum, several species of Corydalis, Senecio tanguticus, Buddleia albiflora, several ornamental vines, Actinidia chinensis, some new conifers and other plants, many of which have been described in these pages.

One of the principal objects of Mr Wilson’s second journey was to obtain the seeds of Meconopsis integrifolia; and how successfully he has accomplished this is described in a very interesting letter Messrs Veitch received last week, from which we have been permitted to report the following extracts. Writing from a town in Western China, Mr Wilson says:

"I returned safely yesterday after an absence of 11-and-a-half weeks. The trip proved the longest and most arduous I have undertaken. I reached Tatien-lu by way of a small mountain road after 21 days’ hard travel. After a few days’ rest I made a trip to the Yalung river, 100 miles west of Tatien-lu. On returning I scoured the Tatien-lu neighbourhood, and finally left on the return journey on July 11 by the ordinary route. I enjoyed the best of health the whole of the time.

"The journey from Tatien-lu to Yalung river proved to be a bigger undertaking than I expected. On 19th June we experienced a blizzard of snow and sleet the whole of the day. Snow lay thickly on the ground, and on top of the pass (altitude 14,500ft) it was over 3ft deep. I was so numbed with cold that I could hardly sit in the saddle. My men suffered from the effects of the rarefied atmosphere and some had their toes frostbitten. All suffered more or less from snow blindness. We were a pitiable-looking party when we returned to Tatien-lu; I had to turn family doctor for a time. I am glad to have had the experience, but never again do I want to travel in the mountains of Eastern Thibet. We travelled with ponies and yak, and were well received by the natives everywhere.

"The highest altitude reached was 16,100ft, which is practically the limit of vegetation seen on the more open tablelands or plateaux. The feature of these higher mountains is the wealth of rhododendrons. I have written to you much in praise of the Chinese rhododendrons, but my pen is too feeble to paint you the picture as it really is. To see miles upon miles of mountainside one blaze of rhododendron flowers is to see something better to be imagined than described.

"It will also interest you to learn that the Primula japonica is also extremely common on the mountains west at an altitude of from 7,500 to 9,500ft. It becomes every year more and more difficult to find new plants of high horticultural value; old friends are very plentiful now. This long trip just concluded has not resulted in as many ‘new finds’ as I had hoped for.

"Turning now to the main object of our search in these wilds — Meconopsis integrifolia — I have nothing but success to report. I have found it in millions. The dried material in herbaria gives no real idea of the magnificent flowers this plant has. The flowers are often 8-10in in diameter, of a lovely bright-yellow colour. I have seen on one plant as many as 15 flowers expanded at one time.

"This, however, was exceptional. The usual number is from four to six. I counted the flowers and buds on fully a hundred plants and found they averaged 11 to each plant. The largest number was 18. The number of petals is often in excess of the usual five. It is a common sight to see a thousand or more in full flower together. The species is never found below 11,000ft, and 15,500ft marks its upward limit. "From my observations this year I have lost many of my fears in regard to its possible ill-behaviour under cultivation. Treat it as a hardy, moisture-loving plant, give it a place in a peaty or leafy soil, and I believe you will succeed. Whatever you do, do not coddle the plants, or you will kill them. Mother Nature is harsh in her woods and clearings in these mountains fastnesses. The plant is undoubtedly a biennial."

? Taken from The Gardeners’ Chronicle, 1 October, 1904

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