April 2013: The botanical treasures transported from the Far East by intrepid Edwardian explorers helped shape the character of some of Cornwall’s greatest gardens. Bradley Newton never dreamed he would have the chance to follow in the footsteps of great adventurers like George Forrest and Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson, until he was offered a last-minute place on a ten-day plant-hunting trip to China.

Bradley, head gardener at Tremeer, a private house at St Tudy, was surprised and delighted when his employer, Lady George, came to find him in the garden to give him the good news. The expedition was organised by Scottish rhododendron experts Ken Cox and Willie Campbell, and when one member of the party had to drop out, they contacted Cornwall Garden Society to see if the organisation knew of a Cornish gardener who would be interested in going. “I’m really grateful to the CGS that they pulled my name out of the hat, and offered to sponsor me,” says Bradley.

Bradley Newton and Andrew Leslie

Bradley Newton with Cornwall Garden Society chairman Andrew Leslie. Photograph: Charles Francis  


He had to make some rapid preparations, including sorting out a passport — it had been 15 years since he last left British shores — before the party flew to Chengdu, capital of the province of Sichuan, last October.

Bradley’s first impression was of being on a huge plateau surrounded by mountains. “As soon as we arrived, it was straight into a car to drive 300km to our first hotel, then the next day another 320km. We ended up in Muli, which is very remote. Then we made our way slowly back towards Chengdu, going to different mountain ranges to find different species of plants.“

For modern-day plant-hunters, the aim is not to collect large quantities of plant material as some of their counterparts of 100 years ago did, but to observe the plants in the wild and learn more about them from native botanists. “On one day we were at a lakeside looking at japonicum rhododendrons and we were invited to join a picnic by specialists from the local forestry commission,” recalls Bradley.

“Seeing rhododendrons in their natural habitat was an incredible experience. But I was also interested in other species as well: there were many unusual irises, and gentians and begonias. And because we were there in October, we saw lots of berries, seed pods and autumn colour.”

Among the spectacular sites the group visited was Emeishan, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. “There are 2,500 species of plants there on that mountain alone, and 14,000 hand-cut steps going down. It was interesting to see the difference in climate between the top and the bottom — freezing fog at the top and tree ferns in the valley,” says Bradley.

“Emeishan is a huge tourist trap — but in general, the Chinese are now spending a lot of time preserving areas, encouraging flora and fauna back, even fencing off whole mountain ranges to deter hunters.“

Although a commitment to conservation is a familiar concept to western visitors, many aspects of the Chinese approach to planting can come as a surprise, as Bradley explains. “We saw tens of thousands of miles of herbaceous topiary. It might mean a lot of pruning, but the effect was spectacular. And they use mass planting out of season, so they will put cosmos out until the frost comes, even if it only gives have three weeks of colour. There are lots of plants being moved around, and they even use trees as bedding — I saw large Gingko biloba trees on the back of lorries. They put them on roundabouts for a short time, and then take them back to the nursery. It’s incredible.”

Bradley is unlikely to adopt this style of gardening — but the expedition did give him some ideas to take back to Cornwall. “Tremeer is a typical Cornish spring garden with a lot of camellias and rhododendrons, but I am always trying to extend the season,” he says. “I’m now looking to try aspidistras — I saw them growing in the foothills in China — and Iris confusa, which does well on steep banks. With our hedges, we have the right environment for it in Cornwall, and it is compatible with other plants, so will not compete with them.”

Since he returned from China, Bradley has been compiling a report for Cornwall Garden Society, and giving talks. CGS chairman Andrew Leslie is delighted that the charity was able to sponsor Bradley’s trip. “Cornish gardens wouldn’t be the same without the amazing spring colour that rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias provide — they have truly transformed the landscape,” he says. “It’s very important that we encourage our gardening experts to increase their knowledge about these species.”