Researching the plant featured in today’s photograph seems to have helped resolve much of a long-standing mystery: why is there a Beer Trail in UBC Botanical Garden? And what does that have to do with a photo of Obama in Asheville, North Carolina?
Dr. Thomson’s rhododendron is native to India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. It was first posted on Botany Photo of the Day almost fifteen years ago in this entry which highlights the bark: Rhododendron thomsonii. In the time since that entry, a number of excellent resources about this much-treasured rhododendron have been written, including this highly-recommended article on Rhododendron thomsonii by John Grimshaw. Not only does Grimshaw discuss the introduction into British horticulture of this rhododendron and others, but he has also shared an illustration of Dr. Thomson. If you would like additional photographs of this species, see Rhododendron thomsonii in RBGE’s Botanics Stories or Oregon State University’s profile page for Dr. Thomson’s rhododendron as a landscape plant.
The particular plant in today’s photograph was grown from seed collected during the Bangor Nepal Expedition of 1971, one of thirty or so accessions from that expedition at UBC. For the sake of anyone researching this expedition further, it should actually be noted that the expedition was twofold: one part agricultural, one part horticultural. I stumbled upon some agricultural data online from the expedition, which left me initially confused until I read the article about the two foci in the Aug 19, 1971 issue of New Scientist (page 427).
Every trail in the David C. Lam Asian Garden is named and wayfinding-signed for a plant explorer who collected in Asia at one time. Almost all of these explorers are well-known (or at least findable by a web search): Fortune, Forrest, Tschonoski, Hu, and so on. But there has been one for which the institutional memory was lost with the 2008 passing of one of UBC BG’s most prominent plant explorers, Peter Wharton: Beer Trail (and that name is definitely not search engine friendly–try searching “beer plant collector”…). Who was Beer, though?
First of all, it is important to note that in our previous collections database, the information about the specific collectors in an expedition was visually buried. Looking at our modern database, it is there in black and white: Len Beer was one of the three horticultural collectors in the 1971 Bangor Nepal Expedition, along with famous plantsman Roy Lancaster and David Morris. I figured this out in a roundabout way, though, through my searches about the Bangor Nepal Expedition. It is exceedingly likely that Peter Wharton knew Len Beer, as Wharton was a Bangor graduate and would have been at the university at or near the time Len Beer was planning and completing the expedition.
Peter Wharton is commemorated with an occasional special lecture in his name; the same is true for Len Beer. Douglas Justice helped with this entry by finding this snippet via the May 2010 newsletter of the Friends of Treborth Botanic Garden:
1976 also marked Len’s departure [as curator of Treborth Botanic Garden from 1965 to 1976] to take up an equivalent post at Durham University Botanic Garden. Tragically Len died the following year aged just 34, a terrible loss for all who knew him and for horticulture generally. In memory of his plantsmanship a series of annual lectures were instigated in the early 1980s for which the first speaker was the renowned Roy Lancaster who had accompanied Len on perhaps his best-known Himalayan plant hunting trip in 1971. Each year since a horticultural luminary has widened our horizons and the Len Beer Lecture is firmly established as the foremost horticultural talk on the North Wales scene. It is jointly organised and funded by the Friends of Treborth Botanic Garden and the N Wales branch of the Alpine Garden Society.
Having resolved the mystery of Beer Trail, you can likely see where this is headed. The Beer Trail sign is one of the most photographed non-plant objects in the Garden, by locals and visitors alike. Still, imagine my surprise in 2011 while scouting for large-capacity restaurants for a plant & garden tour in the southeastern United States when I walked into 12 Bones Smokehouse (which the guidebooks had said was one of Obama’s favourites)…