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Devon plant hunter Paul Bartlett has a passion for adventure

PUBLISHED: 11:59 04 April 2016

Plant hunter Paul Bartlett in Georgia

Plant hunter Paul Bartlett in Georgia

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Gardener Paul Bartlett tells Catherine Courtenay why he searches remote parts of the world for rare birch and alder species

Plant hunting involves tackling tough terrainPlant hunting involves tackling tough terrain

Having clambered up a 45 degree slope, cutting through thickets of wild rhododendron in the virgin forest, Paul Bartlett stops to look back at the view. There’s a mountain range in the distance and his eye follows the line just where the vegetation peters out at the foot of the rocky, snow capped peaks. He has a hunch that’s where he’ll find what he’s searching for.

The Caucasus mountains of Georgia hold a fascination for Paul, head gardener at Stone Lane Gardens near Chagford. He’s a modern day plant hunter, and for anyone who associates this unusual occupation with Victorian explorers travelling the globe to source exotic plants for rich landowners, then think again; because under the eaves of an old barn in a quiet corner of Devon, there are trays which contain the living legacy of Paul’s modern day botanical explorations. The trays contain tiny birch trees which have been grown from seed collected in the remote region of Georgia he’s been visiting for the past four years.

On a regular day you’ll find him working in the garden that adjoins that barn; Stone Lane is a unique site containing a National Collection of birch and alder trees, mostly planted by the late owner Kenneth Ashburner. Just like Kenneth before him, Paul is fascinated with these two closely-related genera and he has taken to searching the world for rare examples of these graceful trees; one of which is Betula megrelica, or the Mingrelian birch.

The species, which only grows in remote areas of the Caucasus mountains, was discovered in 1934 by a Russian botanist and although in the 1970s the Russians searched again and brought back plants, neither their records nor the plants survived. Paul made his first journey to the region in 2012 when he was taken by botanists from the National Botanical Gardens of Georgia to the site at Mount Migaria where B. megrelica had been seen. They discovered a 2ft high specimen on a limestone escarpment. A search revealed more plants, but they had been heavily grazed and no seeds were found.

The Caucasus mountains are sparsely populated, mainly by foresters, hunters and shepherds who live in wooden shacks during the summer months. The shepherds make a particular, and sought after, cheese which Paul got to sample several times, alongside the local vodka.

“The people were so hospitable,” he says. “It’s part of their tradition and I suppose we were also quite a curiosity!”.

When not hiking on the rocky terrain, transport was on Russian trucks, mostly used by the loggers, and there were a few surprises, like coming across collections of beehives in roadside clearings; then there was the day Paul clocked the “slightly surreal” sight of a single decker bus being used to transport, not people, but cattle.

The trip he made in 2013 was more successful: “We found the Mingrelian birch higher up out of the grazing range and we collected seed. It was truly exciting as we found quite big populations. The trees were growing low. Bowed down by snow, they would grow horizontally off the escarpment.”

With more funding secured, Paul returned to the region last year. To his delight, his gut instinct of where he might find new examples of B. Megrelica, proved correct and, after a gruelling search over very difficult rough terrain, he found a few samples clinging on at the end of a facing mountain range called Mount Askhi. For the first time, it proved these highly sensitive and site specific plants, marooned in the Caucasus mountains since the last Ice Age, were in at least two separate ranges.

By now, the expedition had grown into something much more than a seed collection exercise. The tracking of B. Megrelica gave weight to the need to conserve this very special habitat, one which is rich in biodiversity. Always there was the background hum of chainsaws; the pressure of logging, much of it illegal, a reminder of just how environmentally vulnerable the region is.

So, now he’s home does Paul feel he shares that same passion for adventure and excitement of discovery which fuelled the dreams of plant hunters of old? His face lights up at the recollection of his Mount Askhi discovery: “It was a hell of a moment - I may just have let out a whoop,” he beams. “It’s seeing plants in the wild. When you see things growing in the wild, they look so entirely different.”

That’s a ‘yes’ then.

Paul’s expeditions have been backed by several funders including National Geographic Society Science and Exploration Europe, the Rufford Foundation and Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

Paul’s essential three items for the would-be plant hunter:

Plastic bags: a must for seed gathering.

Mountaineering kit: Finding the tree or plant is only half the battle - you may need to climb it in order to get the seed.

Waterproof paper: without which you’ll never be able to record any notes

Following in the footsteps

Stone Lane Garden was created by Kenneth and June Ashburner at their home Stone Farm. Kenneth, a trained horticulturalist, garden designer and writer, started planting birch and alder trees which he had grown from seed, collected from his travels abroad. Wanting to learn about Betula and Alnus he travelled the world from 1977 to 1993 to see where they grew in the wild. The list of countries he visited included Siberia, Japan, Korea, Newfoundland, Switzerland, Romania, Idaho, Slovakia and India.

The planting at Stone Lane is deliberately naturalistic, groups of trees on the sloping site with a natural stream and ponds, blend into the surrounding landscape and each year the garden acts as a backdrop to a sculpture exhibition hosted by June.

Kenneth died in 2010, and a charity was set up to preserve the garden and its collection. The book he wrote with Hugh A McAllister, The Genus Betula was published after his death in 2013. stonelanegardens.com

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