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In pursuit of the Eastern plant hunters

Following in the footsteps of the intrepid collectors who brought back many horticultural favorites, Matthew Biggs visits the beautiful Yunnan province of China.

The lifetime ambition of many gardeners is to visit China, described by the great plant collector Ernest "Chinese" Wilson as "the mother of gardens", to see garden plants in their native habitat. That desire was satisfied by a limited-edition trip I went on last year called Footsteps of the Planthunters, parts of which can be replicated by the tailor-made travel specialist Journeys of Distinction. Its focus was on Yunnan province, where the collectors George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward and Joseph Rock risked their lives and tolerated unrelenting hardships in their search for unusual plants. We visited new gardens as well as old - for parks and gardens are changing in China, as the Western world exerts its influence on horticulture and environmental awareness.

Our journey began with three days in Shanghai followed by a three-hour flight to Kunming and the world-renowned Stone Forest, where we encountered Trachelospermum jasminoides, the "star jasmine" of conservatories, draped fragrantly over jagged limestone. From there we went by road to Lijiang, visiting its picturesque old city, and the nearby alpine yak meadow, a blaze of wild flowers on the lower slopes of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Finally we reached Shangri-La, in remote northern Yunnan, via the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge.

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