Who was David Lyall? We have so much to thank him for


I find the adventures of our great plant hunters fascinating. Before my career took me to botanical gardens where I learned more, I never stopped wondering how some of these tropical plants like Monkey Puzzles or orchids came to end up on our shores.

Over the past few hundred years, as countries began to open their borders to trade, men such as David Douglas and George Forrest have been sent to parts of the world in search of new plants, organized by botanical gardens. and horticultural companies sponsored by wealthy landowners. .

While a person capable of studying plants on an expedition may have been helpful, it may not have been deemed important enough to take up valuable space aboard a full-fledged ship – it’s is why men like David Lyall took the time to pursue their interest in botanical study and collecting while combining a more functional role.

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Monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) in East Lothian.

David Lyall was born on June 1, 1817 in the village of Auchenblae in the east of Scotland, south of Aberdeen, the rich red soil of the land around which he grew up and the favorable climate allowed this part of the country to support high yielding crops. and a variety of wild flora.

In fact, his grandfather William Lyall in 1756 experimented with the turnip, revolutionizing it as a turnip that could be grown, lifted and stored over the winter in order to keep cattle well fed and alive.

Something until then, Scotland did not have most of the farm animals to be slaughtered in the fall except a few for breeding purposes.

The village where he grew up was not far from the port of Montrose, and with the time he obtained a medical degree from the University of Aberdeen, he was no stranger to the sea. the adventure and discovery of the world he was reading about was to become a naval surgeon.

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Purple wildflowers pyramidal orchid anacamptis pyramidalis at Fort William in Scotland.

After gaining experience on a whaling ship in the Greenland region where he also took the opportunity to collect botanical species, Lyall joined the expedition in 1839 to find the South Magnetic Pole as an assistant naval surgeon aboard HMS Terror.

His equivalent post on the second ship was none other than Joseph Hooker, son of William who, as professor of botany at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens, mentored many young explorers, including David Douglas. These influences mark the beginning of Lyall’s vocation as a plant collector.

Although most of their specimens from the Antarctic regions were algae, it was the plants and seeds from New Zealand stopovers that excited nurserymen back to Britain on their return.

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David Lyall also joined HMS Terror, in the years leading up to John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition.

Much of my career has been spent working in alpine gardens, attending numerous conferences organized by the Scottish Rock Garden Club and reading many excellent articles on New Zealand plants in their biannual journal.

During this time I remember being taken by a large white flowering buttercup from this part of the world called Ranunculus lyallii.

Years later, when I first read this man’s findings, it gave me such a buzz to tie the two together, that David Lyall, a few miles down the road, gave me the opportunity to cultivate such a beautiful plant, having seen for the first time hundreds of hectares which are covered with it in its natural habitat in the west of the South Island of the country.

Lyall’s career on the seas would also see him search for missing ships and their crew in the Arctic, the full fury of naval warfare in the Crimean War, then based on Vancouver Island in Canada tracing the border of the 49th parallel.

His he became a mountaineer, scaling the Rocky Mountains from sea level to 8,000-foot-high peaks, to define the border points between the United States and Canada.

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Flowers of Mt. Cook the lily (Ranunculus lyallii).

In doing so, he would also continue his collection of plants which, in the end, compiled nearly 1,400 samples of dried plants, being part of a quarry totaling 6,700 specimens.

The heritage of the plant hunters is perpetuated through their collections of plants which are still the favorites of our parks and gardens today.

Probably the most remarkable of Lyall is the one many of us see growing up somewhere every day.

Phormium, evergreen tufts of upright, sword-shaped leaves making striking structural plants for borders that come in a variety of foliage forms, and perfect for those gardeners on the coast.

This is also known as “New Zealand flax” due to its traditional use where it comes from.

When I go up to Aberdeen on the A90 to film Beechgrove, I always look towards Auchenblae and the country where David Lyall grew up.

This week, while recording, I looked down to see the white bracts of the brilliant ground cover Cornus canadensis, growing in the shade of an evergreen tree.

Thank you, Mr. Lyall.


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