Botanical journeys with Roy Lancaster

A shared enthusiasm for plants can lead to fruitful exchanges of knowledge in sometimes difficult political circumstances

Roy Lancaster taken by Roger Allen in 2015I have been helping Liz Taylor, the RHS archivist, with a preliminary listing of personal letters and papers donated by Roy Lancaster CBE, VMH, eminent plantsman, broadcaster and writer, prior to full cataloguing. 

Caucasian mountains tour

Roy has led many botanical tours, but one set of papers which I particularly loved reading, relates to a plant hunting tour of the Caucasus region in July-August 1979, well before glasnost and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The tour visited gardens and forest reserves in the republics of Armenia and Georgia and included a day’s excursion into the Caucasus mountains along the Georgian Military Highway. This historic mountain road connects Tblisi in Georgia with the Russian town of Vladikavkaz, (and incidentally is the setting for the novelist Mikhail Lermontov’s short stories in A Hero of Our Time). notes from the journeyThe Military Highway, built by the Russian army in the early 19th century follows the trace of an ancient road crossing the high mountains of Caucasia, known to Strabo (63 BC-AD 21) and to Pliny (AD 23-79). The botanical tour reached the high mountain pass at Krestovy at over 2000 metres with what must have been breathtaking views. The papers include not only a list of the wide variety of alpine plants seen there but also the letters to and from botanists in Georgia to ensure that the important official permissions had been granted so that the tour could take place.

Plantsmen without borders

It is clear from the correspondence for this and other tours led by Roy that a shared enthusiasm for plants can lead to fruitful exchanges of knowledge in sometimes difficult political circumstances and across borders otherwise largely closed. Despite the tensions that have continued between post-independence Georgia and Russia it is hard to imagine that botanists and horticulturalists in these countries have ceased forging links with each other and across the world. 

Roy's archive

The Roy Lancaster archive, which is held at Wisley, represents more than 60 years of furthering and sharing knowledge and enthusiasm for plants. It contains details of other botanical and garden tours led by him, including China, Japan, New Zealand and North and South America among others; his exchange of letters with botanists and horticulturists from around the world; the correspondence relating to his programmes for radio and television, as well as tapes of the broadcasts, and material relating to his writing on plants and gardening. Roy’s passion for plants is evident in everything he writes and he is still actively engaged in the horticultural world. It was a delight to meet him on one of his visits to Wisley and I feel particularly privileged to be helping to make his archive accessible to others, relishing the arrival of another box of his papers.

Viewing information

If you would like to view the archive, please make an appointment at Wisley Garden Library, giving us two weeks’ notice: [email protected].

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