GARDENING / Slough's exotic climbers: Della Denman on a botanist who brings 'em back alive from the Himalayas

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CHRIS CHADWELL goes on hunting expeditions to the Himalayas. His trophies are not animal but vegetable: a botanist, he searches for seed and plants in the mountains of India and Nepal.

His base is a modest red-brick semi in Slough. His annual treks are backed by about 100 shareholders, many of them fellow suburbanites, with modest gardens but a passion for collecting hardy mountain plants. Gardeners subscribe between pounds 30 and pounds 45 towards expedition costs and receive in exchange around 40 packets of wild collected seeds, tips on how to grow them, and gossipy news-letters describing the route and the species seen.

Subscribers may not be able to share in the excitement of discovering a rare species, wonder at the views, or sniff the aromatic herbs. Nor, however, will they have to face the extreme temperatures, Delhi belly or altitude depression. They can read all about it in the comfort of an armchair and watch the progress of their Chadwell seedlings, knowing they are the genuine Himalayan article. Chadwell claims that around half the so-called Himalayan species seen in British botanical gardens and specialist nurseries are impostors. When compared to the real thing in a herbarium, he says, they often turn out to have been mislabelled.

This autumn Chadwell, who is 34, will be making his 11th trip, this time to Tehri Garhwal in north-west India, near the 'Valley of Flowers' celebrated in the 1930s book of the same name by Frank Sydney Smythe, the Everest mountaineer and plant hunter. Chadwell specialises in the Himalayas because high-altitude rock plants are popular with his subscribers. Alpines have a particular appeal to people with small gardens.

'There are about a dozen seed collectors like me around the world, each covering a different area,' he says. 'We try not to tread on each other's toes. The British have the strongest tradition of seed-collecting, perhaps because of their colonial background, but their early expeditions tended to concentrate on hot-house specimens like orchids.'

On arrival in New Delhi or Kathmandu, Chadwell links up with a local guide-interpreter who arranges the trekking; then they head for the mountains, where a team of about 10 porters is hired to carry tents, provisions and collecting gear. It's a small-scale affair compared to the elaborate expeditions mounted earlier this century, with around 200 local porters and collecting assistants, and Fortnums hampers for the botanists.

Chadwell collects seed and plants at heights of 4,000 to 5,000 metres. On its way back to the capital, the team stops at a rest-house to sort, dry and clean the seed, and label and press the specimens. Live plants may not be taken out of India or Nepal, but permission can be obtained for the export of pressed plants as long as the local national herbarium receives a set of duplicates.

When he gets home, Chadwell also deposits a set of pressed specimens with the botanic gardens at Kew or Edinburgh in return for their help in checking obscure plants. He is setting up a herbarium of pressed plants in his office. His glasshouse and 20ft-garden are crammed with hundreds of plants, including high-altitude varieties of geraniums, primulas, clematis and iris, all immaculately labelled, grown from seed collected in the Himalayas.

'Some of my shareholders want to grow unusual plants which will win prizes in horticultural shows, but my interest is in getting obscure seeds to germinate,' Chadwell says. 'I view my garden as a reference collection.

'It's much easier to get seeds to germinate than one would imagine. Experts talk about wild alpine seed needing certain periods of cold or frost, but I generally get a 95 per cent success rate without too much special treatment. Perhaps they like the blustery winds of this bleak, exposed housing estate alongside the M4.'

Recent development in the Himalayas has apparently made it more difficult to find wild and unusual plants. Some meadows which were rich in plant life a decade ago are now bare, overgrazed and deforested hillsides. Much of the timber has been gathered for fuel. Political complications can hinder entry to some areas, and in a trouble-spot outsiders can be a target. 'Explaining that you are a plant collector doesn't always sound very convincing,' Chadwell says.

Despite the obstacles, however, he has found a number of rare species and one previously unknown alpine saxifrage. It is called Saxifrage chadwellii.

Chris Chadwell gives regular lectures in Britain and the United States, and runs a specialist Sino-Himalayan Plant Association that meets through the summer to discuss and exchange plants. If you would like to experiment with some unusual seeds, you can obtain a prospectus of his September expedition by sending an sae and four second-class stamps to 81 Parlaunt Road, Slough, Berkshire SL3 8BE.

(Photographs omitted)