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On The Trail of Two Knights

In the late 1980’s we got a copy of Ellen Willmot’s ‘Genus Rosa’ which was published in 1914. She deals with rose species of the world, and going through it, we realized that, apart from the swamp wild rose species, Rosa clinophylla, about which we had heard before , and had been able to procure, from the wild, there was another species, Rosa gigantea, which is native to a particular area in India’s north east region. Reading the description of this species by a Sir George Watt from whose unpublished diaries, Miss Willmot had taken an extract, we became excited. Sir George Watt found this wild rose, which, he wrote, looked like huge yellow magnolias hanging from the branches of tall trees, in 1882, in the forests off Ukhrul town in Manipur State, when he was part of a commission to demarcate the boundary between India and Burma (as it was known then). Researching a little more, we found that at practically the same time, that is, 1888, a General Sir Henry Collett found the same wild rose growing in the Shan Hills of Burma. Whilst trekking he saw at a distance of 2 miles something large and white, and seeing it through his looking glass (binoculars) he realized it was a rose. He sent off seeds and stem specimens to the leading taxonomist of the time, Monsieur Francois Crepin, who was attached to the Botanic Garden in Meisse, Belgium, and suggesting that if it was a new species, it should be given the name ‘gigantea’ as the flowers were exceedingly large.

Sir George Watt called his found species ‘Rosa macrocarpa’. When M.Crepin compared the two sets of specimens sent by the two enthusiastic botanists he found that both the Indian and Burmese plants were the same, and gave the name ‘Rosa gigantea’ to this species. The Indian form which Watt discovered, is much creamier, indeed very yellow as a bud, than the Burmese form, which is white. On ageing, however, macrocarpa becomes white. Sir George however seems always to have believed that his species was different.

In January 1990, as we were attending a national rose convention in Calcutta, which is on the east coast, and nearer to the north-eastern state of Manipur, we decided that we would follow the footsteps of Sir George Watt to see if we could be as successful as he was in finding this rose species. We flew to Guwahati in Assam State, the nearest airport, and then went by road to Shillong, the capital of Manipur State and onwards to Ukhrul which is at an elevation of 7000 feet. It was bitterly cold and we were both recovering from food poisoning. But we persevered, much to the chagrin of the scientists of the Botanical Survey of India, who were accompanying us. In Kolkata (Calcutta then) we had visited the BSI offices in Howrah (that hallowed institution set up in 1793 originally by Col. Robert Kyd but which owes its pre-eminent status to William Roxburgh who became its Director in 1796) to look for leads in the herbarium and in their books. Initially, the officials were reluctant to show us anything, but when we came upon the B.S.I. Director on the main steps of the office, and he began to take an interest in our pursuit, we were shown herbarium specimens of R.gigantea, and various locations were given on the sheets. One of them being Ukhrul. The Director offered us the assistance (!) of his staff in Shillong, and that is how we had a couple of scientists with us in our search.

After early morning tea, (this itself was quite a feat, as the Naga tribesman who was the caretaker of the state guest house we stayed in dared not be woken by our driver, who feared that in the normal tradition of the fierce Nagas, he would be greeted by a knife before any questions were asked!) we set off, driving up the mountainous forest path to a fair distance, before the road gave out and we had to walk. Suddenly we saw a huge creeper going up a tall tree. Stopping to check, we realized we had hit ‘pay dirt’. This was a rose with the largest leaves imaginable, and a number of very big yellow orange hips, but with no flowers. They would have flowered earlier in the season – in the icy winter now, there were only hips, which would be from the last year’s flowering season. We were elated at the thought that this could have been the same location, or at least, the very same area where Sir George had found his specimen. We collected some hips and some cuttings and returned to carefully pack them for the long journey back home in southern India, by air, train and road.

When we had grown our plants to a decent size, Viru began breeding with R. gigantea and over the years from 1995 when we saw our first flower on our plants, Viru has grown, tested and finally released and registered some of his better seedlings. Some are shrubs and some are climbers, like gigantea itself, very big and sprawling climbers, others not so large growing.

When Viru had two large hybrid gigantea climbers, one with hybrid tea like flowers, cream with a deep yellow throat , the other creamy white, with double and large blooms, we thought it would be befitting to name these two roses after the discoverers of the species in the wild – Sir George Watt and Sir Henry Collett.

Who were these gentlemen? Sir George (1851-1930) was a surgeon with botanical interests and he came out to India to be employed as a lecturer in Botany in a Calcutta college. Unfortunately by the time he arrived the place had been filled, so the East India Company which had brought him to India, sent him off on various assignments. One was as part of a commission to demarcate the India-Burma border, and it was on this trip that he discovered R.gigantea. There were many other plant species he discovered— among them, rhododendron maccabeanum, and a primula (wattii?) But what makes Sir George Watt a lasting benefactor to India is his stupendous and monumental 12 volume “Dictionary of Economic Products of India”. Sir George returned to Scotland and settled in the Dumfries region to which he belonged. He was born in Old Meldrum and died in Lockerbie.

Sir Henry Collett (1835-1901) was in the British Indian Army in Bengal, and fought in the first Anglo Afghan war. He was a keen botanist, collecting plants wherever he went. On one such reconnaissance in the Shan Hills in Burma he espied a large white flower through his binoculars. He reached the spot and found it was a species rose, a new one to science. He collected plant material and dispatched them to M. Crepin the great taxonomist of the time and to Kew, where, when he returned to England, he even indicated the spot where the gigantea plants would thrive better than where they had been planted. Sir Henry’s manuscript, ‘Flora of Simla’ (‘Flora Simlensis’) was published posthumously. He sent back many plants to Kew for identification, one of which was a small species rose, named R.collettii in his honor by M.Crepin. He also had an iris named after him—iris collettii. Sir Henry died in Kensington, London.

After we registered our two gigantea hybrids, named for these eminent hobbyist-botanists, in 2008, as ‘Sir George Watt’ and ‘Sir Henry Collett’, we thought it would be a good idea to try and locate any descendant families to inform them that we had taken the privilege to name roses after their illustrious forebears. But for a long time we could not get any leads- of course our interest was an on and off pastime. We checked with the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, ( Sir George spent much time there in his last days, he taught Indian Botany in a college nearby) and with botanist friends in the UK, but they said that getting this kind of information would be very difficult, especially in these days when families are scattered all over the world.

Then about the middle of September 2009, while idly ‘Googling’ on the Net, on a Sunday afternoon, for ‘Sir George Watt’ I saw an article on his association with Florence Nightingale, written in the Royal Botanic Garden, Canada journal. This had an extract of his Obituary Notice in the London Times dated 5th April 1930, which mentioned a son Dr R. H. Watt and two daughters (no names given). I then Googled ‘Dr. R H. Watt’ but nothing meaningful turned up in the first three Google pages and just as I was giving up hope, on the fourth page a ‘Thomas Hope Hospital’ popped up. When I clicked on this site an archival history of this hospital, which was attached to the Royal Crichton Hospital in Dumfries, Scotland , came up. It made interesting reading and very near the end of the article it said that Dr R. H. Watt was joined by his son Dr George Watt in the practice. I began to get excited. I checked on who had written the article and it said ‘Morag Williams, Archivist’.

I next Googled ‘Royal Crichton Hospital’. Nothing relevant came up. Then I went to ‘Dumfries’, and the second entry had a ‘ Morag Williams’ on a Natural History and Antiquarian Society website. I clicked on this and on the off chance that this could be the same Morag Williams, Archivist I looked for a contact email address, and yes there was one. So I emailed a letter explaining my interest in the family of Sir George Watt and wondering if she was the archivist Morag and requesting for information, if she was, on R.H. and George Watt. Imagine my huge surprise and excitement when next morning when I checked my messages, there was one from Morag Williams. She was the archivist. She told me Dr. George Watt was dead (as was his father, R. H. Watt), but he had 2 sons, and she gave me the email address of a Dr Tom Kennedy who had been Dr. George’s partner in practice. I immediately replied to her that she was a miracle, and to Dr. Tom, again repeating my entire story of our interest in Sir George. Since then there have been such a flurry of emails that I cannot restrain my whoopees. I have been able to contact some great- grandchildren of Sir George and they are all mightily pleased that we have named a rose for him. I tell them it is our privilege and honour. We are now trying to see how it will be possible for them to grow the rose named for their ancestor, as we think it would be most appropriate that the rose ‘Sir George Watt’ grows in the Scottish gardens with which he was associated in his latter years.

Surprisingly, that same September Sunday afternoon, when Googling ‘Sir Henry Collett’ gave up no helpful leads, I thought of going to Genealogies and typing in ‘Collett’. I was inundated with literally thousands of ‘Colletts’. I typed in Henry Collett with his dates -1835-1901, not expecting much, but 3 messages popped up. A Susan Shenton had been trying in 2004 to get information on Sir Henry’s family and had been, I think, flummoxed as I was, to learn that he had died a bachelor and his siblings had all died unmarried or widowed with no children. Without really expecting a response since Susan had written in to the website over 5 years previously, I searched for her email address and sent off a mail explaining my interest. When nothing happened for a week I thought that my email would not have reached, but then it had not bounced back either. I was hopeful, but telling myself not to be. Having succeeded in tracing Sir George Watt’s family I could not be doubly successful. But I was!!! Just as I was giving up hope,up popped a message from Susan Shenton. She wrote that I should look up the ‘Suffolk Colletts’ and a Brian Collett was in charge of collating all Collett material, and sending Collett newsletters to all so named. So back I went to the Genealogy page, looked up Brian; trying to find Sir Henry was a bit difficult and confusing, which is understandable as there are so many Colletts and so many strands weaving and interweaving through the generations.

I emailed Brian Collett, and just like in the case of the Watts, he was hugely interested and excited at this sudden importance to a long ago family member. We are in touch and we need to see that the rose ‘Sir Henry Collett’ grows in present day Collett gardens.

It has been an exciting and pleasurable endeavour, made more pleasurable by the enthusiastic responses from the descendants of the two knights who long ago, in colonial India, discovered the wild rose which has become our passion and the object of Viru’s hybridization.

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