Mr Smith goes to . . . a plant hunt

Roy Lancaster is a plant-hunter. He hunts plants. The point bears a little repetition, I feel, because plant-hunting is at the big, beating heart of Roy Lancaster. If he was unfortunate enough to suffer an injury during one of his exotic expeditions - impaling himself on a prickly pear, perhaps - I bet he'd toss feverishly on his bed beneath a drip feed of chlorophyll.

We've been fobbed off with the idea that gardening is about decking and water features and making gullible homeowners cry. I don't know for sure, but I would guess that Roy Lancaster regards the smothered smallholding of today as a fallen Eden. He's all for going back to nature red in tooth and claw, or at least berry. "It takes a real gardener to make all the risks, all the dices with death, worthwhile," he told a symposium on plant-hunting in London. A real gardener? Surely he couldn't be referring to those gentle souls with sleeveless pullovers and seed catalogues? Well, some of them are like the 19th-century flora-fancier Ernest Wilson. Wilson was in remotest China, on the exquisite scent of Lilium regale, when his leg was broken by a rockfall. As a thank-you to the quack who set his bones, Wilson named a hitherto unknown bloom after him. "The excitement and delight of seeing new plants blots out every discomfort," Roy claimed.

In case the reader suspects a mature plant-hunter of coming over all rosy, I should add that his enthusiasm is shared by Tom Hart Dyke, whose passion for orchids is undimmed by the experience of nine months' captivity at the hands of Colombian rebels. Still in his twenties, Tom is a cutting from the old stem. Roy Lancaster said: "When young plant-hunters say to me, 'I would like to travel like you plant-hunters', I tell them, 'Go!'"

Before the conference, I was inclined to believe that Dorothy Parker's celebrated zinger about horticulture was the last word on the subject. Asked to include the term in a sentence, she said: "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think." But there was a good, rich mulch for the mind at the convention. It was held in the dramatic gothic husk of the former St Mary-at-Lambeth, now the Museum of Garden History. In this possibly deconsecrated ground, right next door to Lambeth Palace, the exhibits include the sinister "Vegetable Lamb of Tartary". Until the 18th century, this was considered to be a hybrid of plant and beast, breathed into life by "spontaneous generation". The credulous claimed to see in it eyes, ears, hooves and wool: in short, all the ovine characteristics you might need to induce an attack of the vapours in followers of the Lamb of God. In fact, Cibotium barometz, with its teddy-bear fur, is a freakish fern.

I came away from the symposium convinced that pressing wild flowers was the most manly pastime you could shake a stick at. Plant-hunters weren't weedy naturalists, they were raiders of the lost park.