Thursday, 22 August 2013

'Red Gurkha' coming of age.

Roscoea purpurea f. rubra, usually known as 'Red Gurkha', BBMS45
When my plants of Roscoea purpurea 'Red Gurkha' came into flower I thought, 'it's just twenty years since you were introduced' but when I checked, I found that it was actually discovered and brought into cultivation in 1992. I ought to have known this perfectly well as the participants in the Oxford University Ganesh '92 expedition that found it were friends of mine (Bill Baker, Tom Burkitt, Jonathan Miller and their Nepalese counterpart Rhidaya Shrestha) and I'd advised them while planning their trip. Their aim was to locate Pleione coronaria, then a very poorly known species, in the Ganesh Himal in central Nepal and study its ecology. They did this successfully, but the expedition's major triumph was its discovery of not only a red form of Roscoea purpurea but also a new species, Roscoea ganeshensis, as well as introducing R. tumjensis and reintroducing R. capitata and R. alpina.

The red Roscoea was the great excitement, however, and I have a letter from Bill Baker (no fewer than 10 pages!) written a few days after their return to England that conveys this. "6 1/2 weeks of rain, shine, wet, dry, hot cold expeditioning has left us with Pleione coronaria, Iris staintonii, a bright red [double underlining] Roscoea and an interesting Hepatica (?)..."The Red Roscoea occurred around one particular village bearing flowers of a scarlet colour (not purply/red) on small stourt plants. No other colour existed there ... it must have been a true-breeding pop and all indications suggest a new subsp. or maybe species.'

In fact it turned out to be a colour variant of the widespread Himalayan species R. purpurea and when published in what was then The Kew Magazine in 2004 was given the evocative name 'Red Gurkha'. Although we all still know it as this, giving a single cultivar name to a wild population was unfortunate and has caused much confusion since, leading to the publication in 2007 of the epithet forma rubra for all examples of this colour form from the Ganesh Himal. Plants brought back from Nepal varied in the pigmentation of the leaf bases, with some being green and others red: the red-pigmented ones are the more striking. The effect is just visible in the top image. This is an original clone, BBMS 45: it has never produced seeds for me, but others have produced whole battalions of Red Gurkhas, and some very fine hybrids too. It likes rich moist soil and light shade: this clump is in my fern border, which gets sun for only a short period each day: another group, in full sun in the open border, are very unhappy and will need rescuing.

The scarlet flowers of R. purpurea f. rubra are really striking, and unique in the genus. To my knowledge it has only been collected by the Ganesh '92 expedition.


  1. This is realy a stunning plant! Doo you sell some plants ore seeds?

  2. Thanks John for a generous write-up. Can't believe I was once capable of writing a 10 page letter! My crop of Gurkhas are flowering prolifically - all grown from a rare batch of seed I obtained by hand-pollination early in the season. They came up as a blend of red and green stemmed forms.