Ness Gardens – one man’s passion

Liverpool cotton merchant, Arthur Kilpin Bulley was one of fourteen children. Born in 1861, like many of his day, he followed the family business, which enabled him to travel and with a keen interest in unusual plants, he purchased 60 acres of land overlooking the Dee Estuary on the Wirral peninsula. There he established a nursery to sell seeds and a botanical garden. The Victorian craze for collecting exotic plants had claimed another stalwart follower.  With plenty of land to cultivate, he sent out botanists to collect specimens from countries as far away as South America and China. One such collector he turned to was Scottish botanist, George Forrest.

Forrest was raised in Falkirk and spent some time as a sheep farmer in Australia before returning to Scotland. After working in a herbarium, he was sponsored to go to Yunnan province in China by Bulley. Forrest was the first Westerner to explore Yunnan. His first expedition was in 1904 at Dali City, where he learnt the language and helped inoculate the local population against smallpox. While he and his team were out collecting Rhododendrons, the Tibetan Rebellion of 1905 took place, during which foreigners were targeted. He managed to escape the massacres. He eventually returned to Yunnan and continued to collect hundreds of species, including the Snowy Chinese Gentian, which earned him a medal from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Snowy Chinese gentia

Another botanist commissioned by Bulley was Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958). He too travelled to Tibet, bringing back a giant cowslip, (primula florindae, named after his wife Florinda) the Himalayan blue poppy and a yellow flowering rhododendron.  He was a little bit accident prone: impaled on a bamboo spike (he liked to dangled over gorges in a bamboo sling); fell off a cliff into a tree; tent was crushed by a tree in a storm; ran out of food for two days, and survived a 9.6 earthquake. In total he went on 25 expeditions over 50 years – that’s dedication.


Himalayan blue poppy

Giant cowslip

Meanwhile, back in the UK, in 1910 Bulley stood for parliament for Women’s Suffrage (two of his sisters went to university). He came last, but at least he tried!

The rhododendrons continued to feature strongly at Ness, as well as the Azaleas, snowdrops and a hillside rock garden, which is also a legacy of eastern influence. Rock gardens, known as Zen gardens in Japan, are designed to look like naturally occurring rocky outcrops and were very popular in Victorian times. They provide a habitat for plants that like poorly drained and arid kind of soils. Rocks are often arranged aesthetically and plants typically don’t grow above a metre high.

In 1948, Bulley’s daughter Lois left Ness gardens to the University of Liverpool, who still care for it with an emphasis on education and research. Just as Bulley probably intended.

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