Sunday, 1 April 2012

Hairy fat bastards and daffodils

I spent Friday night at the Park Inn at Telford, an experience I strongly suggest you cross off the list of things you must do before you die. If some grave error of judgment should lead you to ignore this advice, do not pick up the phone (£1 per microsecond), attempt to connect to the internet (£10) or order a whisky (£6.20) at the bar in a misguided attempt to calm the attack of tachycardia brought on by presentation of the bill. The Park Inn at Telford offers similar value-for-money as the all-you-can-eat buffet at the annual carrion fly convention in Mogadishu.

Surprisingly, therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay. I was attending part of a weekend convention, organised by my great friend Margaret Owen, devoted to the study of old daffodil cultivars, bred by the first couple of generations of breeders to play around with hybridising the species. Since a trip last year to the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa I have become an enthusiast for Narcissus species but I have never liked hybrid 'daffs', especially in their blowsy modern incarnations.

Margaret Owen (Roger Norman and Angela Whinfield in the background)

On Friday evening, the 30 or so delegates assembled to buy plants from Joe Sharman and Alan Street, have dinner and listen to two lectures, the first delivered by Sally Kington and the second by Margaret. Sally's lecture was a scholarly exposition of the history of Narcissus cultivation and breeding, accompanied by a lovely series of images of the plants and personalities she discussed. Assembling these images must have been a huge labour. Interspersed with photographs and anecdotes from her recent trip to Andalucia, and delivered in a voice that BBC newsreaders could but dream of emulating, the lecture was enthralling and educational. Sitting next to me, Joe Sharman was furiously taking notes. I hadn't been organised enough to bring pen and paper, which I regret.

Listening to Margaret speak is a bit like watching a mountain torrent flow. While telling us about the places we were to visit the following day, she managed to launch broadsides against Plant Heritage, the National Trust and the RHS, all of which toadying organisations richly deserve to be buried beneath vast mountains of opprobrium. Margaret, as the victims of her many campaigns will attest, does not take prisoners and I don't believe there was a member of the audience not won over by her unique combination of conviction and determination. Long live MO.

On Saturday morning the Narcissus bus visited two churchyards which had been planted with daffodils by the incumbent vicars in the nineteenth century. If all priests had confined themselves to such useful and harmless activities we might be in less trouble today. The plants that we saw were exceedingly diverse but, although no-one present was able confidently to name them, it was clear that the original clones are still flourishing. When I wondered out loud why seedlings hadn't supplanted the named varieties, John Grimshaw pointed out that many of the hybrids are polyploid and sterile. It really struck me that many of these early hybrids are graceful in a way that has been entirely lost in the contemporaneous monstrosities that the current generation of breeders are producing.

We had lunch at Lloyd Kenyon's extraordinary home. The man himself was in Italy, admiring magnolias in the company of other members of the International Dendrological Society, but he had graciously arranged soup and sandwiches and allowed us to wander through the grounds and admire the sheets of daffodils and his ever-expanding collection of trees and shrubs.

John Grimshaw and John Fielding discussing Narcissus cultivars, or something.
Let me be the first to admit that it is pretty weird to spend a couple of hundred quid and two precious days wandering around churchyards in the company of other nutters, admiring and trying to learn something about daffodils. Nevertheless, this is how I get my kicks. Earlier today, I received a few photos taken by Paul Richmond (including the one of Margaret Owen above), taken during the course of the day. Looking at them, it became clear to me that Photoshop should add a 'remove hairy fat bastard' feature next to the red eye button, in the next release. I think the beard disguises my jowels and I shall be eternally grateful to the friend who remarked that it makes me look like an avant-garde Serbian film director (in a good way) but my wife disagrees, so it is gone, for now.

John Grimshaw and hairy fat bastard

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Snowdrops in the Czech Republic

The River Labe rises in the Krkonoše Mountains of the northern Czech Republic and flows south for about a hundred miles before turning west and north and flowing through the Czech Republic and Germany, where it is known as the Elbe, to its mouth at Cuxhaven on the North Sea. Over its 1,100 kilometre length it drains 148,000 square kilometres of industrial central Europe, the fourth largest catchment on the continent.

Some stretches of the river are flanked by floodplains several to tens of miles wide formed of a series of sedimentary terraces, all recent in geological terms. Deposition of the oldest, most elevated terrace, which lies between 4 and 4.5 metres above current river level, began only 9,500 years ago and the lowest terrace was deposited during the Little Ice Age of the 16th century. Buried tree trunks provide evidence of occasional catastrophic flooding, interspersed with periods when the river was at equilibrium, meandering across a stable floodplain. We live in such a time today (the evidence for these claims is presented in this interesting paper).

Human settlement of the floodplain has waxed and waned since Neolithic times, when humans started developing agriculture. Deciduous forests, dominated by oak, have reclaimed the deep, fertile soil whenever man has been driven from the floodplain by periods of severe flooding. At Mělník, north west of Prague, where the Labe and the Vltava meet, the river is a fat, lazy, silt-laden waterway, navigable by the huge barges that once carried most of the trade in and out of central Europe but which have now all but vanished from the rivers and canals. Human engineering has erased the river’s meanders, reinforced its banks and contained its flow within a dependable channel.

The River Labe near Mělník, Czech Republic

The oak forests have largely disappeared, replaced by cabbage and hop fields, subsidised since the Czech Republic’s accession to the European Union by the taxpayers of western Europe. The hops, at least, go into some of the world's best beer, but a Eurosceptic need spend only a day driving across the Labe floodplain to have his worst fears confirmed[1].

Here and there, however, small patches of woodland remain alongside the Labe. They are currently protected from brassica encroachment by the same people whose election prospects depend upon their standing with cabbage farmers. In mid March each year these little patches of woodland light up with millions-upon-millions of snowdrops. I’ve seen some extraordinary floral spectacles in my time but I think that March in the woods flanking the Labe is up there with South Africa’s Cape Province in spring for sheer jaw-dropping awesomeness. The fact that a single plant species – Galanthus nivalis – is responsible for the spectacle somehow makes it more, not less, impressive. Astonishingly, at least to me, this annual extravaganza seems to come and go almost un-observed by human eyes. I was there for three days at peak flowering this year and, other than a few dog walkers, I did not see another soul in the woods.

So far as I could tell, the Galanthus colonies are all on the lowest, most recently deposited terrace of the Labe floodplain. An interesting implication of this is that the populations are, at most, 500 years old. Conservationists - I consider myself one but disown the tainted label - often claim to be attempting to save 'natural' habitats from destruction but it is rare to hear the youth or transience of some of these habitats discussed. Especially in the temperate northern hemisphere, where cycles of glaciation dramatically alter the natural vegetation at a particular site over periods of a few millennia, attempting to conserve a natural habitat is like trying to find the east pole.

A galanthophile in paradise immediately notices a problem. Life (even in paradise) is too short to examine every plant. The only possible solution is to stumble, drunk on the beauty of the plants one is crushing underfoot, on a random walk through the colonies. The snowdrop colonies along the Labe are the most variable so far discovered. Every aspect of the plants’ morphology varies wildly. Stature, flower size, pedicel length, the shape and size of the outer segments, the size and shape of the marking on the inner segments, the presence or absence of virescence, the occurrence of poculiforms, the colour of the ovary and the occasional outright freak.

Each colony is slightly different from its neighbours. Two in particular stand out for the superabundance of unusual varieties. In one of these colonies plants with green marks on the outer segments are particularly common (perhaps one in 1,000 plants is marked in this way) and in the other poculiforms are similarly abundant. The images below give an impression of the diversity present in the populations.

Although I have seen snowdrop colonies elsewhere in Europe, for example in Montenegro, with a small proportion of unusual plants, I have never encountered variation on anything like the scale of the populations in the Czech Republic. The question arises why these colonies are so variable. An obvious explanation presents itself, namely that the floodplain of the Labe has been inundated repeatedly in recent decades with water laced with a cocktail of various industrial effluents. It is quite conceivable that some of these pollutants are mutagenic and are responsible for many of the oddities but this hypothesis needs careful testing. Alternatively, or as well, founder effects may have had a role to play.

It quickly becomes clear, when walking through these woods, that the unusual traits that galanthophiles admire are heritable. This is particularly clear in the case of virescent snowdrops. If one’s eye is caught by a particularly fine virescent plant, the natural tendency is to squat on one’s haunches and look more closely. It soon becomes apparent that several of the clones within a few yards of the central plant are also virescent, to a greater or lesser extent. I tried to photograph this phenomenon but could not achieve sufficient depth of field to illustrate it well. The same is true of poculiforms. One ‘purple patch’ I encountered must have contained a hundred or more different poculiform clones within an area of about half an acre.

As any fule kno, the self-appointed guardians of wildlife conservation have arranged for trade in Galanthus to be regulated by CITES, thereby driving the international trade in horticulturally desirable snowdrops underground while making no difference whatsoever to the fate of wild populations, which is determined by the unholy alliance between developers and politicians, not by plant enthusiasts. How, then, is one to rescue some of this genetic goldmine before it is turned over to cabbage cultivation or, on a slightly longer timescale, inundated in a new period of catastrophic flooding?

Seed. I think the answer must be to collect and sow an enormous quantity of seed. It is not currently illegal to send Galanthus seed outside the EU from within it. Of course, as soon as the relevant bureaucrats spot this loophole, they’ll close it, thereby sealing the fate of the species they will loudly proclaim they are trying to save.

[1] It has been noted that, whereas the ten commandments contain 179 words and the US declaration of independence 1300, EU cabbage legislation runs to nearly 27,000. I need hardly add that although the first two tracts are also horseshit of the stinkiest variety, at least they are concise horseshit.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

I had it from Primrose

Many related findings in psychology indicate that we apes imbue objects with significance in proportion to their specific history. Credulous adherents to any religion revere the totems of their particular superstition. Men would and have killed for a fragment of the true cross or sight of the Kaaba in Mecca. A drawing signed by Picasso is worth vastly more than the same drawing not signed by Picasso and vastly more than the same drawing 'signed' by Picasso but revealed to be a fake. Heterosexual men will pay small fortunes for sheets slept under by Marilyn Monroe or knickers once worn by Madonna, but only if they have not been washed. Elvis fans will do the same for anything The King allegedly touched.

We care about provenance. It is useless to argue otherwise. Of course there is no aesthetic difference whatsoever between a genuine Picasso and a convincingly faked Picasso but there is a world of difference between the values we place on the two objects. To object that making such a false distinction is absurd is entirely to misunderstand what it means to be human.

It's mid January and snowdrop season is well underway. Every weekend in my February diary is allocated to some event devoted to the dissemination of these small, white flowers. Why am I so entranced by snowdrops? Well, I don't really know but I do understand very well the urge to possess the latest, greatest discoveries in the bizarre netherworld of galanthophilia. Yesterday I paid £300 on eBay for a single bulb of Galanthus 'Green Tear' and I consider this a perfectly reasonable price for an object as desirable as this bulb. In fact, when you consider how little £300 buys you in the rest of the so-called real world (three tanks of petrol; 150 Waitrose ready meals; or a new tooth), it is a trivial sum to pay for something that is not only unique but coveted by many others who don't have it. I have two.

You might think that the market sets the price at which rare snowdrops change hands but, if so, you'd be wrong. A small cabal of movers and shakers determines which selections are worthy of notice and, since these are the same individuals who possess the entire living stock of the relevant plants, they get to decide how much to charge. In any other commercial sphere the trade in snowdrops would be known as a cartel. Lest you think that I intend this as a criticism, let me hasten to reassure you that I don't. Both sellers and buyers are happier under the illusion that Green Tear is worth more than, say, 'Green Brush'. Let the bureaucrats get their rocks off regulating the appropriate firmness of cabbages and leave the snowdrop trade alone. Caveat emptor will do fine for we galanthophiles.

There is a genuine question of authenticity. This season one eBay trader has already been exposed as offering for sale plants that were not correctly named. The beauty of eBay is that frauds like this are quickly exposed. One way to establish the authenticity of what one is offering is to spend a decade patiently building a reputation for reliability and honesty. Another way is to do the same thing by claiming line-of-descent from an unimpeachable source. The inner circle has always had an unquestioned right to attend the prestigious lunches at which the next generation of must-have selections are determined. The original snowdrop lunch was hosted by the late Primrose Warburgh, whom I never met and whose name I can never therefore drop. The words in a catalogue: 'I had this from Primrose Warburgh' add, I estimate, £25 to the value of the relevant plant. If you can legitimately drop the surname and say "I had this from Primrose.", you have really made it and can name your price.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Forest Chump

I'm perched uncomfortably on a wet rock, trying to stay warm by a fire that our porters have conjured from a handful of damp wood chips. A dozen of us are sheltering under a blue plastic tarpaulin, which is keeping out most of the rain. A light breeze pushes the flames this way and that, making it impossible to avoid the smoke that fills my eyes and lungs every few minutes. Occasionally a section of bamboo explodes with a report like a rifle shot and, for the hundredth time, Uoc staggers around, miming being shot in the chest. The Vietnamese tea I'm drinking is a weak solution of wood ash and bitter tannins but is at least hot. A minor wound at the base of my spine is leaking a viscous fluid down the crack of my arse in a worryingly unstoppable flow. On the bright side, I'm not yet incontinent so there is no urgent need to wander off into the darkness for a crap in the cardamom.

The joy of camping

In these suboptimal conditions the Hmong porters are squatting, apparently oblivious to the smoke, chatting incessantly about god-knows-what and expertly preparing our dinner. One man chops vegetables and meat with a short, wickedly sharp machete; another tends the fire, feeding it with chips cut from the heart of a fallen tree; a third swiftly whittles half a dozen sets of chopsticks from a length of bamboo. This is the fourth night of the trek and the joint of pork we are to eat looks like it's ready to walk again. Aaron assures me that lemongrass has antibacterial properties but I can't help thinking that a bucket of bleach and a prophylactic course of doxycycline would be more appropriate. Although the meal is a heroic achievement in the circumstances and I want to appear gracious, I eat without enthusiasm when a plate is handed to me and throw most of the meat into the fire.

The highlight of the evening comes when Bleddyn, who has his back to the flames, suddenly yelps and shouts 'Jesus fuck! My arse is on fire!' It isn't, sadly, but we all laugh. He gets his own back later when I discover that I have melted one of my boots while attempting to speed dry it. We are camped near the shelter of a family of cardamom farmers and Uoc jokingly suggests recruiting a couple of the farmer's daughters to help raise our spirits. 'No tits, big smile.' He says and giggles. Declining the offer of a cup of apple wine I ask for a coffee and absently scratch the itch on my spine. A leech the size and consistency of a ripe olive falls into my hand, belching blood (mine). The mysterious leaking sore is explained; leech spit contains a remarkably potent anticoagulant. As the loathsome creature shrivels in the embers, I reflect that at least it has probably stripped my arteries of cholesterol.

We retire to our tents, which have been pitched on a bed of cut cardamom stems. I use a tee shirt to mop up the puddle of water that has accumulated in a hollow in the groundsheet and wriggle, fully clothed into my moist sleeping bag. I decide to read for a while and dig around in my rucksack for David Mitchell's 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoete', which I have been saving for such an occasion. It has been sitting in the puddle of water and has swollen to twice its original size. The pages are stuck together and disintegrate when I attempt to peel them apart. I decide that this is a two sleeping pill night and, after a while, drift gratefully into drug-induced oblivion.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Parnassia grandifolia

A few years ago, plant hunting in Tennessee with a friend, I saw Parnassia grandifolia for the first time. It was growing in thin soil on a steep slope. The site is rich in horticulturally excellent woody and herbaceous plant species, including Nyssa sylvatica, various Magnolia species, Aconitum uncinatum and Clematis viorna. Alkaline water seeping from the bedrock makes the soil permanently wet, though the drainage is simultaneously excellent. At the time I was more interested in a colony of Trautvetteria growing beside the Parnassia. The Trautvetteria was in flower (in mid July) and its unusually coriaceous leaves alerted my observant friend to the fact that this might be a new species, a hunch that subsequent molecular analysis has confirmed. Beside this exciting find the Parnassia's foliage, reminiscent of an Asarum, seemed rather insignificant. When it flowered for the first time in cultivation, however, my indifference was replaced by an immediate enthusiasm for the extraordinary flowers, which are bright white, veined with emerald green. The patterns made by the veining remind me of a computer-generated fractal. It is flowering again now, in mid September.

Parnassia grandifolia

Monday, 5 September 2011

Stenanthium diffusum

A few years ago I spent an eventful couple of weeks in the eastern USA, staying with some friends I'd made via email through our mutual interests in various plants. It was pretty brave of them to invite a total stranger (and a Brit) to stay. The hospitality I was shown was extraordinary and the friendships have blossomed, in a way that gardening friendships have a habit of doing.

I was also shown some fascinating plants, including Stenanthium diffusum, which I saw in Tennessee, growing in very wet, acidic humus, in deep shade. The couple of plants that I was given have flourished in cultivation in a shade tunnel in coir-based compost, despite my exceedingly alkaline water supply. This year they have flowered particularly well and I am hoping to harvest a bunch of seed shortly.

Stenanthium is an interesting little genus in the Melanthiaceae (which also includes Paris and Veratrum). The number of species involved is up for grabs and opinions range between one and four or five. Horticulturally speaking there is a huge difference between S. diffusum at the most gracile end of the spectrum and S. robustum (see a superb image of it here - I don't have it yet) at the other.

With any member of the Melanthiaceae it's a case of mi casa su casa but I think that this plant has a particular grace that is sometimes lacking in the more butch members of the family. Eventually I would like to have drifts of it growing beside the stream, paired with Epimedium, a totally unnatural combination that nevertheless works exceedingly well. The plant in the background in the pictures is Epimedium alpinum, a European member of this mainly Asian genus.

The photographs below were taken in very early September.

Stenanthium diffusum

Stenanthium diffusum

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Holy Trinity

'Hi Tom, Bleddyn here. Fancy a trip to Vietnam? Let me know as soon as you can.'

So went the message on my voicemail. Bleddyn Wynn-Jones is the co-proprietor of Crûg Farm Plants (, the world's best nursery, and the proximate reason I currently spend about 18 hours a day tending my plants. In other words, this is all his bloody fault.

About six or seven years ago I started buying plants from Crûg and, as many others before me have discovered, once you start down that road it leads inexorably to financial and moral ruin. At a certain point, having just parted with £150 for a plant of Schefflera macrophylla (look and lust), I joked to Sue Wynn-Jones that if I ran out of money I could always feed the Schefflera to my kids. When she expressed an appropriate degree of horror at this prospect I reassured her that I would never feed such a rare plant to my kids, even if they developed scurvy. The bloody Schefflera died in its first winter but I now have another specimen, bought for me as an anniversary present by my wife, which will see out its days in a greenhouse.

Bleddyn, Sue and the late Peter Wharton had collected the seed from which my plant had grown on Fan Si Pan, a mountain in the north of Vietnam, near the Yunnan border, an area with higher vascular plant biodiversity than virtually anywhere on earth (see map below).

The arrowhead points to Fan Si Pan. Red indicates areas of very high plant diversity

It was to this mountain that Bleddyn was now proposing I accompany him, on a four week plant hunting trip. My invitation had come at the last minute because his original traveling companion had done a bunk. It was like getting a call from God the Father to say that Jesus had pulled a sickie and would I mind doing a stint at his right side. I pretended to consider the offer carefully for the 24 hours I was given to make up my mind before calling back to say I was in. But no harp music.

We are trying to persuade a mutual friend to join us, for at least part of the trip. If we succeed in twisting his arm, I propose christening (no offense) our expedition The Holy Trinity. That would look cool on future labels. Instead of the familiar BSWJ collection numbers, we'd be FS&HG0001, etc.