Cultivating new charmers

If a new range of South African plants appears at a garden centre near you, it could be down to the work of Pershore College.
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The Independent Culture
At Pershore College in Worcestershire, the Specialist Plant Unit (SPU) is dedicated to research and development, in an agreeably uncommercial way. Plants are grown which are difficult to propagate, out of fashion, or unproven. Although the unit has to break even to fund the research, profit is not the overriding motive, and much of what is on trial will never become a garden centre bestseller. Twice a year, a select group of nurserymen are invited to Pershore to review what is being grown, so that plants which look like having commercial potential can be further tested. Those hardy plants that attract less attention are found a permanent home at Pershore, and as meticulous records are kept, no research is ever wasted.

At this year's July review day, two big hitters from nurseries that supply the garden-centre trade, and one specialist nurseryman had been invited to comment on a dozen new general plants and about 20 introductions from South Africa. Since 1994, Pershore has had an exclusive contract with the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in Capetown, which supplies them with plants. Because it was a no-go area for so long, South Africa is one of the last undiscovered areas for plant hunting, and this deal should produce some exciting new varieties.

Reactions from the pros to the first batch to be seen on trial were disappointing. After a couple of hours spent in southern-hemisphere-type sunshine, much of it in a plastic tunnel, the assessors retreated indoors to pronounce on the varieties inspected. A pink Scabious from Rosendael, north of Johannesburg, was a likely starter. "A damn marketable plant; good shape and foliage; pinker than 'Pink Mist' and might prove to be mildew resistant," the big operators said. There were doubts about its har-diness and repeat flowering qualities and the nurserymen wanted it sown earlier, to see if it could be in flower by the end of May. Another year at Pershore should produce that information and then: "Give it a pretty label and it'll sell for pounds 3.99, and we might get away with doing it in litre rather than a one-and-a-half litre pots."

Selago serrata, with large heads of mauve flowers, was noted as a possible for the "basket market". "Worth pursuing, it's quite neat and could do for the cut-flower trade," somebody said. But Lobelia valida was dismissed as "no more valida than the next one". Mike Dunnett of Blakedown Nurseries gave us his mission statement on new introductions: "We don't do anyone a service by offering new varieties unless they are significantly better or different than anything in circulation."

Agathosma, a popular hedging plant in South Africa, was declared "very uninteresting, too like heather and probably not hardy". Helychrysum splendidum was rudely dismissed with "planted in a public garden it wouldn't excite anyone". Blepharia, very slow growing and prickly with insignificant flowers, would not make a good patio plant. This was depressing stuff for Margaret Sheward, the supervisor of SPU and Leigh Morris, the nursery manager, but they took it on the chin and admitted that they had been a bit disappointed themselves with the plants that Kirstenbosch had chosen to send. But they are determined to make the project work by selecting more plants themselves. A trip to South Africa was booked for October, when plants would be sought for trial, with more potential than those in the first batch. There was much speculation about whether putting South Africa in front of a plant would sell it. The generation that spent years resisting Cape fruit in the supermarket may be less attracted to the idea of plants from the land of apartheid. Although it was generally agreed that since Roy Lancaster had made a video about "Kirstenbosch, Fynbos and every other sort of bosh" that the public was ready for plants with a South African provenance.

The Restios (picture something between a bamboo and a grass) was one of the South African successes. Most people liked them: "fabulous conservatory plants", and "very good for flower arrangers". Supermarkets and Euro-peans were possible clients for these, but a representative from another nursery chain was doubtful (perhaps like me he wondered where the one like a weird porcupine could be grown). "You can't please him. Unless it's pink and got a flower on it like a Scabious you can forget about it," his colleague said. More work is needed on testing the hardiness of Restios, so the SPU will now plant them in different situations and soils to see if they survive the winter. Germinating their seed is unconventional. At home on the Fynbos an annual fire breaks their dormancy, but research has proved that it is the chemicals in smoke which act on the seed rather than the heat of the fire. At Pershore, they use a fan heater and a damped down fire to produce the smoke which is then blown into a tunnel. The Restios is nothing if not esoteric. Bob Brown, of Cotswold Garden Flowers, a small specialist nursery near Evesham, was the most knowledgeable plantsman on the team. He loved the Restios and registered a lone vote for a cream-flowered dianthus with which the commercial boys were not particularly smitten.

The general plants were fewer in number but attracted equally memorable comments. A glowing purple Scabious attopurpuna was judged to be the colour of the moment, but best grown as an annual and left to the big seed growers to market. Penstemons (the National Collection of which is held at Pershore) came with numbers not names. P196 was a selected mauve crimson, thought to be hardier than others in the same colour range and untouched by wind. Bob Brown was uncertain and thought "Midnight", already available, was a better bet. Some blue mallows got the thumbs down because they were judged to be indistinguishable from "Primley Blue", already on the market. Persicaria amplexicaule "Clent Charm", a pink Polygonum with yellow leaves, provoked a mixed response from the panel ranging from "I like that" (Mike Dunnett), to "revolting" from Bob Brown, who added that he thought the public saw pink and yellow as offensive. The nursery moguls were not deterred. "Spiraea 'Magic Carpet'," they told us, "in the same combination, sold over 130,000 in six weeks. If Bob doesn't like it, that means we've got it right."

Everyone liked Angelonia caerulea which was voted a juke-box hit. This tender perennial from South America, popular 40 years ago, is no longer commercially available. Expect to see it piled high for the basket market in the garden centres in two years time, probably sold as "Angel Blue", and when you do buy it, think of the years of work and thought that the Pershore Special Plant Unit have devoted to getting it there.

! The Special Plant Unit (01386 561385) only sells to wholesale customers, but plants from the unit are available from the college's own plant centre, which is open seven days a week. There is no mail order.