GARDENING; Pith helmets optional

Britain's New Wave plant hunters won't be found in India, but at a nursery near you. 'I grew aquilegia, so why couldn't I grow that aquilegia?'
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The Independent Culture
THE WORDS "plant hunters" conjure up visions of men and women in pith helmets roaming the plains and jungles of the Orient armed with a sharp knife, a plastic bag and a phial of snake-bite serum. Yet modern plant hunters may never venture far outside Britain's motorway network, carrying only a chequebook and the latest edition of The Plant Finder.

The first edition of that book eight years ago created an appetite among enthusiasts for a wider range of plants than those stocked at garden centres. The latest version has 900 pages closely packed with the names of thousands upon thousands of varieties - some rare, some common - and the specialist nurseries where they can be bought.

The book's weakness is that it gives no indication at all, in words or pictures, of what the plants are like. There are, for instance, some 2,000 kinds of iris listed. But how does Iris "Classy Babe" differ from Iris unguicularis "Francis Wormsley"? Which would blend better with my rich purple clematis? Or would I really be happier if I threw in my lot with Iris versicolor "Mysterious Monique"?

That is the kind of dilemma that halts budding gardeners in their tracks as they begin to develop a wider interest in the craft. One such man was Dirk van der Werff, a press photographer from Hartlepool; he decided to do something about it. Exploiting the new possibilities of computerised desktop publishing, Dirk (born 37 years ago in Hartlepool, but with a Dutch father) has just brought out the first issue of Plants or, in full: New, Rare and Elusive Plants; a Journal for New Plant Hunters.

"The whole thing stems from my childhood," he says. "All I remember from gardens where we lived is mildewy blue asters, marigolds, a big clump of red-hot pokers and the usual huge clump of rhubarb. When I really got into gardening I couldn't believe how many varieties of asters there were, and other common plants. Garden centres concentrated on just one or two varieties, and that was your choice.

"When The Plant Finder came out," he continues, "it was like opening an Aladdin's cave. But the trouble was, when it marked new varieties and species, you couldn't find out anything about them. There were never any details about what they looked like, who had found them or who introduced them."

The first issue of Plants goes some way towards remedying this. It has a dozen short articles - about 500 words each - with details of specific new or rediscovered varieties, and a number of wider-ranging features that summarise developments in particular plant areas. A "Where Are They Now?" column appeals for information about plants "discovered" in the last five years, only to sink back into obscurity.

There are 11 colour pictures, confined so far to the front and back covers. Thus, not only do we get a photograph of the pale lilac flowers of Aquilegia vulgaris "Jane Hollow", but we can also read a gripping article by Jane Hollow herself describing her rediscovery of this old variety (whose original name had been lost) in the garden of a cottage once occupied by a country house head gardener.

The enthusiasm of the new plant hunters permeates the whole journal. Here is Pat Perry of North Yorkshire writing about her new variety of euphorbia: "I just shivered with excitement when the University of Oxford Botanic Garden called my 'Humpty Dumpty' a gem. I flush with pride when I see 'Stardust' growing in a stately home's border. Every year I peruse The Plant Finder to see how many other nurseries are listing Lavatera 'Barnsley Perry's Dwarf'."

Enthusiasm is also what drove Dirk to fill the gap he perceived in gardening literature. His fascination with gardening took hold slowly, as it often does, when he married 10 years ago. "We bought a house with a south-facing garden," he explains, "because my wife likes to sunbathe. But once you get out there, you think you'd like some pots and plants - and you want the garden to look nice, not like a forest."

Soon afterwards the Hartlepool Mail, where he was a photographer (and is now picture editor), asked him to write a gardening column jointly with the sports editor, also a new gardener. "He went off into shrubs and I went off into perennials, and we shared our knowledge." Four years ago they started a garden club for the paper's readers, an idea that has since been emulated by other newspapers in its group.

Dirk's horticultural odyssey can be traced by examining his own garden, on three sides of a large semi-detached house near the town centre. It is big enough to include the lawn space needed for two sons aged three and five, along with broad borders for his unusual varieties.

"I've got plants here that are some of the first I bought from Woolworth's when I started 10 years ago," he says. "I'm mixing my rare stuff and my new stuff with plants that have good memories for me from when I first started.

"The more I started reading about plants, the more keen I became to grow them. I'd read about a rare aquilegia, for instance, and I'd think: 'I grow aquilegia, so why can't I grow that aquilegia.' If that one did well, then I'd look for another kind. But I was very frustrated at the time by the lack of information."

His attempt to remedy this has so far cost him pounds 4,000 - not a lot if you are thinking about press magnates on the scale of Rupert Murdoch, but quite a chunk out of his salary and that of his wife, who works part- time in a bank. Half the money went on an Apple Macintosh computer that can perform all the production work except the printing, which cost pounds 700 for the 500 copies of issue number one. Another pounds 200 was spent on a course in desktop publishing.

Not everyone in the world of horticulture, with its abstruse rivalries and politics, wholly approves of Dirk's little venture. Many plantsmen and plantswomen - that passionate group of enthusiasts whose gardening is focused on the collection of rare plants - see dangers in spreading knowledge too widely. They fear that the creation of fashions in plants could mean old varieties are neglected and become extinct.

Dirk does not accept this. "You can't neglect older plants for new ones, but you shouldn't neglect new plants for old, either." He believes his critics may be motivated by a desire to keep their pet varieties exclusive to themselves and a few friends. He addresses the issue in a signed editorial in his journal:

"The more enthusiasts that grow new, rare and elusive plants in their gardens or collections, the better ... Hundreds of plant enthusiasts caring for and enjoying a rare plant give that plant a better chance of surviving by the law of averages."

Before launching his new magazine, Dirk contacted about 70 specialist nurseries to find out whether they would be interested in advertising, providing information on new plants or distributing subscription blanks. "There were three reactions," he says. "Some were really interested, some just didn't reply, and some said they were too busy to think about it just now. Of course, some nurserymen don't like The Plant Finder and want to pull out of it: they're sick of the rampaging hordes looking for this or that plant. The really smart thing in some circles is to know a nursery that isn't in it.

"The people who did show an interest are what I call the New Wave nurserymen, who have gone into nurseries because they're enthusiasts. They want people to know about new plants. They've been as helpful as they can, and have backed me all the way."

One of the New Wave is David Baker, who started the Town Farm Nursery at Whitton, near Stockton-on-Tees, in 1987, after taking early retirement from a battery company. He specialises in alpines but also grows perennials, shrubs, and a few bedding plants. Dirk is a frequent customer. The nursery appears in The Plant Finder as a supplier of a number of rarities. For instance, it is the only listed source of Arnica Louisiana, which has yellow daisy-like flowers and is collected in the Rocky Mountains specially for David.

"I don't worry whether a plant is new," he says. "I get seed from overseas and sometimes people give me plants they think I should have. I find something and grow it, and if I don't like it I throw it on the bonfire."

David Baker is a firm supporter of Dirk's magazine. "Nobody else is doing anything like it," he says. "A lot of people are interested in plants, even in this area - I'd say there are about 2,000 people in the North- east alone who may be interested enough to buy it."

New gardening journals are much like new plants: whether they catch the public's imagination or not depends on a combination of factors, and the outcome is not easy to predict. Given the right care and growing conditions, Plants could easily, like The Plant Finder itself, turn into a publication no devoted gardener's bookshelf should be without.

! 'Plants' costs pounds 12 for four issues. For subscriptions write to Aquilegia Publishing, 2 Grange Close, Hartlepool, Cleveland TS26 ODU (01429 273921).'The Plant Finder' is published by Moorland Publishing Co Ltd, at pounds 12.99, and is available at many bookshops. Town Farm Nursery is at Whitton Village, Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland TS21 1LQ (01740 631079). It is open 10am-6pm, Fri-Mon only. Catalogue on request.