The life of secret plants

So you like rare, unusual plants; the sort you won't find in the local garden centre. Then you'll want to read a magazine with your tastes in mind. By Ursula Buchan
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As a child I collected stamps, but not just any old stamps. I turned my nose up at two-a-penny packets of assorted CCCP and Magyarpost, in favour of precious, high-value stamps from the British Virgin Islands and other far-flung outposts of the British Commonwealth. It was handsome rarities that I was after but, sadly, the simple but iron rules of economics soon put paid to my budding philatelic career. Now, from time to time when the mood is upon me, I collect rare plants, although economics still restrains my ambition.

I have not closely examined my motives for doing this. The spur may be scholarly botanical interest (unlikely), the desire for a horticultural challenge (possible), or even old-fashioned oneupmanship (definitely), but as often as not it is just the simple pleasure of having friends admire a plant unknown to them in my garden, and ask me for a piece of it.

Plants are rare for many reasons: they may be difficult to grow or propagate, have charms too quiet for general approval, or be so recently found, or bred, that few people yet know about them. This is where the quarterly magazine called Plants - A Journal for Plant Enthusiasts comes in. It is invaluable for the collection-minded. Edited and published by Dirk van der Werff (an Englishman of Dutch descent from Hartlepool), it is an entertaining and illuminating guide to the ever-changing world of the plant novelty.

The subscribers are plant enthusiasts from all over the world - nurserymen, professional and amateur plant breeders, botanic gardens and keen amateur gardeners with inquiring minds and a bit of time on their hands. But it is also readable, with a breezy informality that is refreshing after the stuffiness of a botanical journal, which it emphatically is not. The language is decidedly horticultural, rather than botanical; not many tepals, bracts or pinnatifid leaves here.

The latest issue (No 16), for example, contains articles about a range of new American hostas, as well as the Harrogate Spring Flower Show, a review of 1999 nursery catalogues, and notes on plants collected in Japan and Thailand by the Wynne-Joneses of Crug Farm Nursery in North Wales. As the engagingly frank Mr van der Werff says in his introduction "... there's 14,000 people paying pounds 10 or more a year to the NCCPG to save threatened varieties (including me) but there's no one else sticking up for the `old varieties' of tomorrow when they are launched today. And... there were just as many rubbish plants around then as there are now!" So there were.

Of course, the truth is that for a lively garden scene we need both old plants to be rescued, and new ones developed, and on the subject of the latter, Plants is very well-informed. The layout may be a mite mazy at times, and the quality of the photographic reproduction variable, but considering this enterprise is spare-time (the editor/ publisher is also picture editor on a local newspaper) and single-handed (except for the proof-reading), it is mighty impressive. Not surprisingly it has a British bias, especially as far as nurseries are concerned, but sophisticated gardeners who fill their Volvos full of plants from European nurseries while on holiday will be pleased that these also receive decent coverage. The world of plants is truly global now; a lavender bred in New Zealand one year will the next find its way into British nurseries.

The internationalism of Plants is underscored by the fact that it has its own website, which features articles that have appeared in earlier issues of the magazine (there is a two-and-a-half-year time-lag) together with weekly news updates, competitions to win books and CD-roms, a monthly garden plant e-zine (dread word), and links to other plant-oriented sites. It is fast, friendly and worth a few minutes' browse each month, although I prefer to have a magazine in my hand as well. So, if you are never happier than when nurturing treasures with a plant collector's number rather than a name, or if you have raised a blue rose in your garden, I suggest you subscribe, and find out what else is new.

`New, Rare and Unusual Plants - A Journal for Plant Enthusiasts' is available for pounds 16 for four issues (including post and package), or 10 for pounds 36. Single issues may be bought for pounds 4 apiece. Send a cheque payable to Aquilegia Publishing, 2 Grange Close, Hartlepool, TS26 0DU, or order by credit card via the Internet at http://www.plants-maga zine. com