Few roles on British television cultivate quite the same level of devotion as that of lead presenter on the BBC's Gardeners' World. As tender in chief to the best-known herbaceous borders in the country and custodian of the national vegetable patch, those who have assumed the role over the show's previous 40 years – from Percy Thrower to Alan Titchmarsh – have effortlessly taken up the mantle of national treasure.
Monty Don's rugged good looks and earthy charm has earned him legions of admirers. But the announcement this week that the self-trained horticulturist was standing down following a stroke has opened up a huge gulf in the corporation's Friday night schedule; the speculation is now over who may succeed him.
The bookmakers Ladbrokes made gardening hunk Matthew Wilson favourite yesterday to pick up the boss's trowel at the BBC's garden, Berryfields.
The author of bestselling books on wildlife and climate change gardening, Wilson recently left his post as curator and head of RHS Harlow Carr garden in North Yorkshire and is due to take up a top creative role with the society next month.
Although the BBC is playing down talk of succession, Don has been absent from filming since his minor stroke six weeks ago. The series will continue to be fronted by Joe Swift, Carol Klein and Alys Fowler, possibly until the present series finishes in November.
The programme's producer, Rosemary Edwards, said yesterday in a message to the show's star on her blog: "It's hard to imagine anyone taking Monty's place and as we continue to make Gardeners' World each week we hope that, Monty, you'll watch and let us know if we're keeping Berryfields on the right track. For us – Monty is still with us at the top of every programme – washing spades and dividing geraniums in our new titles – and for us there can be no better start for the nation's favourite gardening programme."
The sudden announcement of the 52-year-old's departure, which follows a gruelling work schedule that included 18 months spent filming his latest series Around the World in 80 Gardens, left fans reeling.
The official line from the BBC is that no replacement is being considered yet. The garden designer James Alexander-Sinclair said there was no shortage of talent to draw on. "There are some very good people doing the programme. But as far as I know there is no line of succession," he said.
Who's in the running?
Talk, dark and handsome. Heathcliff of the potting shed, seen as natural heir as Berryfields' top hoe. 2/1 Favourite
Mockney son of novelist Margaret Drabble has scored well with his redevelopment of a derelict allotment plot. ODDS: 4/1
Runs her own successful nursery, also a popular columnist and presenter, she has become a mainstay of the show since 2005. 5/1
Trained at Kew before working as a researcher on Gardener's World under Monty Don's tutelage. Posh, seen as thinking gardener's crumpet. 7/1
Former Flying Gardener whose daredevil stunts brought a touch of danger to the laborious process of double trenching. 7/1
Legendary presenter turned national treasure may be too busy presenting every other show on TV/radio to return. 10/1
Long-haired garden-design maverick could prove a little too colourful for prime time BBC2. 14/1
Gave up medicine to start her own gardening and cookery school in Sussex. 20/1