Less easy to read than his catalogues: Rupert Parsons's plant descriptions are mesmerising. Face to face, the nurseryman-novelist is decidedly taciturn, says Anna Pavord

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The Independent Online
This is Rupert Parsons on the Aster lateriflorus: 'Dark purplish foliage and then masses of mauve stars in late summer. I also like the dense spiky effect of its dead leaves and flowers throughout the winter, though I could hardly claim that its death is its principal selling point.'

Or alternatively: 'Euphorbia amygdaloides rubra. Three feet with reddish purple leaves, reddish stems and greenish yellow flowers - breathtaking with Carex elata 'Aurea', though having said that no friend or visitor has ever noticed how breathtaking except myself.'

The man is a good deal less easy to read than the catalogue. He has a disconcerting interview technique. You ask him a question. 'Yes,' he replies after a long pause. You wait, hoping for some development from this hopeful start. Then 'No,' he says. You wait again, wondering if you will get an explanation for the change of heart. You don't.

You try another question. There is another long interval while he concentrates on producing a wispy, roll-up cigarette which proves difficult to light. 'I'm not sure I understand the question,' he says, when finally a dribble of smoke leaks from the end of the cigarette. So I have not much to tell you about Mr Parsons.

He lives in Melksham, Wiltshire, where he runs a small mail-order nursery, specialising in grasses and perennials which he grows in his back garden. With hindsight you see that even his catalogue bears the marks of a man who does not willingly reveal himself. You would not even know his name was Rupert. It merely says on the cover, R H Parsons. He is the son of Sir Anthony Parsons, the distinguished Arabist and former British Ambassador to the United Nations. It was in the Middle East that R H was brought up.

In 1969 he did the teenage rebel bit, dropped out of university and spent a long time wandering round Australia and the Far East. When he was 30 he had another go at university and got his English degree at Oxford. He thought then he was going to be a don. That is what he looks like - except for the roll- ups which he smokes in the cupped- hand way of people used to lighting up out of doors. He was going to do a PhD on the poet Spenser. But he didn't. I never did fill in the missing years between Oxford and his arrival in Melksham with his wife and family four years ago. He bought a grocer's shop. 'I sold cigarettes and sweets. The odd apple. That sort of thing.'

We still haven't got round to talking about the nursery. Dare I risk a direct question or will he shatter into a thousand pieces with shock? Fortuitously, we avoid the risk. The shop, he ventures of his own free will, 'stopped taking any money'. He liked plants. He had been collecting them for years. Selling them was something he reckoned he could do without needing to invest much capital.

He did need some greenhouses. Most were built with material rescued from skips. Were the skips good in Melksham, I inquired, enviously? 'They tend to be better around Bath,' he replied. And if someone had given him a fat cheque at the time, would he still have built his greenhouses out of skips? Flowers could have bloomed and died in the silence that followed that inquiry. 'It started from necessity,' Mr Parsons finally replied. 'Now it is choice.' The nursery gives a better living than the shop did, most of his business coming from a regular advertisement in Practical Gardening magazine.

And was the nursery a full-time job? 'Sometimes,' he said. 'In the winter I write novels.' I had caught him on the cusp, his novel, five chapters completed, being put back into hibernation, the plants being stood upright again after a winter stacked on their sides.

The hardest thing in the nursery business, he said, was to judge which plants he was likely to need most of. 'Everyone seems to order the same things. Geraniums always sell well.' He has 14 different sorts including Geranium orientalitibeticum, which he describes in his catalogue as 'elegantly marbled. I say this because 'marbled' so often means appalling amorphous blotches . . . One I bought myself on impulse and have not regretted. Sun/light shade.'

Campanulas also feature strongly in his list. 'One of the great border plants,' he says of Campanula takesimana and goes on about the foliage and spectacular candelabra of spotted lilac flowers. 'Not nearly so troublesome as the weight of all this verbiage might make it appear,' he ends. 'Slugs rave about it.'

This is a strongly opinionated catalogue, but the opinions, you feel, have been formed by a person who observes his plants very closely. There is plenty of 'the books say, but I have found' in his conversation. He is largely self-taught, although he did a year's course in horticulture at the local agricultural college. Propagation, he says, is largely a matter of trial and error.

He is worried about his carex, which do not overwinter easily in pots. He thinks it might be a build-up of salts in the compost. I have nothing useful to offer on the subject and feel that I have lost Brownie points as a result. There are 28 grasses or grass- like plants in his catalogue, sedges, festucas, stipas. In his garden, the showiest thing was a brilliant gold-variegated rush Acorus gramineus 'Ogon', which makes a stiff, short fan of leaves, the fan gradually spreading round to make a yellow-striped tonsure.

What had brought him to this present incarnation as a nurseryman, I wondered? 'Fate and circumstance,' he replied, the answer of a novelist. His travels in Australia provided some of the material for The Canberran, his first novel, published in 1987. Will his next feature a hero with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Carex morrowii 'Evergold'? His catalogue says of it: 'I have it in the middle of a carpet of woolly thyme, and I like to gaze at it when I need to feel that I am more than a mediocre gardener.' Plantsman heroes are rather thin on the ground in the canon of English novels. Rupert Parsons is poised to provide one.

For a catalogue send a large SAE to R H Parsons, 66 Dunch Lane, Melksham, Wiltshire SN12 8DX.

(Photograph omitted)

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