Urban gardener: Latin lover

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The Independent Online

Jon, a family member, goes apoplectic when it comes to plant names, so let me fire a warning shot across his bows – Melanoselinum decipiens. There, he's gone. "Don't get me wrong, I like reading your articles," he said recently. "It's just that as soon as you start reeling off Latin names, I switch off." He enacts the moment Latin invades his cerebral cortex: eyes roll, head and tongue loll. Melodramatic it may sound, but if I'm going to recount a day spent with Roy Lancaster, I have to take care of family first.

I should thank not only Roy, but also the English Gardening School (which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary) who kindly let me gatecrash their tour of Hillier Arboretum (officially known as the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens) where Roy is a patron. Arriving late, I had only to follow the sound of mischievous laughter to find the group huddled around Brewer's Spruce, Picea breweriana, a drooping (hence the giggles) conifer native to northern California. I followed, scribbling down plant names that would pepper the day, each one accompanied by an anecdote from Roy. The Californian Chestnut (Aesculus californica), for example, produces conkers so big schools might actually have reason to ban them from the playground. I was also pleased to make the acquaintance of Eucryphia glutinosa, which when crossed with E. cordifolia, produced E. x nymanensis 'Nymansay'. On balance, I prefer its more spreading habit to the fastigiate hybrid which can look a little scraggy as it matures.

There were more oaks and magnolias than you can imagine (Jon would have been comatose if he'd heard a fraction of them), so after the fourth page of note-taking I stopped to allow myself to soak up Roy's infectious enthusiasm. The first time I ever saw Roy on TV I couldn't quite believe that the passion was genuine. Anyone who has met him will know that it is, and how generous and patient he will be while recounting stories of trips to China and Nepal where he collected seeds and plants, many of which would eventually find their way into our gardens. At the base of a large Nothofagus dombeyi (Dombey's Southern Beech) he was noticeably wistful describing the Chilean native (a semi-evergreen of great stature that thrives in the lower slopes of the great mountain ranges of South America), tailing off to almost an uncharacteristic whisper. "I often think it's better to meet the acquaintance of such trees in private," he said, his mind clearly some 7,000 miles away in the foothills of the Andes. I decided that minute that this was the perfect tree for our cul-de-sac, where some adjacent houses have removed several sycamores that, as common as they are, were doing a good job of screening quite a dull view to the backs of houses beyond.

After lunch we followed Roy in convoy to his own garden. I had worried that perhaps my designer instinct might not appreciate a plant collector's garden and I'd have to turn a blind eye to the "one of this and one of that" style of planting that's par for the course when space is tight. I needn't have worried. Both front and back gardens were skilfully orchestrated so that all plants, no matter what obscure part of the globe they came from, associated well together. I simply had to record the fact that with Syringa komarovii, Roy had turned me on to a lilac, something I previously would have said was impossible. And it doesn't end there. Gifts to his neighbours enable him to benefit from some of the plants he hasn't room for in his own garden. A large Embothrium coccineum, for example, its branches ablaze with exotic red flowers, sits close to his boundary and is the first thing to greet him when pulling back the curtains each morning. Roy wouldn't let me leave without giving me Saruma henryi, a shade-loving perennial from China. I hope, one day, to give him something he hasn't heard of before, but frankly there's more chance of Jon taking up a career in taxonomy. We'll just have to give Roy some veg from the allotment should he ever drop by.