Thursday, 25 June 2009

Where have all the flowers come from?

I had an odd conversation a couple of weeks ago about the plants in the garden where I work and where they come from. One of the domestic staff wanted to know how many of the plants were native. I'm not sure what she was getting at but she seemed concerned that so few of them were from 'around here'. I told her that if she stepped outside the garden gate or looked over into the field next door, that almost everything she'd see would be native. That didn’t seem to satisfy her. I don't think she was any kind of eco-fundamentalist. I met a few of those in Australia - gardeners who will only grow 'natives', never mind that Australia is a continent as big as Europe, and Western Australian plants are as foreign to Tasmania as Turkish plants are to the UK. There are some purists though who will only grow those species indiginous to the garden's immediate environs, and the Australian flora being what it is, that usually includes a lot of interesting things. But I digress. She seemed to be making a different point. She seemed to feel that all or most of the plants in the garden must be in some sense native to the UK.
It would seem a silly and unmemorable sort of conversation if I hadn't caught a well-known gardening presenter (who should have known better) on Radio 4 marvelling at the variety of plants growing in the garden she was talking about, and how they came from 'all corners of the world', as if that was unusual. Many people - even apparently quite keen gardeners don't seem to know where their plants come from. We increasingly want to know where our food comes from, whether we want it to be locally sourced or from some authentic location over seas. We take a pride in our Mexican furniture, Nepalese fabrics or African glassware - not just for practical or aesthetic reasons but because knowing where they come from gives us some of the same feeling we get from travelling - of being in touch with another culture, another climate, another environment. Why don't we feel this way about the plants in our gardens?
Of course, few of the plants we buy are actually grown further afield than the Netherlands, but even quite a modest suburban plot will have Hebes originally from New Zealand, Fuchsias from Latin America, maybe Pelargoniums from South Africa, Lavender from the Mediterranean, Hydrangeas from Japan. Why is it, when we like to source that special Pinot Noir from Tasmania or parmesan from some obscure farm in wherever parmesan comes from (somewhere in Italy – I do know that) we aren’t interested in where our garden plants come from - especially when knowing that is so much more informative? Knowing what farm a cheese was made at might tell you what to expect but it won’t tell you what to do with it. Knowing where a plant comes from can tell you a lot about how to grow it.
This entry has already gone on for long enough. I’ll explain some of the things I mean next time but I want to finish by briefly describing possibly the one experience that started me on this way of thinking about plants. I was at a place called Pittwater, some miles north of Sydney, visiting a woman I’d fallen in love with in Devon the previous summer. This was nearly twenty years ago (is it really that long?) and it ended badly but my memory of that trip has stayed with me ever since. I simply don’t think I had ever really seen what a completely alien vegetation looks like.
I’d been gardening for a decade by then and always more the plantsman than the designer – I thought I knew what to expect. I knew what a Eucalyptus looks like, an Acacia, a Grevillea, but I was used to the English scale of things. We have roughly the same number of species in the whole of the UK as the Botany Bay area of New South Wales alone (just up the coast from Pittwater). And if you head a hundred miles west from Pittwater you won’t find more or less the same things as you saw on the coast as you would here. It’ll be a completely different assemblage. There are something like 700 different Eucalypts (though a recent revision has split this gargantuan genus into smaller parts) and a similar number of Acacias, and they don’t all look much the same. The Grevilleas are especially diverse and there’s more than 250 species of those – from the familiar spikey juniper-like rosmarinifolia with it’s funny spidery red flowers to the tree-like robusta with its luxurient pinnate leaves and long golden ‘toothbrush’ inflorescences, and everything in between. Suddenly the idiocy of two such different plants being in the same genus made some sort of sense.
I stood on the promontory overlooking Pittwater among the plants on the headland and didn’t recognise anything. The vegetation was low and heathy and aromatic. I knelt down and peered at what I later discovered was a Hakea – a close relative of Grevillea and an equally large genus. I looked at the peculiar little curly white flower and tried to figure out how it worked. It’s a member of the Protea family but looks nothing like a Protea (I’ll do an entry on plant classification another time) and the flowers in this family are not like ordinary flowers. When the stigma, the female part, uncurls it is at first unreceptive to pollen. Instead it is sticky and carries the pollen from the anthers (the male parts) that remain hidden inside the flower. Only later, when this pollen has been shed does it become receptive to the pollen of other flowers in the normal way. I’ve since discovered that other plants do something like this but at the time it blew me away. What sort of place was this?
Well, it was Australia, where the females are supposedly used to doing all the work. But no, suddenly I was aware of how different a place can be, how distinctive it’s flora can be, and in it’s own way, how beautiful, and that realisation has completely changed the way I look both at foreign places when I travel, and at my own garden. I no longer looked at plants simply as objects for this or that spot in the garden, of this or that shape or colour, complementing this or that other plant’s shape or colour. Now my plants were emissaries from the outside world, a much wider world, with a wider, wilder context. I couldn’t just bung them in any-old-how any more.
This may sound limiting. The designers like to be able to mix and match on purely formal gounds but it has an aesthetic side too. Plants from the same or similar backgrounds tend to look right together, need similar conditions, and work well together. Plants from very different places, to me, look increasingly jarring.
So now I want several acres to make a botanic garden on, with an area for each of the floristic zones of the world. Until that day comes I make do with a small suburban plot and I have to accept that my Kniphofias (from South Africa) will have to sit next to my Tradescantias (from North America) and Alstroemerias (from South America). Oh well… Does anybody have several acres in South Devon to spare? Anyone?