Plant hunters

There is, I suspect, a bit of a plant hunter even in the best of us. If the queues at our local Garden Centres are indicative, horti-mania is waxing. It looks vividly as though the number of people who haven't, at least once in their lives, hotly pursued a Pelargonium or stalked and captured a Dizygotheca elegantissima, might be counted on the leaves of one rubber plant.

Naturally, some of us are more besotted with begonias than others, and I think it is better in a marriage, for instance, for one partner to be somewhat less so. I know of what I speak. We two simply aid and abet. Come the weekend, we head off in all directions, not a Garden Centre within twenty miles safe from attack. Arrived at Muirend or Milngavie, Lanark or Torrance or Helensburgh, ''she'' (as wives are known in Scotland) heads for Pot Plants; I head for Alpines; and then we both head for Everything together. . . . We keep thinking the house and garden could not possibly have any more gaps to fill; but it's amazing what you find when you look for it.

Trouble is, it's so terrifyingly easy, nowadays, to indulge the sport. For a start, they've abolished the seasons. Once upon a time you bought trees and shrubs, for example, only in November. Life was simple. Today, since someone dreamed up container-growing, you can buy and plant anything whenever you like. Such developments don't help break the habit at all.

Then there is the astounding range of plants available. Out of our sitting-room window there are plants, all merrily intermingling, which originally came (hunted down by real plant hunters) from Europe, from China, from Chile, Japan, and New Zealand, from Mexico, Iran, Palestine, Arizona, California, New and Old England - to name but a few. It's a regular gallimaufry out there, a United Nations of plant life. And most were bought a few miles away at one of those emporia of floricultural temptation aforementioned.

Most - but not all. And there's, in a manner of speaking, the rub. The thing is that Garden Centres, though wonderful, really only cater to beginners. They are supermarkets, not delicatessens. They sell only the commercial lines. Present a Garden Centre with a list of unusual plants, and they will not only not have them, they will declare them unobtainable. But you, the enthusiast, think you know better. . . .

That evening your wife catches you thumbing surreptitiously through a sheaf of catalogues. ''Haven't we got enough - today?'' she murmurs weakly. ''Enough? Enough?'' you cry (the word sounding suspiciously like ''tally-ho''). ''But we haven't got a white Gentiana verna yet, or a - look - one of these. Just look at that! Isn't it breathtaking? I wonder where we could plant it?''

Oh, the channels are wide. You can write or phone or pay by credit card. Specialists abound, in clematis, water plants, ferns, ground-cover plants, roses and orchids, delphiniums and pinks and lilies. They'll dispatch your choice by road or rail or post.

Or you could visit a Stately Home, a great plant source. Marquesses and Lords and Honourables, only too happy to let the plebs pay for a stroll round their estates, are even happier to sell you a plant or two to mark the occasion. And we like them for it. We, ah, like to tell friends the phlox came from Castle Howard and the ilex from Boughton, the Duke of Buccleugh's place, you know. Blatant snobbery, this; but also a liking for plants with stories attached.

One of my favourites is a three-inch-high specimen of Daphne retusa from China. Well, originally from China, though ours came from Selkirk, a small Scottish Border town. It hasn't flowered yet, but its perfume when it does will be more or less supernal. I had one in my previous garden. But no one seems to sell them anymore; too difficult to propagate. I'd about given up my extended quest for it.

And then, one day, we were wasting time in Selkirk and passed a row of cottages. By one door I spotted a delightful group of autumn-flowering crocuses, most unusually coloured. Their owner suddenly appeared. He turned out to be a longtime Alpine enthusiast, a Mr. Rae. Put two enthusiasts together and you have a Club Meeting - a Conducted Tour. We had both. He grew rare mountain willows. And he had - a Daphne retusa. Naturally I admired it and mentioned my difficulty obtaining it. Twenty minutes later I was the proud owner of a gift: a robust seedling he had raised himself. . . .

I have planted it in a prime position. A few modest roots from our garden arrived on Mr. Rae's doorstep in a parcel a week later.

Now that's what I think of as plant hunting. But Mr. Rae is ahead of me. Those crocuses of his puzzle even the expert at the Edinburgh Botanics. They are simply not grown anywhere in Britain. Mr. Rae has no idea how they came to be in his Selkirk cottage garden. They appeared from nowhere. I've heard of birds that fly unsuspecting into the hunter's net. But crocuses?

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