Tracking down the garden plants of England

Where have all the flowers gone? The question is no singing matter in England, where plants once fairly common in British gardens have either vanished or are now extremely rare.

The hunt is on for plants such as Mutisia decurrens and Ostrowskia magnifica. Throughout Britain people are looking out for double-flowered hepaticas and for a long list of unusual hybrid snowdrops, pinks, narcissus, and Asiatic primulas.

Activating the search is a six-year-old organization, the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG).

There are ``hundreds of `wanted' plants,'' says the group's newly appointed general secretary, Tony Lowe. The council's aim is to rescue and guarantee the future of these threatened garden plants.

History and aesthetics certainly contribute to the importance of preserving these species. A climbing plant from the Andes, Mutisia decurrens, was eulogized in the 19th century by William Robinson as ``remarkable for the size and beauty of its flower-heads,'' which are a brilliant orange and have elegant, down-curving petals. It was growing in a garden in Somerset as recently as the late 1960s. But nowadays it's hard to find.

Mr. Robinson just as enthusiastically called Ostrowskia magnifica (the ``Great Oriental Bellflower'') ``remarkable and handsome,'' with ``veined . . . delicate purple flowers . . . of great beauty.''

The Ostrowskia is, in fact, one of the NCCPG's halfway successes: After inclusion in the council's search list, it was reported in cultivation. But it is not out of danger yet, and sources are still eagerly sought.

Double hepaticas, according to Dr. David Stuart, who is writing a book about Victorian gardens, were once ``enormously common -- people edged kitchen garden paths with them. But it's almost impossible to find them now.''

James Sutherland, Dr. Stuart's partner in running a small nursery in eastern Scotland, touches on one of the reasons that garden plants become rare. ``You can get the double red hepatica now, but not the double blue or white. Propagation of the doubles is terribly slow: They seem to decrease rather then increase.''

From their nursery at Belhaven, near Dunbar, Mr. Stuart and Mr. Sutherland offer, among other old plants, some ``extremely ancient'' types of daisy, some pinks that ``go back to the 14th or 15th century supposedly,'' and a selection of old varieties of strawberry, including one discovered by John Tradescant in Plymouth in the 17th century.

Apart from propagation difficulties, various other factors cause rarity of garden plants: fashion changes, slow growth, lack of commercial viability, lack of hardiness, and narrowness of distribution (a problem with new hybrids).

Paradoxically, although Britain is now thicker with gardeners than ever, many plants are more difficult to obtain. Mass cultivation methods and supermarket retailing restrict the range available.

But through organizations such as the NCCPG, enthusiasts are starting to fight the trend. The council brings together gardeners of all shades of amateurism and professionalism in its ``National Collections'' program.

Mrs. L. Williams, for instance, who runs Marle Place Plants, a modest herb nursery in Kent, holds the national collection of calamints and of santolinas (cotton lavenders).

Asiatic primulas are cared for by a retired veterinarian in a remarkable woodland garden on the banks of the Scottish River Tay, while columbines (``aquilegias'') are protected by Valleyhead Nursery in West Wales.

``To date we have 217 holders of national collections,'' says Tony Lowe, ``and I've just written to 15 more.''

Britain has a long history of plant collectors as well as gardeners -- fearless, eccentric, adventurous, insatiable. Two such in the 17th century were the John Tradescants, father and son.

Gardeners to several elevated patrons, including Charles I and his Queen, the Tradescants were great amassers of ``curiosities.'' Their collection of rare objects, The Ark, the first British museum open to the public, became the basis of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. And they introduced many plants into Britain from Europe, Russia, and even Virginia in the American colonies. Their garden at Lambeth, then on the rural edges of London, was famous among horticulturists.

Despite such fame, however, the remarkable tomb memorializing them in the churchyard of St.-Mary-at-Lambeth was, by 1976, swamped by weeds and garbage. This had been Lambeth's parish church for 900 years, but it was closed in 1972 and scheduled for demolition -- despite its prominent position across the Thames from Parliament and next to the Archbishop of Canterbury's age-old London residence.

Its rescue is due to private initiative by enthusiastic gardeners. Rosemary Nicholson and her husband gathered volunteers and money, won approval of church commissioners and borough councilors, and persuaded important people to be trustees -- even attracting support from the Queen Mother.

Now the greatly restored church announces itself as the world's first ``Museum of Garden History,'' organizing exhibitions, lectures, events; building a museum collection; and planning its display.

Perhaps the most attractive achievement is the garden in the now immaculate churchyard, planted only with plants the Tradescants grew. Further reinstatement of their reputation has also resulted: A definitive book about them and their collections was published last year (Peter Owen, London). It includes their own scrupulously analyzed plant lists.

Upstream, on the Thames's north bank, is England's second oldest botanic garden, the Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673. (The word ``physic'' here has a much wider meaning than merely ``medicinal.'')

Despite what Duncan Donald, its new curator, calls its ``very up-and-down history,'' this beautiful London garden is remarkable for two things he believes should be emphasized today. First, it has a ``micro-climate'' several degrees warmer than any other London garden, including Kew. Tender plants survive here that in Britain can otherwise only be grown in Cornwall or the west coast of Scotland. ``This makes it an ideal place to study plants on the edge of hardiness,'' Mr. Donald says.

Second -- and central to his revitalization plans -- the garden's own history largely follows that of horticulture itself. It was originally for botanical research only, but cutbacks in education have affected that. Recently, the public has been allowed in to boost finances.

Mr. Donald (who previously administered the NCCPG) envisages a novel role for the garden's new audience. He plans a ``circular historical tour'' that traces the garden's -- and horticulture's -- history from the 17th century to today.

Some of the great names in botany and horticulture are connected with the garden. Many of them will be celebrated by appropriate plantings -- much suitable material already, of course, grows in the garden -- and Donald believes his layout is an original concept. ``It will be able to demonstrate the pulses of discovery and exploration in different parts of the world, and the time in which plants have come in.''

Over the next 15 years -- given increased financial backing -- this historic walled garden on the Chelsea Embankment has every possibility of becoming an outdoor living ``museum'' of British gardening with a large international audience.

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