Plant collecting

06. December 2020 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones - Pflanzen Sammeln © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Plant collectors Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – I hope you have had the pleasure of walking through a field ablaze with red poppies. A uniform sea of bright red flowers. But when you look closely, you notice that in the mass of red colour, every so often a slightly paler, or somewhat darker red appears. This is down to genetic diversity, and makes plants as intriguing and interesting in their subtle diversity as people.

This diversity has intrigued plant hunters for many centuries. They are the very keen, intrepid plant lovers, (some may classify them as nerds) to whom we owe our amazingly varied garden flora. They have courageously travelled all over the world, looking out for new or distinctive plants. These days  travel has become so easy it may not seem much of an achievement, but it was. During the 19th and early 20th century when plant collecting was highly fashionable as the world opened up and travel became easier, most collectors died before they reached the age of 50. If they were not killed “in action” during their travels, they died back home of malaria or other, back then untreatable, disease.

It still requires an  adventurous disposition, and needs much careful preparation work as not only  the regions visited are seldom geared up for tourists, they often require permits to visit and to collect seeds.

What plants are collectors looking for?

This may be plants previously unknown to mankind, or sometimes species described by colleagues during earlier travels. They may have described a plant for the first time seeing it in full flower, but before seeds were ripe enough  to be collected. It may be decades before somebody else is travelling in the region later on in the season, knowing there may be interesting seeds to collect.

Crug Farm Plants

I treated myself to a special Christmas present, ordering a load of plants of what is probably the most exceptional nursery in Europe. Crug Farm Plants has a catalogue filled with plants I have never heard of, but once you start reading, you know you must have. This treasure trove  tucked away in North Wales, is owned by two remarkable plant fanatics: Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones. They travel all over the world, collecting seeds of thousands of trees, shrubs and perennials, several of which are perfectly suited to small shady gardens like mine.

Each plant collected on one of Sue and Bleddyn’s  75+ expeditions is given  a particular identification number, the collectors number. This starts with the initials of the collectors of that particular trip. Many of theirs carry BSWJ (Bleddyn & Sue Wynn Jones)  followed by a number. 001-399 were seeds brought back from their first joint expedition to Taiwan in 1992.  In 2015 they returned there for the 7th time, by then their collection numbers had reached 14599. And they still go on and on. 2020 is  the first time in almost three decades where they have not been able to travel. 

© Isabelle Van Groeningen - Pflanzen sammeln
Sue and Bleddyn in action – collecting seeds in Taiwan

Plant collecting – Leave it to the professionals

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – Professional planthunters know in which areas they are allowed to collect seeds.vTHeya know where they require permits.  There are protected areas where all form of collection forbidden is. There are endangered plants where the removal of any material a criminal offence is. They know how to collect seeds without damaging the plants, when is the right time, Please do not be tempted to bring back a seemingly harmless holiday memory!

So what is so special about their plants, apart from being rarities?

These plants that stem from wild-collected material is comparable to buying a dog or a cat with a full pedigree. You know precisely where it has come from, how, and where the plant was growing. It may originate from a country with a hot climate, but if you know it was collected at 3000m altitude, you know it can cope with cold winter nights.

It is extremely valuable to find information about the environment in which a plant was found. Soil, aspect, vegetation type are all details that help you select the right plants for your garden. All too many plant books fail to give you this vital information. In my shady  garden, I have different levels of shade. In some plants have to put up with permanently low light levels, in others there is some blue sky overhead, and the occasional ray of sunshine that visits in the course of the morning. Some areas are moist, others are dry, because the overhead leaf canopy stops rain from coming through. There is also strong competition from tree roots. I have chosen my plants accordingly. Some will cope with partial to full shade, others with just partial shade. Some like it drier, other moist. Important is to give them all a good start by planting them with a nice mixture of organic matter. Preferably leafmould and / or composted bark, which resembles the soil found in woodlands.

Special selections

Like the paler or darker red poppies that grow among the normal red ones, there are often variants to be found of familiar plants. Although some of the plants I ordered are totally new to me, I have also treated myself to some better forms of familiar plants I am very fond of. Two of which are Thalictrums. Thalictrum aquilegifolium v. sibiricum BSWJ11007 is a stronger, taller form of this well know thalictrum, which they collected in the cold mountainous area of Toyama in Western Japan. Thalictrum delavayi BWJ7800 which Bleddyn collected in Yunnan in 2000 and describes as “A flamboyant variety of this well-loved species, bearing generous quantities of long-lasting lilac-pink flowers.” This sounds like an even better form of a treasured plant, which I am looking forward to seeing in flower next year.

Not all acquisitions were for pure personal enjoyment. The main reason for placing an order of course was work: Four beautiful new passifloras will be growing up the arches in the central corridor. Two pink ones two red ones. Keep an eye out during your next visit!

Passiosblumen für den Mittelgang © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Passion flowers for the aisle
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