The Subterranean Chestnut Worm

A patch of yellow pavement brought me to a halt. I froze. It was unmistakably pollen.

What luck! It takes some horticultural detective to spot grains of pollen on the dirty streets of Bogotá – helps that I keep a magnifying glass between my teeth and crawl everywhere.

Also helpful that it was a very large patch of pollen. Longer than a biro, and far wider (though considerably flatter.)


It was like finding lion scat in one’s hiking boot – the big-game-hunter in me awoke, I would find the flower responsible!

I looked up. Beyond the razor wire and before the clouds was an umbrella of Yarumo leaves.

Between the razor wire and the clouds

Unfortunately, the blossom which deposited the pollen was gone – no doubt squirrelled away by one of the garden bloggers who plague these streets. I would have to move further afield. Fortunately, I know the location of every Yarumo within half a mile of my apartment, one of my favourite games being to lead acquaintances past the massive things and casually enquire ‘do you know what family these trees are from?’

I crossed the Avenida Séptima and, fortified by petrol fumes, reached another Yarumo. This one a relatively small specimen, but still too big for a biro, so I placed a lamppost next to it for scale.

Lamppost for scale

I sniffed around the wall and buried myself in the ivy but found no evidence of sexual reproduction. It was time to move on.

The next Yarumo was too young to be thinking about flowers and fruit, but its shortness did allow me to get a picture of an emerging leaf. To me it looks like some vast subterranean worm has risen up to swallow a horse chestnut tree, though you may prefer other similes.

Subterranean worm swallows horse chestnut

Darting up to the Séptima and back down again I came to the specimen for which I had highest hopes. This tree likes to dangle the leaves it no longer requires from nearby power lines.

Old leaves

And what leaves they are. Here I use my shoe for scale.

Shoe for scale

And mighty leaves from mighty trees fall. Note how it dominates the pencil pine I placed beside it for scale.


The picture below is actually of the fruit and seeds of the Yarumo, and not of maggots eating a dead squid, as I had initially thought. Sufferers of trypophobia might want to look away, it’s pretty disgusting. Hundreds of thousands of seeds are here waiting to be disbursed by anything with a strong enough stomach.


The Yarumo is either male or female, and the presence of decaying fruit told me that there would be no pollen bearing flowers around here, this was a lady. I bit down hard on the stem of my magnifying glass and crawled off towards Parque el Virrey – playground of professional dog walkers and topless muscle men.

Here I at last found my flower – dead in a pool of its own pollen.

Dead in a pool of pollen

I fear that this is not one for the pressed flower collection, it would be like crushing a raw steak between the pages of Dear Diary. However, that is the beauty of being primarily wind pollinated. One does not have to worry about being attractive. Perhaps when test tubes and foetus banks have liberated human kind from the tyranny of sexual selection we too will be free to turn unhealthy shades of brown and exude strange yellow substances.

If anyone is still suffering from the fruit here is a colourful wall I spotted while crawling home.

Colour wall

In case you were wondering, Yarumo is part of the nettle family. Thanks for reading!


Of Love and Other Dried Plants

In the east of Colombia my blood has turned the mosquitoes red.

They hang from the underside of leaves like fat, proboscidean rubies on a green necklace. Tiny mosquito mid-guts synthesising tiny proteolytic enzymes, hydrolyzing proteins into amino acids and delicious vitellogenin. They’re digesting, making yolk from my lipids, turning my corpuscles into eggs.

I’m writing this post from Bogota – home of the altitude headache – but down there, where its 38 degrees and sticky, the first of their offspring have already been born, a writhing, aquatic brood that was once entirely me. The ethics of the outdoors suggests we leave no trace, pass over the land like a shadow, but I’m sweaty, English and O+, the tastiest flavour, in these past three years I must have been responsible for a hundred million mosquito births.

If we use peak-itching (just past) as a prenatal calendar then we should expect a major hatching in Guainía somewhere towards the end of next week. There, my insectoid reconfigurations will split their pupas in leaf cups, flooded boats and damp tree groins. It’s possible that some might emerge from the phytotelma of the Guacamaya superba – a thought as satisfying as a good scratch. My cephalothoratic babies could even now be flopping about in the self-made pond of the Flor de Inirida, one of Colombia’s most interesting plants.

A phytotelma is a waterbody held by a terrestrial plant. Pitcher plants use them for flesh melting, bromiliands for hydration. In the Guacamaya withered leaves cling to the stem and form a tank, their residual wax acting as a pond liner. Despite living in one of the world’s wetter places, and being fully submerged for months at a time, they use these for water storage. The Orinoco Savannah meets the Amazonian Rainforest above a band of white sand that forms Club Tropicana beaches on the region’s rivers and sucks moisture like a drain.

But, believe it or not, phytotelmata are not the reason we came to Inirida. We came for the hills. The Cerros de Mavicure, three monolithic lumps of rock that rise from the jungle like wheals on a tropical Englishman. Katherine and I spotted these igneous protrusions stealing the show at the end of el Abrazo de la Serpiente, and immediately planned a trip to see them. (If hills don’t turn you on The Embrace of the Serpent is still worth a watch. It has monomaniacal explorers and natives just brimming with psychedelic wisdom.)

We flew to Puerto Inirida. A town whose one road leads nowhere and whose municipal sculptures are all abstract, green-stemmed starbursts. One of the boatmen lounging on Don Raphael’s floating dock agreed to take us 50 kilometres upriver, providing he could find some petrol.

Mosquito-bitten garden blogger enters Don Rafael's floating dock
Mosquito-bitten garden blogger enters Don Rafael’s floating dock

The Inirida was wide and still, playing hard at being a lake. Crookbacked dolphins snorted between clumps of water hyacinth and in the shadow of the Cerros we found a woman butchering a turtle with a large machete. Lucas, our pilot, had better ways to spend an afternoon than walking uphill. He begged a bowl of the forthcoming turtle soup and left us in the hands of two silent and stern indigenous boys.

Los Cerros
Los Cerros
Soon to be soup
Soon to be soup
White sand river beach
White sand river beach

But this blog is about gardening, you say, not sightseeing. Where are the plants? One mention of water hyacinths two paragraphs ago and even that without a binomial. You might as well be reading the travel supplement! I agree. So let’s get back to Guacamaya superba. Those sculptures I mentioned earlier, the starbursts, they all turned out to be renderings of the Flor de Inirida and its characteristic inflorescence.

This spikey mace of crimson bracts was literally emblematic. Every local agency and departmental organisation used it in their logos. Unfortunately, I only found out the significance of the flower as we returned to town with the sun falling at equatorial speed. Lucas was no longer any use, he was a man of the river, built for Yamaha outboard motors and Don Raphael’s Formica chairs, we needed to go inland. Eventually we found Camillo who had a van and was willing to drive us the whole length of Inirida’s sole road – 10 kilometres.

The light was failing, we entered la hora de las picadoras, the hour of the bites, when winged things come out to feast. The road ended in a small indigenous community built around a river as clear and red as blackcurrant tea. We hurried on foot through rough fields of yucca brava (Manihot esculenta), deadly if ingested untreated but the only crop bull-headed enough to grow in the sand.

Like blackcurrant tea
Like blackcurrant tea

Camillo assured us he knew where the Flor de Inirida grew, but as we emerged from the cassava leaves onto Orinoco Savannah, with the next house three days’ distant in Venezuela, he admitted that he was wearing someone else’s glasses, his having fallen in a river, and that he might need some help. Even with a borrowed prescription it was hard to miss our plant. A clump of leaves like a large terrestrial bromeliad and a flowering spike as if alliums were designed by Nintendo.

This was the everlasting flower. Bright in death. In dried bouquets the red is said to keep for decades after plucking. Like Sierva Maria in Gabriel Garcia Marques’ Of Love and Other Demons, found within the crypt with her auburn hair a funeral shawl – it’s the colour that just won’t quit. Traditional flower arrangement has its own everlasters; eryngiums and echinops, limonium and teasel, but the Flor de Inirida’s desiccated fireworks stand up to the best of them, and what town ever built monuments to the teasel?

So Guacamaya superba has been ticked off and my time in Colombia is nearly over. Katherine and I are to return to London next spring where I will give up the arduous life of a diplomatic spouse and return to professional gardening. Before I leave there a few more plant pilgrimages to make, so watch this space. And please remember, as you sit down with your families this holiday, that thousands of miles from you, in a town with one road where the Amazon meets the Orinoco, my miracle mosquito babies are hatching.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all of you!

El Flor de Inirida
La Flor de Inirida

The Bogotá Bicycle Club

Every week I run a Google News search for “Gardener + Arrested”.  An unwritten journalistic law states that if a horticulturalist makes the news his profession must form part of the headline, e.g.; “Gardener Arrested in Midnight Raid” or “Pervert Gardener was Parkland Flasher”. Thus, with a simple two word search, I can check which of my former colleagues are currently working their way through the criminal justice system.

A pleasant upshot of this obsessive hobby is the exposure it brings to local police bulletins. Yesterday I read the crime reports from the San Jose Mercury for Thursday August the 7th and found:

“Terrace Drive, 7:22 a.m. Thursday, a female who found something brought it into the police station to find out what it was.”

“Trousdale Drive, 5:39 p.m. Thursday, a resident received a note from a neighbour containing threats directed at her gardener.”

“1525 Balboa Ave., 6:59 p.m. Thursday, a male got into an argument with a person whose dog urinated on his bike helmet.”

The threats towards a gardener, the bike helmet and the suburban nature of this report remind me of a novel I read years ago. The protagonist was a jobbing gardener who cycled around North London having run-ins with a threatening landscaping crew and getting into comic scrapes. It stuck with me because at the time of reading I myself was a jobbing gardener who cycled around South London, though I never really had any comic scrapes, I did dig up a liquefied dog in a plastic crate once, which you can make into good joke:

“My dogs sealed in an airtight box!”

“But then how does he smell?”


You can read all about my adventures as a bicycle gardener here. Having a documented history as a bicycle gardener I was interested to note that the vast majority of private gardening here in Bogota is carried out by bicycle gardeners. The traditional set up is something like this:

Bicycle Gardener
Bicycle Gardener

Note the strimmer strapped along the crossbar and the can of petrol on the back-pannier: this is no casual pot-fiddler. More impressive still are the mobile viveros selling pseudo-bonsai from a tricycle trailer as seen below:


I’ve decided not to join the ranks of the cycling horticulturalists out here, don’t want any “Gardener Squashed by Massive Lorry” headlines in the Bogota post.

Gran Colombia

Gran Colombia

I think I’ve been in Colombia for six months, though it’s impossible to be sure. I know I left London as the first daffodils were blooming at Chiswick House, but here on the equator we’re cut off from the vegetable calendar and Bogotá in July looks like Bogotá in December. I lose track of the months. I know one can track time’s passing using houseplants (three weeks for a new leaf on the young monstera deliciosa, seven for a new frond on the birds-nest fern) but New Leaf Day doesn’t feel the same as First Snowdrop Day does in the UK.

Colombia - no snowdrops
Colombia – no snowdrops

Before we moved here I knew one of the hardest things would be living without the underlying dramatics of seasonal change, but I also worried I’d miss familiar plants; old enemies and friends that I’d developed strong connections to over the years. Luckily, if somewhat bizarrely, my new barrio is planted almost entirely with standard-Mediterranean-issue Acanthus mollis – which rather softens the shock of the new. My theory is that in this conservative zona of Bogotá, where residents still attach an unfortunate importance to coming from European stock, people plant acanthus, the emblem of the Old World and icon of Rome’s Corinthian columns, as a coded way of saying “Europeans live here” – like that myth about swingers and pampas grass.

Statement of origin or not I’m happy to see the plant, we have a past. It was one of the 20 plants on my first nomenclature tests at horticultural college. I revised it with my girlfriend, repeating the syllables A-CAN-THUS over and over when they were just noises unattached to any image of leaf or flower. Before that, while it was still nameless greenery and I was studying medieval history at university, acanthus formed the ornate background to some of my favourite illustrated manuscripts, and later, working at the Garden Museum, Acanthus mollis was the first plant I propagated on any great scale, taking dozens of fat root cuttings from a sun-starved specimen that I found dying under an arbutus.

Illustrated Book of Hours with acanthus
Illustrated Book of Hours with acanthus


And as the weirdness of an entirely new floral palate is soothed by the presence of one familiar plant, so the thirst for seasonal change is quenched by movement. Here in Colombia you can drive for two hours and experience three separate seasons. An hour and twenty minutes from my apartment is the high alpine paramo with fog, frailejones and cold climate orchids; two hours in the other direction is scrubby hot country; over the hills and across the plains is the Amazon rainforest; to the north the Caribbean and the east the Pacific. The way I have spent my gardening life until now – waiting for buds to burst in the spring or the first tree to redden in the autumn – has been replaced by vegetation spotting, driving from cloud forests to tropical jungle trying to pinpoint exactly where the understory changes from myrtles to aroids.

Colombia has one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the world, and its highest rate of endemism – over 10% of its 130,000 plant species are found in this country alone. It has more orchids than anywhere in the world, is second only to Malaysia in palm species, has the tallest monocot species in the world – and shed-loads of acanthus. You’re reading this blog, so I guess you like plants. You should come and visit, I’ll be here for another 47 Monstera deliciosa leaves, approximately.

The Author with world's tallest monocots Ceroxylon quindiuense
The Author with the world’s tallest monocots Ceroxylon quindiuense

Days of Rage

This January Britain’s Gardens are bright with fury, our usually dull winter beds blazing with burst blood vessels and blue language, wisteria-pruning substituted for days of rage and wall-punching. My knuckles are weeping. You see, a water lily has been stolen from Kew Gardens.

The Daily Mail is characteristically in the vanguard of outrage, and asks: “As priceless lily is stolen from the botanical gardens, will thieves target your prize plants?” before helpfully informing its terrified readership that “Police officers in Scotland have expressed alarm at ‘work parties’ of illegal immigrants being used to steal sphagnum moss…, primroses and snowdrops” “with the proceeds being used to fund other criminal activity”. Now, I’m not a racialist, but illegal immigrants stealing our beautiful British tropical water lilies? Its modern man’s final slide into moral incontinence, innit?

Well, no actually. People have always stolen plants – because plants are lovely and people are not. I’d like to reassure any Daily Mail readers who might be looking at this blog that life is not actually getting worse – you’re just getting older and scared of change. So cheer up! Here are some comforting horticultural thefts from the good old days, when foreigners had manners and British snowdrops were the envy of the world.

In the autumn of 1849 a visitor to Dublin’s Glasnevin Gardens, made off with a large quantity of vegetables stuffed into his “unmentionables” and a melon under his top hat. For years the spectre of this audacious crime haunted the trustees of Glasnevin, and they used it to argue against working class admission for over a decade, presumably until they noticed that the post-famine proletariat seldom wore top hats. (Now, think about it, do Illegal immigrants wear top hats?)

An Audacious Felon
A Felon

Anyway, as hungry Irishmen wandered around with bulging trousers, across the channel the British were stealing the flora of six continents. The most famous Victorian botanical thief was Robert Fortune, a master of disguise who lifted great quantities Camellia sinensis from Sung-Low province while dressed as a Chinaman, establishing the Darjeeling tea plantations that still power this blog. His colleague Sir Clements Markham stole Peruvian saplings of the Caravaya tree, essential for the production of quinine, despite being explicitly warned that if he so much as touched a seedling “the people would seize him and cut off his feet”. (So you see, stealing plants is a great British tradition, joining in shows a willingness to integrate.)

Perhaps Kew could learn from the experience of Sir Clements and invest in some signs for the Prince of Wales Conservatory “Plantlifters will be dismembered”. Or they could spend the money on some decent antitheft devices like these from a patent application of 1936.

Patented anti-theft device.
Patented anti-theft device.

I actually find the idea of flowers chained to the ground rather artistic. Kew could use them to make one of their heavy-handed points about habitat loss. Of course water lilies are more vulnerable to theft than flowers or trees, because no-one has patented an underwater plant-chain, which is why they have electric eels in the amazon.

Anyway, digging in F. W. Christianson’s 1897 glossary of Micronesian imitative sounds – Notes from the Caroline Islands I found a reference to one Cherri-Chou-Lang. a minor deity who stole the Kava plant from the Feast of the Gods and brought it to Island of Ponope. Students of intoxication will know Kava to be a mild sedative, recently proved to be slightly more effective than placebos in relieving social anxiety. Its sale in the UK has been banned by the food standards agency since 2003.

Is this the link between plant theft and criminal activity that the Daily Mail alludes to? If so then its readers need not fear, there are barely any Micronesian immigrants to the UK, and those that are here won’t be imitating Cherri-Chou-Lang because they all got converted by 20th century missionaries. Now, like honest Anglican middle-Englanders, they believe that weed, cocaine, opium and tobacco were created by the Christian God.

I hope that’s put everyone’s mind at ease. Yes the theft of the water lily was a bad thing, but not a new thing, and we can rest assured that the perpetrator probably has very wet pockets. Once he has been caught we can cut off his feet, but until then let’s all get back to pruning wisteria.

Water Lilies
Water Lilies

Breaking the Mould

At university I lived with a man who had three-quarters learnt how to wash clothes. He could load a machine, choose a detergent, select a cycle (the hard bit) and press the go button, but never remembered to go back and collect his laundry. It would sit damp in one of the communal machines until he ran out of socks, sometimes over a fortnight later.

He was the loveliest chap, but his clothes were ever-speckled with black mould, a purely cosmetic condition which some people seemed to find off-putting. I’ve thought of him often over the last few days, because unfortunately I now have my own unsightly cosmetic condition that looks a lot like his.

I have sooty mould.

My particular sooty mould is on the glass house camellias (for those of you unfamiliar with the Chiswick House Camellias you can read about them here which is a disaster because in six weeks we have our annual Camellia Festival, and the public will demand dark green, glossy leaves – leaves by L’Oreal – not matt-black, mould-mottled, undergraduate-T-shirt-style leaves.

Unblemished Camellia Japonica
Unblemished Camellia Japonica

Luckily sooty mould is a surface condition that does not harm really harm the plant. It’s the visual manifestation of Ascomycete fungi feeding on the honeydew excreted by our Chiswick House Aphids. Usually it’s a summer problem and is washed off by the rain. But we have no rain in the glass house, and we can’t blast the mould away without knocking off the heavily pregnant buds. So we are washing the leaves, by hand, each and every one.

I don’t really mind this slow methodical work. It bonds me to the past horticulturalists of Chiswick House. I’m only the latest in a line of gardeners stretching back centuries to have stood in this conservatory and day dreamed from a stepladder. It gives me the opportunity to think about long forgotten university friends and about their washing, it’s an exercise in the voguish art of mindfulness, and should be sold as therapy to burnt-out bankers. It also gives me the opportunity to put headphones in and practice my Spanish.

This linguistic skiving is actually very important, because next month I’m handing over my stepladder and leaving Chiswick House for Colombia. My highflying diplomatic girlfriend is taking up a post at the British Embassy in Bogota and I’ll be based out there for the next three or four years. I plan to post a round-up of my time in UK horticulture before I leave, but more importantly I intend to carry on working with plants in whatever capacity I can, so if any of my international readership hears rumours of things growing Down South – send me a tip off.

Until then it’s back to those Camellias…


The Author in Search of New Plants
The Author in Search of New Plants

10 gardening books

When a TV production company invites you in to chat about becoming a sexy celebrity gardener, the first thing they ask is “so, what’s your thing?” I told them my thing was gardening, and they never called me back. Turns out that they had been looking for someone who had a more marketable gimmick; they wanted The Breakdancing Gardener, or The Surrealist Gardener. So my program “The Gardening Gardener” never got made.

A similar thing happened with this blog. A friend who works in publishing sent it to her friend in gardening books. The first I heard was when the publishers emailed to say that although they loved the blog and the writing, they couldn’t see what my point was, and it’s hard for them to sell a pointless book (I paraphrase).

They are, of course, completely right. So with that in mind and an eye to publication I’m submitting a list of 10 potential gardening books with very clear points, books that in television parlance “have a thing”.

1. Learn to Garden The Aztec Way
Learn when to sow and harvest using the natural rhythms of the tonalpohualli calendar and blood divination.

2. Grow Yourself Thin!
Plant a new skinnier you today with these amazing fat busting plants. Learn to grow Erythroxylums and Nicotianas and much much more.

3. Crystal Palaces
Fiction. The secret history of the passionate yet forbidden romance between the enigmatic yet tender 6th Duke of Devonshire and his mercurial yet earthy head gardener Joseph Paxton – erotic yet taxonomically correct.

4. The Great British Rot Off
A wry look at Islington’s competitive composting scene.

5. Gone with the Wind
Anemophily and Allergic rhinitis – a history.

6. The Wardian Case
Fiction. When a famous plant hunter is found dead in a sealed glass box renowned Victorian scientist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward must use all his gardening nouce to solve the case.

7. Mummy, why is that tree dead?
A guide to gardening with children

8. Mealy-bugs and Mojitos
Fiction. Plant scientist Poppy Greenway is having the time of her life in London’s gardens and bars when her world is shaken by an outbreak of waxy aphids and the arrival of brooding pest control technician Daniel de Oscuro.

9. Orchid Hunting in Iceland
An insider’s guide to high-street plants.

10. Pound Pounds Ponds
The poet-critic Ezra Pound’s best writing on garden ponds. “No man understands a deep pond until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents.”

I’m sure I could have any of these written in time for the Mothers Day market – so if you feel like publishing do get in touch.


A Song of Sulfosulfuron

Before I became a gardener I lived in a world where the plants seemed ever in bloom. They rolled into my consciousness only while in flower, materializing from the fuzz of green and fading back when the petals dropped.

Now, after a few years in the business, I often take more joy in a plant’s growth than I do in its blossoming. This must be common in gardeners; it is partially due to the pleasure of anticipation – those weeks between the first bulbs breaking and the realization that the tulips are blind – where one can imagine that this year the garden will be perfect. But it is also because plants all grow in uniquely fascinating ways.

Rhubarb has my favorite growth-habit, It prolapses up red and obscene in a way that signals Good Times Ahead better than any olive branch on any ark. This year I’ve also enjoyed watching duckweed on one of our ponds. The tiny Lemna minuta reproduces almost cytokineticly, like microbes on a petri-dish, and in July it only needed a hot weekend to cover the pool entirely. Another highlight has been seeing a team of swearing scaffolders fight summer long to save their erection from being swallowed by wisteria. The plant is one hundred years old and when cut back created a florid vegetable Hydra.

Scaffolders and Wisteria - Chiswick House 2013
Scaffolders and Wisteria – Chiswick House 2013

This, however, is not a blog about growth. For over the last few weeks I have added another gospel to my bible of garden appreciation: I have become a connoisseur of death. Two weeks ago I sprayed a deep bed of weeds with a lethal mixture of glysophate and sulfosulfuron, and since have been fascinated by the varied ways in which different species die.

The oxalis was the first to go.  Its tiny leaves disintegrated, leaving a star-burst of un-garnished petioles. Sow thistle was next; it sagged around its upright hollow stem, the leaves drooping to form a washed-out skirt. Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora) turned black and mushy in patches, like a supermarket salad too long in the bag. Most interesting was the chickweed, so dull in life, but from which the colour faded day-on-day until it was almost transparent – after  a week and a rain shower I could look down from above and clearly see droplets of water hanging from the underside of the leaves. Finally the niccotiana succumbed; its giant green leaves prostrate on the ground, the exact colour and texture of a spent latex glove.

Since perpetrating this herbicidal massacre (apologies to the organic – had we the time and labour…) I have been in the thrall of Plant Death. At Chiswick House we currently seem to be losing a lot of aucuba, which is galling for two reasons: firstly because aucuba’s cardinal and single virtue has always lain in not dying, and secondly because when it does die it looks so ugly. The long serrated leaves sag, crumple and turn matt black, the whole thing looks like a giant sea urchin hung with old banana skins. In contrast the leaves of Viburnam tinus, another reliable evergreen, turns a lovely warm rufous red when it unexpectedly expires – something to consider when planning your next shrubbery.

Dead Viburnam - rufous red
Dead Viburnam – rufous red

My second favourite dead evergreen is ceanothus, and after a few of cold winters there are a lot of these about. The corpse retains its form, with stem, leaves and spent blooms intact, but it turns pitch black – like Wile E Coyote after an explosion. My number-one-favourite dead evergreen is the ubiquitous Deceased Miniature Conifer in a Window Box. Visually it is nothing special, a dry brown cone, but it contains an entire narrative arc. A spring morning, a sense of optimism, the desire to beautify and better ones surroundings with a brand new bag of compost. But then neglect sets in – summer is hot and watering a chore, the plant suffers. By autumn even disposing of the body is too much gardening.

Before I became a gardener I lived in a world where plants seemed ever in bloom; now I worship at the altar of death. Horticulture courses are currently enrolling at Capel Manor College.

Adventures in Silviculture

Adventures in Silviculture

Once, in a life before horticulture, I spent twelve months selling second hand books from a market stall in Bristol. Eight hours a day, six days a week of sitting on a chair drinking tea and reading. It was blissful and I’d recommend it to any young person thinking of taking a gap-year.

Having so much time to read is liberating; most of us have so few hours spare for literature that we are terrified of wasting them on an imperfect book. We feel we must either read something improving, a proper book, Flaubert in French say, or one that is a guaranteed match to our tastes, the “I only read books about sexy vampires” syndrome. But when reading is all you do, you are free to waste days on books that turn out to be crap. I would read; chick lit and sci-fi, collections of feminist poetry, pamphlets about erotic female wrestlers, I would read the classics and I would read books asking “was Hitler a Satanist?”, but most importantly for the first time ever I read gardening books.

The Author, reading erotic tales of strong thighed wrestlers
Erotic tales of strong thighed wrestlers

Unfortunately now that I’m in the business of knowing stuff about plants I can’t shake my market stall ways. When shopping for gardening books I still buy third-hand volumes, not glossy new high-production hardbacks, even if it means my books are completely taxonomically redundant. I’m stuck in a world where gardening books cost £2.50 not £25.00. Last week however, things changed, I was given a £50 book token, and so finally paid a guilt free visit to the horticulture section of London’s largest bookshop.

Like a drunk in a curry house I was paralysed by choice. I browsed for hours, sweating and sipping pints of Cobra. Who knew there were so many experts on back-yard chicken-farming? Who knew how common a trope the title The *Adjective* Gardener has become. It’s out of control! Waterstones will supply you with pages by; The Thrifty Gardener, The Curious Gardener, The Inquisitive Gardener, The Adventurous Gardener, The Virgin Gardener, The Weekend Gardener, The Bad-Tempered Gardener, The Common Sense Gardener, The Meditative Gardener, The Resilient Gardener, The Conscientious Gardener, The Informed Gardener, The Decadent Gardener and The Quotable Gardener.

The Adventurous Gardener
The Adventurous Gardener

In the end I bought Tall Trees & Small Woods: How to Grow and Tend Them by Dr William Mutch which is proving a solid introduction to practical forestry. It is full of dignified pen and ink drawings of un-glamorous things like vertical notch planting, befitting of an author who was the first president of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. I particularly admired Dr Mutch’s restraint in not titling his book The Coppicing Gardener.

The knowledge and assurance displayed within, as well as the subject matter reminded me of one of my horticultural heroes; Richard St. Barbe Baker, Late Assistant Conservator of Forests in Kenya Colony and the Southern Provinces of Nigeria, and author of the magisterial autobiography I Planted Trees. I found Baker’s book in a second hand bookstall in Camden Lock and have been enchanted by him since.

At the age of 16 Baker left the family home in Hampshire and travelled to Canada, claiming that his great-uncle had once killed a bear with just a shovel and that he fancied doing the same. After three years living as a frontiers man he decided he’d get an education and enrolled on the forestry course at Cambridge. Unfortunately the Great War broke out while he studied, and Richard was duty bound to enlist. His account of the First World War is crisp and to the point, displaying a characteristic reticence to boast of glory or to seek sympathy. At one point in I Planted Trees he writes “I went through all the spring shows of 1915, but this is not the place to talk of them”. Lucky for us! Leaving the gassing of Ypres and the horror of the Western Front out of his autobiography means more space to muse on the practical management of Kenyan pencil wood forests.

Richard St. Barbe Baker
Richard St. Barbe Baker

But it is not just pencil wood that will delight the silvicuturalist reader: the bamboo cloud forests of the Aberdare Range make an appearance, as do the mangrove swamps of Italian Somaliland, the ancient forest of East Germany and the eucalyptus groves of Southern California. The author is touchingly obsessed with woods. In I Planted Trees a dinner with Mussolini warrants a single sentence, chatting to Roosevelt gets two, almost dying of lockjaw contracted from a Mikingili thorn takes five sentences to describe, while near losing a leg in Ceylon takes a barely a page (delirious and unable to speak he writes a note to the doctor: “I am a forester; I need both legs” pointedly drawing a double line under “both”) encountering the Natural Regeneration of Woodland theory of Karl Gayer has its own dedicated chapter.

Though Baker died in 1982, the organization he set up, The Men of the Trees lives on as The International Tree foundation and has now been responsible for planting tens of millions of trees internationally (or 26 trillion if you believe Wikipedia). He may well have been responsible for planting the very tree that made the paper that was scribbled on by all those Bad Tempered, Virgin, and Adventurous Gardeners, and for that I hope they will join me in raising a toast “to Richard St. Barbe Baker – He planted trees.”