Alan Titchmarsh: ‘Their goal is quantity rather than quality; of boastfulness rather than the innate delight in seeing a plant that is loved’

Our columnist takes aim at the plant collectors whose desire to hit bigger numbers overtakes their love of gardening — but he pours praise on the honourable exceptions who manage to balance both impulses.

There are those who will claim that collecting things is a matter of personal preference; of discernment, of admiration and the desire to reflect one’s taste in a group of objects or, in the case of the gardener, of plants. It is not. Collecting is an insidious disease, most likely to attack those of a naturally acquisitive disposition, but a disease nonetheless. Once the collecting bug bites, there is no cure for the consequent affliction. Quite the contrary: it builds, year on year, and when the urge to buy one group of plants is exhausted — often on account of there being few varieties worth growing that are not already present in the collection — then the victim moves on to another genus.

I don’t want to appear self-righteous in this matter. I am perfectly aware of my own weaknesses when it comes to plant collecting, as attested by the 30-odd different varieties of snowdrop currently growing in pots on my terrace. I made the mistake of looking for new ones on that famous internet auction site (I will not reveal the name in the hope of avoiding passing on the infection, from which a face mask offers absolutely no protection), but I did manage to stop at 30-something. I reckon that shows phenomenal self-control when one realises that, thanks to the pollinating activities of galanthophiles, there are now upwards of 2,500 different varieties of snowdrop being offered for sale, often at several hundred pounds a bulb.

“You’re likely to be greeted with a scratch of the head and ‘we did have one somewhere’ as you’re led over to the spot where a dead stick pokes out of the ground”

What restrains me, apart from a lack of space (and funds), is that sinking feeling when I visit a garden that claims to have ‘an unrivalled collection of…’ whatever, or ‘more than 500 varieties of…’ something or other. You get the feeling that the owner would be far better off collecting stamps, which would take up much less room, far less labour, and be accessible in all weathers at any time of day.

It is not that I am unimpressed by the desire to own a wide range of one particular group of plants, but that, so often, the plants themselves are badly grown. If you are looking for one particular variety and ask the owner its whereabouts, you’re likely to be greeted with a scratch of the head and ‘we did have one somewhere’ as you’re led over to the spot where a dead stick, accompanied by an expensive label, pokes out of the ground.

The thrill for this sort of gardener is fuelled by numbers. The goal is quantity rather than quality; of boastfulness rather than the innate delight in seeing a plant that is loved for its own sake growing well.

There is one particular exception to this rule and that is the National Collections of plants grown by members of Plant Heritage — formerly known as the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens. (You can see why it changed its name.)

“The owners of National Collections are providing a service to mankind far more valuable than those who simply play the numbers game”

These are folk — with gardens or nurseries up and down the land — who agree to take on a particular genus of plants with a view to ensuring its conservation. Not for them the dead stick and the swish label; they relish the chance to conserve and bring back from the brink rare and unusual varieties of plant to prevent their extinction and to maintain the richness of a botanical gene pool.

This kind of plant collecting has an eye to the future wellbeing of our plants and gardens and can ensure everything from a wider colour range to variation in height and habit in a particular genus, to disease resistance and the preservation of medicinal properties, all of which would be irretrievably lost were a cultivated plant to become extinct.

The owners of such National Collections (and anyone can apply to become one of these custodians of a plant’s future) are providing a service to mankind far more valuable than those who simply play the numbers game, for their aim is not only the enrichment of their own lives and reputations, but that of gardens in perpetuity.

Thank goodness for their selflessness; for it takes a degree of altruism to care for the National Collection of a plant not noted for its spectacle or social cachet. There are those who are custodians of acorus and equisetum, as well as the more outwardly glorious delphiniums and hemerocallis. To them, we owe a debt of gratitude. I bet they all know exactly what they’ve got and exactly where it is. What’s more, they’ll also be growing it well. Gardeners, you see; not stamp collectors.

Marigolds, Myrtle and Moles  —  a Gardener’s Bedside Book’ by Alan Titchmarsh is out now