Plant hunters: Get to a plant fair

Gertrude Jekyll complained a century ago about those who wrote to her with a list of plants they had bought, asking where they should place them in the garden. ‘That is not the way in which I can help you,’ she intoned, urging us to produce the design and then go looking for suitable plants to fill it. But such wise advice will never stop us buying lovely things on the spur of the moment.

We are, after all, a nation of specialist enthusiasts, in plants as well as in other pursuits. Just as there is in Britain, uniquely in Europe, a society for everything from hatpins to letterboxes, many organisations large and small devote themselves to one group of plants or another: roses, lilies, auriculas, ferns and so on.

This single-minded application, sharing and refining an immense collective breadth and depth of expertise, culminates in splendid overarching organisations such as Plant Heritage (formerly the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens), with its amazing network of National Collections of any plant you care to imagine. No other country on Earth would contemplate such an exercise.

One of the consequences of this endless fascination with the rare and the novel is the ever-lengthening list of specialist nurseries.

These busy propagators, often located down remote country lanes, have little opportunity to face the buying public, who, in any event, are largely mystified by their catalogues of Latin names. If the two could only meet in some village field, where the plants could speak for themselves, surely the result must be satisfaction all round?

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Well, of course, that is just what happens. From spring to autumn, at many venues across the country, gardeners in search of the particular can find, quite possibly, just the plant they have always wanted, sitting modestly in a pot on the grass. The typical setting is a field borrowed for the occasion, such as the one behind Gilbert White’s House in Selborne, Hampshire, or the uneven turf around the ruins of Abergavenny Castle in Monmouthshire. A significant part of the attraction on these occasions is the location: in the unlikely event that you don’t find something you want, the site is a worthy destination in its own right.

Many who attend these events come to see what’s on offer, content to browse until something agreeable catches their eye. Others, however, come early, having done their homework, armed with a pretty good idea of what they want. These characters walk urgently to each stall in turn, making mental notes, looking for the specific plant that has hitherto eluded them.

This second type, the diehard, lives in constant fear that the browser is one table ahead and has just taken a vague fancy to the plant the diehard had set his heart on. It’s a real worry. The solution, should such a thing happen, is to have a word with the nursery owner and make an arrangement for supply. Once the source is found, the tension is relieved.

There will always be an element of pot luck about these events and even the most rigorous purchaser can seldom resist the urge to buy on the spot the lovely surprise, the pretty cultivar that has been out of circulation for years. The opportunity may never come again.

Once the urgent business is despatched, there are the secondary pleasures to enjoy, such as the ice cream and the chat with the growers, who surely must enjoy these occasions, not least as a chance to meet lots of interested people. To find these events, it used to be necessary to scour local publications and posters in shop windows, but, now, life is easier, as those in search of the arcane can find whatever they want on the internet. For a start, there are the websites of rare-plant fairs and their friends and relations, all handily listed on the same page. The only difficulties are that you will be spoiled for choice-and that bI will be there before you!

Visit, or to find out where the nearest or best are for you.

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