Bank­ing on the al­lure of a new plant

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Tom Mitchell put in 14 mis­er­able years sell­ing junk bonds to pen­sion com­pa­nies be­fore he bailed out of bank­ing (“I did my bit for the re­ces­sion,” he re­calls cheer­ily). Sadly, his exit wasn’t so much a golden para­chute as a crash and burn. Di­ag­nosed as clin­i­cally de­pressed, he had to spend some time in “a loony­bin for peo­ple with health insurance”, as he puts it, to get back on his feet. Once Tom had semi-re­cov­ered, his for­mer em­ployer put him, aus­pi­ciously enough, on gar­den­ing leave. For a long-time gar­dener and plant geek, this was just what he needed and, five years later, he is chief plant hunter, mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor and pot washer at Evo­lu­tion Plants, his new mail-or­der nurs­ery based near Brad­ford on Avon in Wilt­shire.

Hav­ing stud­ied biology at Cam­bridge to PhD level, Mitchell was fas­ci­nated by plant bio­di­ver­sity, and was there­fore well equipped to re­turn to his un­der­grad­u­ate dream of be­com­ing a plant hunter. A spe­cial­ist nurs­ery was just the ex­cuse he needed to sup­port his pas­sion for vis­it­ing far-flung cor­ners of the world in search of plants – and his com­mer­cial back­ground came in very handy too: “Bankers know how to bor­row money,” he says, archly.

His web­site has sim­i­lar­i­ties with those of other well-known con­tem­po­rary plant hunters: Dan Hink­ley of Heronswood nurs­ery in Seat­tle, and Sue and Bled­dyn Wyn­nJones of Crûg Farm Plants in north Wales. Idio­syn­cratic, knowl­edge­able plant de­scrip­tions are a sell­ing point, based on first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of col­lect­ing seed in the wild and grow­ing the plants on site. In Tom’s case, he also swaps plants with a global net­work of plants­peo­ple, such as Tony Avent of Plant De­lights nurs­ery in North Carolina and the gar­den de­signer Peter Janke in Ger­many.

In th­ese cir­cles, rare plants are, by def­i­ni­tion, far more in­ter­est­ing than com­mon ones – and wild plants more de­sir­able than gar­den va­ri­eties. This is, as Tom says, “bleed­ing-edge hor­ti­cul­ture,” aimed at ad­ven­tur­ous gar­den­ers who are al­ways look­ing for new and rare plants and rel­ish the chal­lenges of grow­ing them. His typ­i­cal cus­tomer to date has been a head gar­dener with a gen­er­ous bud­get and an am­bi­tious client. But now, with the launch of the mail-or­der web­site, Tom’s range of new and un­usual plants is open to all.

Last month, Tom of­fered the gar­den­ing press a pre­view of the nurs­ery. He gave a pre­sen­ta­tion in what he calls his “mes­sianic mode”, in which he drew out the con­nec­tions be­tween col­lect­ing seed in the wild, plant con­ser­va­tion and our un­der­stand­ing of bio­di­ver­sity. His face­tious, self­dep­re­cat­ing man­ner com­bines with a deep se­ri­ous­ness about his sub­ject. And the im­mac­u­late or­gan­i­sa­tion of the jolly nice lunch laid on in his new poly­tun­nel also shows a busi­ness-class at­ti­tude to mar­ket­ing (not al­ways a given in the plant world). He ac­knowl­edges that com­mer­cial prin­ci­ples are still very much a part of his ap­proach to sell­ing plants.

“We need peo­ple to pay a higher av­er­age price for plants,” he says. “The Bri­tish nurs­ery busi­ness will con­tinue to strug­gle un­til the per­cep­tion of the value of plants changes.

“Why is it that peo­ple think noth­ing of pay­ing £20 for a bot­tle of wine that is gone in half an hour, but suck in their cheeks at the idea of pay­ing the same for a snow­drop that will mul­ti­ply for years and which you can give to your grand­chil­dren?”

His ques­tion was treated as rhetor­i­cal by all the plan­ta­holics present (he was rather preach­ing to the con­verted) but there were some scep­ti­cal rum­blings: “A botanist run­ning a nurs­ery – fatal mis­take,” mut­tered some­one.

How­ever, the tour of im­mac­u­late poly­tun­nels and dis­play beds did not dis­ap­point. Tom pointed out sev­eral new spec­i­mens. First was a partheno­cis­sus he col­lected in Viet­nam with Bled­dyn Wynn Jones on one of his early trips. Chris­tened ‘Bloody Grape’, this was not so much a ref­er­ence to the colour of the fruit as a ver­ba­tim quote from BWJ try­ing to rein in the les­s­ex­pe­ri­enced Mitchell. As in: “Stop chas­ing af­ter that bloody grape.”

There were also a cou­ple of choice wood­land plants Tom found in Ten­nessee in the com­pany of friend Aaron Flo­den, a US botanist. This un­sung hot spot for hor­ti­cul­tur­ists and plant hunters turned up trautvet­te­ria, a thal­ic­trum rel­a­tive, and a plant for shady or wood­land gar­dens. Its at­trac­tive white flow­ers have a veil-like trans­parency – the holy grail for nat­u­ral­is­tic plant­ing. The race must be on to get th­ese into a Chelsea show gar­den in 2014.

Grow­ing along­side the trautvet­te­ria the pair also found the strik­ing Par­nas­sia gran­di­fo­lia, which has large, bright white flow­ers veined green with bright orange an­thers borne in pro­fu­sion in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber. The glossy, bright green leaves, rem­i­nis­cent of Asarum eu­ropaeum, pro­vide a good foil for the flow­ers. Both are now on sale in this coun­try for the first time from Evo­lu­tion Plants.

Al­though plant breed­ing isn’t Tom’s pri­or­ity, he does make an ex­cep­tion for helle­bores, fo­cus­ing on the small-flow­ered, dain­tier types rather than the more fa­mil­iar hy­brids de­rived mainly from H. ori­en­talis. He also plans to ex­per­i­ment with epimedi­ums and his beloved snow­drops.

At a time when small spe­cial­ist nurs­eries are find­ing it dif­fi­cult to sur­vive, you can only ad­mire Tom Mitchell’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit and hope the al­lure of a new plant will throw down the gaunt­let to ad­ven­tur­ous Bri­tish gar­den­ers.

Evo­lu­tion Plants of­fers free ship­ping on or­ders of more than £20 un­til Christ­mas. The nurs­ery is not open to the pub­lic, but vis­its by ap­point­ment can be ar­ranged (01225 867761; evo­lu­tion-plants.com)

Hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion: Tom Mitchell, top, has trav­elled the world in his quest to find rare plants, above

Top choices: Par­nas­sia gran­di­fo­lia, above Partheno­cis­sus ‘Bloody Grape’, left; and

Trautvet­te­ria, be­low

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