Banking on the allure of a new plant
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