Tales from Titchmarsh
It’s tempting to buy cheap plants online or bring back cuttings from holidays, but the consequences could be dire,
We come back from our holidays with cuttings of this and that in our sponge bags, unaware that we may be bringing in a pest or disease that could devastate our landscape
Where do you buy your plants? Forgive my impertinence, but it’s rather more important than you might think. Perhaps, like me, you buy locally when you can or from specialist nurseries that you know and trust, but then occasionally succumb to the temptations of the internet? With specialist nurseries, the chances are they’ll have grown the plants themselves with care and attention. Larger, respectable local garden centres tend to buy in their stock, but if they are respectable, they’ll make sure the plants are healthy and disease-free. But over the internet? This is where things become a little more complicated. Many trustworthy growers sell via the internet and it has become the norm to buy plants in this way. But the internet is also crammed with ‘bedroom nurseries’, which aren’t nurseries at all. Anyone with a computer and an eye for a fast buck can set themselves up as a nursery. They can design a website to show pictures of plants they’ve lifted, not from the ground but from other websites. They’ll quote a price (probably a reasonable one, for they’ll have trawled the darkest recesses of the internet to find cheap stock, regardless of its origin or health). You will be tempted and you will buy – we all have – but you may unwittingly be laying not only your own garden open to hitherto unknown and devastating pests and diseases, but also the entire country. If you haven’t yet heard of Xylella fastidiosa [see Nov 2017 issue], you soon will. It’s a bacterium, and a virulent one at that. It attacks not just one type of plant but many, some of the prime hosts being olives, cherries, lavenders, rosemaries, hebes and figs. The disease is already present in parts of Spain and Italy, as well as in other pockets of Europe. It causes leaf scorch and ultimately kills the plant, and the threat it poses to our gardens and landscape is immense. The horticultural industry – which includes arboriculture, conservation bodies, forestry, landscaping and responsible retail outlets – is taking action to contain the disease. This includes quarantining imported trees and refusing to import plants from countries and areas where the disease already has a foothold, in the hope of preventing or at least delaying and reducing the likely impact of its arrival in the UK. But with ‘bedroom nurseries’ beyond our control, how can we hope to have every port of entry covered? In a world of open borders, free travel and more international to-ing and fro-ing than at any time in history, it’s fiendishly difficult to prevent the entry of pests and diseases that threaten the very existence of the plants we rely on for food and to beautify our landscape. Australia and New Zealand have stringent measures in place, such as prohibiting the importation of plants whose roots are growing in soil – they must be bare root or in a sterile medium. Every aircraft is disinfected on landing. No plant material or food products can be brought in by tourists, and hefty fines or imprisonment are the penalty for defying the law. And what do we do? We come back from our holidays with cuttings of this and that in our sponge bags, unaware that we may be bringing in a pest or disease that could devastate our landscape. The oak processionary moth is believed to have come to Britain as eggs on a single imported oak sapling that should never have slipped through the net. This pest defoliates oak trees, and can cause sore throats and skin rashes in humans. Efforts are under way to stamp it out, but that’s only the start. There are over 900 pests and diseases on the UK Chief Plant Health Officer’s ‘threat’ list. So we must all be vigilant, and we must encourage and assist government bodies and all aspects of the horticultural and forestry industries in their endeavours to minimise the risk from importing plant material from infected lands. We need better import controls and a system of identification – like the lion logo on British Lion eggs – that shows us we’re buying plants whose life history is known and whose health has been monitored. Right now, we must buy only from sources we believe in. Ask a few questions if you aren’t sure – and keep your sponge bag for your toothbrush.