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Noel’s Garden Blogspot : Sunday, August 22, 2010
Jim Archibald, who died last week, was one of the 'last of the great plant hunters'. This is what I wrote about him for an obituary to be published in The Daily Telegraph.
For those of us in the gardening world who enjoy the challenge of growing unusual and rare plants, the annual arrival of a seedlist from Jim and Jenny Archibald was keenly awaited. Unillustrated, and consisting of A4 sheets stapled together, it would inevitably list scores of intriguing plants, mostly offered as seed collected in the wild. Some would be new forms of familiar species, some species of groups we know and are familiar with, but many would be completely unknown. However it was the introduction that many of us would read most keenly. Who would be Jim Archibald’s target this year: a botanist whose opinions on plant naming he disagreed with, the Royal Horticultural Society, Kew Gardens, or someone being holier-than-thou about the ethics of collecting seed in the wild? The introduction was always erudite, well-informed, witty and often very hard-hitting; in the world of gardening, where there is little openly-expressed disagreement they were a true tonic.
Archibald’s career as a freelance plant hunter and seedsman extraordinaire began, appropriately, with another plant catalogue. That of Jack Drake, a famous grower of perennials and alpines in Aviemore. As a teenager Archibald was a keen gardener, and it was the listing of some plants grown from an expedition to Nepal in 1954 which fired his enthusiasm. His holidays were spent working at Drake’s nursery, and even at university (Edinburgh), where he read English Language and Literature, he continued to grow, and even sell, unusual plants. Early trips to look at plants growing wild and collect seed followed, to Corsica and Morocco.
Travelling, often in out of the way places, looking for plants was soon established as a lifestyle. He would make light of the process, I remember him telling me once that “seed collecting in the past might have involved intrepid hikes or perilous adventures on donkeys but these days the road system makes it a lot easier, we rarely need to go anywhere more than a few hours from at least a track”. But soon he would talking casually about collecting alpine plants from the “mountains of the Iran/Iraq border region”. Then there is the story, legendary amongst alpine plant enthusiasts, of ‘the van to Van’, when he and Jenny towed a caravan to eastern Turkey, to use as a base for seed collecting.
The only period Archibald was not spending at least part of the year travelling, it was running a nursery – The Plantsman, near Sherborne in Dorset, from 1967 to 1983. Working in conjunction with Eric Smith, it was the forerunner of the great many small specialist nurseries which make the British gardening scene so vibrant. The Plantsman was famous for its hellebores and hostas, many varieties bred by Smith. Unable to make a success of the nursery as a business, Jim turned to his first love, of travelling.
Usually accompanied by Jenny, who he had met in the early 1970s, Archibald established an annual cycle of summer and autumn seed collecting, selling the seed in the winter and spring. With a clear focus on alpines and small bulbs, JJA Seeds sold primarily to enthusiastic amateurs, but also to botanic gardens (at least until the restrictions of the Convention on Bio-Diversity made this difficult) and nurseries. Some of his bulb introductions were used by Dutch breeders to produce new varieties for the general public, but it was commercial growers of alpine and rock plants who relied on him for a constant supply of interesting plants; it is reckoned that almost anyone growing such plants today will have some which originated as JJA seed.
Famed for his memory, Archibald seemed to have an almost photographic memory for the plants he collected, even able to take fellow travellers back to the exact rock where he found a particular plant, many years after he first visited the spot. His favourite hunting grounds for the plants he loved were the mountains of Iran and Turkey; occasional run-ins with military check-points or secret police did little to dent his enthusiasm. In later years he spent more time in the mountains of the western USA, often working alongside the growing number of local botanist-gardeners who were passionate about both seeing their native flora in the wild and growing it.
Archibald was resolutely not commercial. Many times I tried to persuade him to pay more attention to collecting seed from larger herbaceous plants – apart from anything else they could have been more remunerative, but he stuck to what he loved.
Many of us also wished that Archibald had taken up journalism. Those seedlist introductions were always worth re-reading – barbs flung (but always politely) at the pomposity of botanists who concealed data (supposedly in the name of conservation), at the effects of political-correctness on horticulture, at the dogmatic application of ill-thought out quasi-legal concepts like the Convention on Bio-diversity or Plant Breeders Rights.
Archibald’s knowledge and ability to communicate it was recognised by the Alpine Garden Society, who in 2003 gave him their highest award – the Lyttel Trophy, given annually in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in contributions to the growing of alpine plants, their culture and botany. His incredibly wide circle of friends and colleagues in the garden and botanical worlds will remember a man of great intellectual integrity, enormous and infectious enthusiasm, who combined real erudition and learning with an ability to communicate it, and great personal warmth. Eloquent too, one seedlist introduction ended - “we sell dreams to ourselves and hope to pay for their reality by work and knowledge…what are seeds but dreams in packets?”------------------------
Harvey Wrightman - Canadian Nurseryman, in his blog Tuesday, October 4th, 2011
"When I built our house in SW Ontario, we finally had the opportunity to act on the inspiration. Using the few stones available, the first rock garden took shape and I began looking for the plants. There were so few commercial sources in North America and though it’s hard to imagine, there was no internet search, so growing from seed was the best choice. At that time, “shares” in a seed collecting expedition was the norm; but, this always gave the impression that distribution was based on a fraternal basis, with those deemed as superior growers, receiving preferential treatment.
Jim Archibald and the Czech seed collectors democratized the process to a simple commercial exchange, which suited me better. The best aspect about rock gardening is that it is an egalitarian experience. Money and class status mean nothing, and the Czechs, who suffered through 40 years of totalitarian suppression, have provided us with the most advances in both plant material and cultural methods. I wonder where the next generation of seed collectors will come from. I can’t say with certainty, but I can speculate it will be China. The recent Czech collections from there comprise a whole section of their own; they may become the largest section. China is still controlled with a heavy hand. It is illegal for citizens there to collect seed for commerce. Having escaped the last great glaciation, the diversity of the alpine flora is huge. A growing number of locals with expertise are interested in this flora. One wonders what ideas they will offer. This will all develop, heavy hand or not. All it takes is the inspiration of a vision."
Harvey Wrightman on Fissures and Eritrichium:
"20 years ago I was enthralled with offering of Eritrichium howardii seed in Jim & Jenny Archibald’s North American collections list, “…Dead Indian Pass NW of Cody. 2800m. Limestone gravel patches and rock fissures…this is certainly not impossible to cultivate well….of course it needs superb drainage and protection from winter wet….Silver rosettes packed into dense cushions, to 10 cm. across, covered with the purest blue flowers on 5 cm. stems. (10 seeds @ $7) Taking that sitting down, one packet was enough, and I don’t recall any success. 10 years on I was able to germinate and plant to a tufa piece a seedling that was very vigorous and gradable, e. howardii ‘blue sky’. More have followed and the plants raised from cuttings are far easier to handle. In Jim’s notes there is valuable information:
1. The preference for rich, limestone-derived soil ( mineral rich) and growing in narrow crevices ( keeping the crown dry and provides a cool root run).
2. The location near Dead Indian Pas, though relatively high at 2800 m., is very hot in summer. This is to the good, as many eritrichium sp. are not so heat tolerant.
The notes about culture in Europe are not so useful. We can grow it outside without protection. This point was recently brought home to me when John Mitchell, the supervisor for the alpine section of RBG, Edinburgh commented on the range of plants we grow outside that they cannot, and so must grow as specimens in pots. Winter wet is the main problem. One coping strategy for such conditions is to plant directly in/on tufa, and indeed, the RBG had just bought a load for that purpose. You can still fail with tufa if you don’t adjust, “radicalize”, your methods. Humans are creatures of habit and we dislike challenges to our approved practices. But Jim’s notes say it simply and best, “…Limestone gravel patches and rock fissures”. He also noted that they had collected seed from plants they had grown – a sign of hope for those of us with no experience.
In the same list was Eritrichium nanum var. aretioides from both Colorado and Wyoming. Most interesting are the different soil conditions. On Pike’s Peak, soils are a “granite grit” vs. those of the Big Horn Mts., “…exposed, stony ridges on hard limestone”. My recollection is masses of e. nanum growing on fertile, rocky pastures on Hunt Mt. in the Big Horn’s. The soil was actually a heavy, silt/loam and would grow an excellent vegetable garden. The two collections are not so different as the soil data would suggest. I have plants of both and they grow equally well. As Jim notes, “…While more difficult than E. howardii, the N. American races seem easier than those from the Alps... the classic arctic-alpine of the N. hemisphere. Purest blue flowers on silver-haired cushions.” I have only been growing them for ~ 3 years, but in a narrow, elevated clay crevice, the plants have grown much better than I expected, with 3 of the 7 seedlings surviving both summer and winter. Though E. nanum is more sensitive, I think that we will find a hardier plant among all the seedlings we grow much as what happened with E. howardii ‘blue sky’. The sight of masses of e. nanum growing with dodecatheon conjugens, douglasia montana and aquilegia jonesii , essentially in what is used as pasture for sheep, is much different idea than we might imagine, but so it is. At least here, one can see the plant’s need for a richer soils and its acceptance of some competition – it may be that there are co-operative benefits involved too. Often, I think, we treat plants as solitary specimens/individuals when they more likely need the benefit of association. Currently, I grow eritrichium using 2 methods. With freshly rooted cuttings, a compact “brush” of roots radiates from the lower stem. In this case, it is easy to drill a small (12mm) hole in tufa to a depth ~ 4cm. with the cutting in place, the hole is filled with Spanish River Carbonatite which provides nutrition, and the top part is capped with clay to prevent wash-out. The clay does not bother the stem and preventing wash-out is important. One may also “smear graft” a rooted cutting onto the tufa. It will quickly root into the stone. The tufa does slow down growth, but the plants are quite healthy."