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Roots & Radicles 1: pumice prop, plant messiahs, surviving the blitz, and deck chairs at Kew...

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Two (!) weeks ago, YPS had its first ever in person meet-up, at our inaugural Roots & Radicles event at the historic Chelsea Physic Garden in London.

As it was after hours, we had the Garden to ourselves, and though it was a little dreich it didn’t put us off from wandering freely around, taking in all the summer beds had to offer before the talks began.

Our programme for the evening included talks from Tom Freeth, Curator of the Rock and Alpine Living Collections at RBG, Kew, and Jess Snowball, Glasshouse Manager at Chelsea Physic Garden itself, before an amazing behind the scenes tour from Jess’s CPG colleagues.

Tom spoke first, taking us through a history of his career progression through many interesting twists and turns, including his stints as a landscaper and greenskeeper before interning at Kirstenbosch and eventually undertaking the Kew Diploma.

‘Why are we so interested in propagation? Simply, it’s the coolest thing that you do in horticulture, isn’t it? That’s what I always thought, starting off. I now realise that for every big task that you have to do […] you can’t get anywhere without knowing how to propagate’

Tom on why propagation matters

Tom spoke compellingly about one of the keenest-felt reasons why propagation is so important: conservation. Describing the precious resource that is the Millennium Seed Bank, he put this relationship into the starkest terms: "it doesn’t mean anything if we can’t turn those into plants. It’s not ex situ conservation unless we can turn those into plants, and you need propagation skills for that". He described several examples of his involvement with propagating near-extinct species, and the satisfaction that comes with revisiting their IUCN status years later to learn that it may now, thanks to one’s own work, be improving.

Here’s Tom talking about how his work with threatened Cape Region plants, like Erica verticillata, fired up his passion for propagation:

He also told us a slightly hair-raising story about looking after Tarenna hutchinsonii as a student, explaining that it was through this experience that he realised "that’s how important what we do is: that actually might make or break that species".

Tom outlined several fascinating examples of specific propagation challenges, for example when working with heterostylous plants if you only have access to one morphological type, or how a number of plants in Mauritius exhibit heterophylly as a way to avoid predation by giant tortoises. The importance of always learning; from other people’s expertise, experience or simply their different perspectives, came across very strongly.

Here’s a clip that Tom showed us of one of his Kew colleagues, Carlos Magdalena, the ‘Plant Messiah’, sharing the story of how he saved the world’s smallest water-lily from extinction (you may need to log into Vimeo to watch):

Throughout his talk Tom highlighted the importance of record-keeping and of the exchange of ideas with other propagators as a way to build expertise, individually but also collectively to carry into the future. This really brought home that it was only through continued experimentation and the sharing of that that we have breakthroughs - like Tom’s example of growing alpines in pumice after an inspirational visit to Gothenburg Botanic Garden.

‘You start something: as long as you record it, as long as you share it, like you guys are all passionate about doing, you can build on it, and that means you eventually get the methods right for your environment - everybody’s environment is different'

Tom on experimentation

Dionysia collection at Gothenburg

The considerable challenges around the practicalities of how those experiments and ideas are actually shared is a big topic, and Tom talked through some of these with examples from his own work. He also related these back to the Millennium Seed Bank, knitting together collecting, record-keeping and propagation as the critical forces in conservation. I find the records side of things fascinating, although it was overwhelming to learn of some of the challenges that accompany prop record-keeping at Kew - such as each of the Glasshouses having its own system, and each person’s notes being handwritten!

Here's Tom talking about why records are so important:

My natural instinct is to want to preserve those important records through digitisation, although thinking about what Tom talked about (and in context with some of the things Jess covered - see below), I started to reflect more critically on my own anxious carbon-copying of handwritten records as digital files. If it’s about accessibility, then which is the better - a desktop folder of numbered files, or a book to be flipped through (which also has the benefit of preserving the narrative structure of the notes)? If about preservation over time, then in this case t