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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 too there’s room for questioning - the lifespan of the average hard drive is said to be about 3-5 years, while paper can of course last hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Of course this doesn’t even broach the question of how such records are made - when it comes to one's own notes on propagation experiments, I suppose it's much more natural to keep a notebook and jot down on the fly. Which leads us to another question: what exactly should be recorded? In a recent YPS team chat, Daniella (YPS Financial Advisor) asked about what sort of information we take down in our own notes on prop experiments. We thought that might be a good forum thread to start, as from our short conversation it was obvious we all had differing views, and it would be wonderful to expand this to draw on the collective wisdom of all YPS members. Would this be of interest?!

In the Q&A after Tom’s talk, there were some brilliant questions, including one pertinent to this very topic of what is considered worth recording - what was asked was whether there were any efforts being undertaken at Kew around the restoration of lost indigenous knowledge about plant propagation. It was rightly noted by both questioner and by Tom that given its history, Kew is particularly well-placed and indeed bears a special responsibility to do so. Tom mentioned the work of Kew Science Director Alex Antonelli - here’s a link to his article ‘It’s time to decolonise botanical collections’.

After a short break we had the pleasure of hearing Jess’s talk. She gave a refreshingly honest account of her career trajectory: from an 11-year-old working with her mum on a lavender farm on her school holidays, then as a Climate Change and Sustainability student at the Manchester Met, to working on the accession of the National Collection of Nepenthes during her time as horticultural intern at Chester Zoo, then joining Kew as an apprentice on the colossal Temperate House restoration, a stint as houseplant columnist for Gardens Illustrated, before eventually joining Chelsea Physic Garden where she is now Glasshouse Manager..!

Jess talked with conviction about why being passionate is important for a career in horticulture. It was also really interesting to learn about the sometimes hidden (to the public) relationships between different botanical institutions - a reminder that, as Tom described so aptly too, the exchange of plants, people and ideas between these go hand in hand. For anyone interested in a historical perspective on this, the ‘Mobile Museum’ is a fascinating project at Kew, which I was reminded of through both Tom and Jess’s talks.

Leading to Jess’s current work at CPG, we learnt a lot about the challenges of restoration projects - like the Temperate House one which Jess worked on while at Kew - which encompass both heritage buildings and world-class botanical collections.

'We were at a point where we were increasingly seeing things going wrong such as water issues, heating issues, electrical issues, shading issues […] it’s such a crazy place to be looking after these plants, because we’re gardening like people were gardening a hundred years ago!'

Jess on the glasshouses

Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Glasshouse Restoration Project at CPG is, like at Kew, a matter of juggling the priorities of preserving both horticultural and architectural heritage. For example, a construction team may want to situate irrigation or electric points where it's most efficient for them, which will not necessarily align with what is needed horticulturally, and Jess gave us some really interesting insights into how this is balanced.

Here's Jess giving a potted 100-year history of these beautiful buildings:

It was great to learn more about what's planned at the CPG Glasshouses, while simultaneously understanding more about how Jess's previous restoration experience at Kew had prepared her for the role.

I remember reading all about the Temperate House restoration in the news, and seeing photos of the staggering feats of engineering. Jess told us the rather heartbreaking story of Temperate House Manager Dave Cooke getting out a deckchair to sit and watch the cutting down of the beloved giant Jubaea chilensis (at the time, the largest specimen under glass in the world), which unfortunately was one of the plants too big to survive the restoration and had to be replaced. As she put it, there are always going to be deaths as part of a restoration, and that's what propagation is for!

One of the most striking things Jess talked about was the role that different people had played in how she developed her professional expertise, and it was lovely to hear these stories about them. After some more excellent audience questions, we had to tear ourselves away so that we could head off on the brilliant tours that Jess and the rest of the CPG team had put together for us.

But here's a parting message of career advice from Jess first:

We then split into two groups and went and met Jess's colleagues Allison, Willow and Elisa for the incredible tours around the prop areas, seed storage and Index Seminum, and more! I'll post more about this soon as I have some video clips to share.

Until then, thank you so much to everyone who came along, asked such great questions, and generally made it a lovely evening, and thank you especially to Tom, Jess and the wonderful CPG team Allison, Willow, Elisa and of course Katy for making this event happen. It was brilliant fun.

If you couldn’t make it (or were stuck on the waitlist, sorry) have no fear - our second Roots & Radicles is this weekend, on Saturday 21st from 5.30pm (talks start at 6) at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses. Carole Wright and Richard Choksey are our speakers, and this time we’ll have lots of time for drinks and chatting after too. Hopefully no rain, but if it does, the splendid canopy over the stage will cover us, and if it’s a proper downpour, we can shelter in - where else - the greenhouses themselves. See you then!

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