Monday, 16 September 2013


A disturbing and distressing story caught my eye in this fortnight’s Horticulture Week.  

 Aster laevis 'Calliope'

Brussels Bureaucrats, apparently, are about to smack us about the head with a particularly ill-judged and potentially damaging piece of looney-toons legislation.  Believe me, this one makes the outlawing of curved bananas look sane and reasonable.

 As part of proposed EU legislation to regulate ‘plant reproductive material,’ Brussels wants all plant varieties to be listed on an official register.  To implement that, they want every variety to carry an officially recognized description which could run to two pages.  Such descriptions would give details of such life-threatening features as the length of the hairs on a plant’s stems.

This would be part of a plan to force nurseries and individuals to sell only registered plants.

Registration, because of the exhaustive information required, multiplied up by all the red tape necessary to keep the maximum number of EU civil servants employed, will cost a great deal of money to implement. And presumably, each registration will have to be approved by the Eurocrats.

It could therefore become illegal for anyone to sell non-registered plants.  This system already applies to vegetable and agricultural crops, greatly reducing diversity.   

We do NOT want this to happen to ornamentals – preferably not anywhere but absolutely NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES in Britain.

 British gardens are among the world's most diversely planted.  How many of these modest plants might be lost, if registration becomes necessary?  Would registration condemn them?

If this legislation is forced through, it will kill small, independent nurseries – the lifeblood of British horticulture and the main reason for our unique horticultural diversity.  How many other nations can boast more than 70,000 cultivars and species commercially available?  Holland?  I don’t think so! 

Dotty legislation like this could also clobber plant breeders.  The big guys may be able to carry the cost burden, not to mention the mind-numbing paperwork, but the little chaps?  No chance!

Professional and semi-professional breeders have given us so much in the past.  I’m talking about people who tinker with specialist plant groups, often in back garden nurseries.  They have bequeathed British – and therefore world – horticulture some wonderful varieties.  You may remember Woodfield Brothers’ spectacular lupin exhibits at Chelsea year after year, back in the, er, 1990s. Many of us still grow the late Hector Harrison’s fascinating diascias.  And what about Elizabeth Strangman’s pioneering work on hellebores?  Think of amateur and semi-professional dahlia breeders, too, not to mention iris nuts, saxifrage enthusiasts, fuchsia breeders – the list is long and diverse.

Fuchsia 'Rose Fantasia'  Fuchsia enthusiasts have raised thousands of cultivars.  If each has to be registered, most could be lost to cultivation.

 So what happens if those unelected Brussels Sprouts have their way?  What will that mean for the diversity of planting in good gardens?  Do we really want our planting schemes limited to what is approved for registration by those self-perpetuating grey scrubbers? 

Currently, anyone can offer plants that they've bred - either to give away or to sell.  Many are also happy to let their progeny go into cultivation without protecting their intellectual property, ie, without breeders' rights of any kind.  I love that kind of freedom.  It is part of our gardening heritage, just as it is also reasonable that professional breeders should have the right to protect or copyright their commercial progeny.

Let’s say, for example,  that a perennial enthusiast has developed a gorgeous late flowering aster, with bright, rosy-purple flowers and elegant, darkly marbled foliage which is never disfigured with so much as a speck of mildew?  Most British gardeners might give it little more than a cursory glance.  So if big horticultural marketeers  fail to see any potential, that plant is overlooked, no one registers it, so good-bye!

But if you happen to be an aster nut, and have a nicely planted autumn border, that variety could become an object of intense, insatiable desire.  So imagine how you – or that person – would feel, if all the breeder can say is, ‘Sorry, love, I’d give you a root or two, but I’m forbidden. I'd be breaking the law.’

The Begonia 'Sherbet Bon Bon' – a highly commerical plant. 
Great, but I want esoteric, wispy things in my garden as well as big brassy jobs like this.

So what will British growers, breeders, gardeners and in particular, plantsmen do?  Will we fight such insane legislation, if it looks like becoming law?  Will we march in the streets, waving placards?  Will we distract our MPs from worrying about their emoluments and get them help us out of our miserable situation? 

And what will the Royal Horticultural Society do?  Let's hope they're going to raise an almighty stink about this.  If they don't, they dam' well should, and now and without ceasing until the nonsense is nipped in the bud.

We know that DEFRA will probably be supine and continue to snooze gently while the legislation goes through.

And probably, as gardeners, we’ll just moan a bit more, and then carry on muddling through, somehow. 

And in time, the less mainstream plants will quietly disappear.  Or, they’ll be flogged, one at a time, at garden fêtes or from Women’s Institute stalls, or exchanged among garden clubs until, like Gardeners Delight tomatoes, they’ll become denatured, variable, of dubious provenance and no longer so desirable.

In time, we could see our gardens – both public and private – lose their uniquely rich diversity and become drearily uniform.  And this won't happen just from Penzance to Inverness, but also from Britain to Bulgaria.   

How bloody awful, to have one of our richest treasuries – our wonderful plant heritage – watered down to a few hundred crappy cultivars which look OK in garden centres but have limited garden value and are exactly the same, anyway, as what grows in every garden in the street and in every park as well.  What a terrible thought!  I hope I'll be digging in God's little acre, by the time that happens!

 Anemone nemorosa 'Parlez-Vous' - a cultivar of quiet beauty, probably only of interest to a few gardeners.  But I wouldn't be without it, or without a dozen other wood anemone cultivars.

I'm listening to Benjamin Britten's extraordinarily bouncy-rhythmed festival cantata Rejoice in the Lamb.

This week's film, in honour of the recent date was Battle of Britain.  When released in 1969, this film was unkindly received. But it has lasted well and is a reasonably accurate telling of Britain's invasion crisis, in September 1940, averted by our gaining air supremacy over the Luftwaffe.  Olivier's portrayal of Dowding was, for once, under-played and utterly convincing.

Hang onto your fancy plants - the grey men are coming to get them!


  1. I read about this in today's Torygraph - they mentioned Geranium 'Rozanne' in their piece, but didn't pick up on the irony that this is the RHS's Plant of the Centenary.

    What utter tosh and I can't believe they've not learned the lessons of the seed legislation debacle.

    Dare I say that perhaps we need to be a bit more like the French and just ignore the bits of EU legislation which don't suit us?

  2. I forgot to mention that the declared reason for the EU wanting to enforce registration of all ornamental plants is to avoid a repetition of the horsemeat scandal. This is overkill in the extreme. If I buy packaged meat which is adulterated, my health could be put at risk. But if I buy a buddleja plant, described as white, by the supplier, but which turns out to have blue flowers, no lives are threatened. I simply take the issue up with the supplier or learn to live with blue.

    One other thing. Who verifies the variety in the first place? I challenge anyone to authenticate the following cultivars: Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote' - Achillea ptarmica 'The Pearl' - 'Aster x frikartii 'Mönch' . I don't believe anyone could provide a scientifically confirmed identity. Even a DNA test would be difficult because no one knows the original plant of any of these. And in the case of the Achillea, there may never have been an originsl.

  3. I'm not sure which annoys me the most. The idiotic notion that such regulation is required or that these eurocrats are spending my money even considering it. Aaaaaaaaah.

  4. It is yet more bureaucracy to keep ineffectual EU staff looking busy at their desks. There is no logic to this let alone a need for this kind of interference in an area where the EU has no remit to do so.
    We have been through the courts to protect our plants in the past ,'Esther Read' caused quite a kerfuffle with impersonators at a time when plant breeders rights did not exist,they do now - albeit they are difficult to implement.
    I doubt the NFU will act on our behalf so it may be up to the RHS to use its membership and 'network' to put a stop to this, our industry is on a delicate slope which does not need any more slippery snake oil adding to it from Europe.

  5. Yet more guff from those soulless EU bureaucrats. Don't they have anything better to do than this?

  6. Hello Nigel, thanks for highlighting this issue. I've been active on this matter for several months now and am one of only a handful of people in the UK to have read the whole proposed regulation, more than once (I don't get out much).

    Firstly, you might be interested to know that there is a very active group of interested parties who are already active in this matter. That group includes some growers, a breeders' agent (me), the Horticultural Trades Association, the NFU, the RHS, Plant Heritage and a few others. We have been engaging with DEFRA who, I must emphasize, have been listening closely, taking onboard what we have to say, sharing our concerns and being generally very helpful. So please don't put them down - they're on our side. They are fighting our corner in Brussels, but can't do it alone. It needs growers and plantsmen from across Europe to work and lobby to get this proposal changed and we have been working hard to get our friends on the continent to share our concerns (which they do).

    Secondly, we need to be careful about what the Regulation actually says - sadly, some members of the journalistic trade are not too careful on detail and love to get straight to the "all EU officials are nutters" angle as quickly as they can. For most plants (especially ornamentals) there is no requirement to register - only those listed in Annex 1. There is a requirement (under Article 50) for all plants (except those in Annex 1) to have an "officially recognised description", which includes the specific characteristics of the variety and (importantly) makes it identifiable. At present, only plants with PVR granted (not in the application process) are likely to have an ORD extant. The official recognition of the ORD would need to be done by DEFRA who privately admit they couldn't possibly do this for 50,000 (probably more) varieties (although who has time to write 50,000 descriptions?). Nor could they possibly check that every plant in trade has an ORD. However, they would need to be seen to enforce the Regulation, as the EC hands out hefty fines for non-enforcement by national governments (and they got stung with such a fine recently for another piece of law).

    The current law requires that plants be "common knowledge". DEFRA takes "common knowledge" to equal "included in Plant Finder". The required description can be in a "supplier's list" - something known to you and me as a catalogue. This is easy to comply with.

    So, whilst there is no requirement to register, the requirement for ORD could be considered "registration lite".

    If you want to read the Regulation (it's great for insomniacs), you'll find it here. Be sure to read the whole thing, not just the preamble.!celexplus!prod!DocNumber&lg=EN&type_doc=COMfinal&an_doc=2013&nu_doc=262

    If you fancy writing a piece on this subject (Lia has already covered it in The Garden), feel free to give me a shout if you want help on the technical aspects of the proposed and existing laws, as well as some of the other implications of the regulation.

    Take care and watch your blood pressure.

  7. Graham - thank you for a balanced and clearly presented response.

    You're right about journalists tending to attack bureaucrats before they've armed themselves with adequate knowledge. I plead guilty as charged – but someone's got to shout about this! And some of the legislation that gets drafted, these days, is wholly counterproductive and benefits absolutely no one. As targets for satire, few are plumper or more tempting than government officials and politicians. It comes with the job, I'm afraid, and it always has.

    One of the purposes of this slightly loony blog is for its owner to vent his spleen about some of the spectacularly daft things done in the name of government, the establishment, gardening, agriculture, nature or whatever – not to mention the arts.

    It's good to know that those at the sharp end of horticulture are trying to moderate the legislation. However, it seems to me that Europe has a tendency to want to regulate absolutely everything, and then to invent more things so that they can regulate those as well.

    Where intellectual property is at stake, I can understand the need for clear identification which would go with registration. What is lacking is an affordable, technical means of identifying plant varieties. DNA is used in cereal variety identification – or was when I was farming – so something like that might work for named clones.

    But there are so many plants in cultivation that defy accurate identification and for which regulation of any kind whatever has no place. And it just happens that a great many of such plants are traded by tiny family nurseries as well as being exchanged among private gardeners or plant enthusiasts.

    Regulation of any kind has absolutely no place with such plants, in my view, and I suspect that it will be extremely difficult to enforce. But if it is enforced, I fear that small nurseries, already in jeopardy, will be at even greater risk. Thus, we lose a huge and valuable proportion of our diversity.

    I, and many plant-loving gardeners like me, would be devastated to lose such a precious heritage.

  8. Bizarrely, I've also been involved in industry discussions on the use of DNA for identifying plants. Suffice to say that we are not quite there yet with having a reliable and, importantly, low cost method of using DNA to distinguish varieties. Some genera are highly homogenous. I'm told that Alstroemeria, for example, shows a very high level of similarity from variety to variety such that DNA sampling (as opposed to analysis of the entire genetic code of a variety) is virtually useless. But I must stress that DNA is not my field of expertise.

    Of course, for heritage varieties (and even varieties that are not yet ancient enough to be described as "heritage"), identifying the "true" plant for the purposes of either DNA analysis or botanical description is the first (probably insurmountable) challenge.

    Please keep up the spleen venting. Before it gets regulated.

  9. I look at it differently to all of you. I too work in the industry as a garden designer and work closely with a lot of small nurseries. But I do feel we need a register. With a register we can make sure there isn't a repetition of plants under new names and can try and make sure varieties are not lost. At the moment there are groups that concentrate on their field say Geraniums but don't have a full and complete list of culltivars. Would it not be a good idea to be the holders of the full register for Europe, lets look past how difficult it will be and move forward. Why don't we try and get funding from Europe I would rather do that because if we don't someone in Holland or Germany will. I have been looking at Alliums and have put together as complete a list of cultivars as I can because there isn't one. This type of information should be held in a central database we need to move forward and not live in the past.. Linnaeus would have approved and it seen as a challenge.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jackie. In response:
      1. If registration is necessary for alll plant varieties, diversity will be greatly reduced and many varieties will be lost. This is what happened with vegetable seed, thanks to unnecessary registration.
      2. We have a perfectly good body – a charity rather than government controlled – for conservation. It is called Plant Heritage, formerly the NCCPG and works to preserve threatened varieties.
      3. There is already a functioning and comprehensive database for commercially available garden plants called the RHS Plantfinder.

      There is NO PLACE for government meddling here. Any attempt to control and police plant breeding, especially amateur breeding would, I feel, be counter-productive.

  10. In my experience I haven't found the RHS Plantfinder or any other list to be accurate for Geraniums(hardy). I have been told by the RHS that in theory any plant that no longer appears in the Plantfinder is picked up by Plant Heritage and it is not happening. Also some Geraniums are being missed named by Nurseries. There isn't even a national collection for Alliums.
    I don't think breeders should have to pay a lot of money to register but they should be registered. I have become friendly with a Clematis breeder and they have an international register so I think if they can do it so can others. I know I keep banging on about Geraniums but they seem to be in quite a pickle. I expect you have heard of Geranium Rozanne and its court case. Another Geranium Jolly Bee was discovered and the too were consider to be identical and G. Rozanne won. I have grown both and they are different, I have spoken to the RHS and they say I am not the first to say this. What will happen is that we will discover a new plant we won't have a register, another grower somewhere in Europe will also discover it get PBR's on it and that will be the end our usage with out a license.
    I am not saying it should be government controlled but we should have a proper register, if groups with a special interest in specific plants are all involved it should be possible.