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.
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!