Catch up with a fellow plant nut

Catch up with a fellow plant nut.

When I worked at my previous job, sometimes I needed to escape the place and talk to someone who was at least as nutty about plants as I am. It was through Twitter I got in touch with Tom Hart-Dyke of Lullingstone Castle, and the World Garden. Tom is a great plantsman and he is one of those plant hunters who get into trouble whilst exploring the rain forest to find a special orchid. Nowadays it seems there are people who like to label themselves as plant hunters, when all they do is go to nurseries on the continent and buy plants there which have not been released in the UK yet. In my opinion this is derogatory to the plant hunters of the past (and present), who would go into undiscovered territory and try and find that new special plant that has never been identified before, whilst endangering their own lives. Going to a Dutch garden centre is not plant hunting.

Tom and I have become friends over the past 6 years or so and the main thing we have in common is our love of plants. Whenever I visit the World Garden at Lullingstone Castle, I see plants I have never seen before. I always feel I have a pretty good plant knowledge, but when I speak to people like Tom, I start doubting that. I suppose it has to do with what your interests are, and what you can grow. However, with my new love for houseplants which can also be grown in gardens during summer, I recognise a few more plants now.
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Tom with some of his recent purchases

The cactus greenhouse at Lullingstone Castle is amazing. I have always loved succulents and to see them here in their mature state is just wonderful. Some of these plants are often grown as houseplants as well, though they tend to be a bit smaller then! One of the ones I noticed was Opuntia monacantha ‘Variegata’. I have seen these a couple of times lately as a houseplant. They are so variegated that they are also very slow growing due to their lack of chlorophyll. There was another common species near this plant as well, and this had reached about 3 meters in height. The variegated plant however was barely 30 centimetres tall. Another great thing about this variegated Opuntia is that it hasn’t got those nasty spikes! We moved the normal species at work the other day, and two weeks later I could still feel the tiny needles in my skin, which had gone through thick gloves and trousers.

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Opuntia monocantha ‘Variegata’

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Another plant I saw in the cactus house was Euphorbia millii, the Crown of Thorns. It is one of those plants that I have known all my life. At the primary school I went to, they had houseplants in the classrooms. When I think back to that now, I do find it funny that we had so many poisonous plants with thorns at the time. We had several kinds of Euphorbia which all had the milky sap: not something we would subject our 6-11 year old children to now. I also remember very well what happened to the plants during the summer holiday as most pupils took a plant home and looked after it during the summer. I think this was a great way of getting children to look after plants and get some sort of connection with horticulture, be it in a very small way (and probably grown more out of convenience than with that in mind).

Succulents are certainly a passion of Tom’s, together with orchids. When we went in another polytunnel, I was shown a Gasteria which must be the biggest one in the country. It measured well over 30 centimetres wide. At home I have the variegated form of this and, like the variegated Opuntia, it is very slow growing. My variegated Gasteria was given to me by the curator of Wisley, Matthew Pottage, a year ago this March. So far it has grown just one new leaf. I am not surprised though, because it probably only has about 5-10% green in the leaves. Not a lot to turn sunlight into energy.
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The biggest, widest Gasteria I have ever seen
When Tom and I went into the orchid house the first thing that jumped out to me was a huge papaya plant. It had at least 7 fruit, so it shows you can grow them in this country. You need a hot and humid greenhouse though. Apart from the fruit, the papaya plant also has an amazing leaf, which does look nice in any garden to give it that extra tropical atmosphere. Another plant in there which stole the show at the moment was a Begonia masoniana. This B. mansoniana was one of those that have an amazing leaf. The surface is quite unusual, but it also has a beautiful dark brown pattern on the green leaf. Another one to look out for. I was never really a fan of Begonia until I came across B. luxurians, but I think that was mainly because of the small bedding plants I knew. Over the past few years I have been buying more and more though as the leaves on some of them are amazing, with B. maculata my most recent purchase. This one has beautifully shaped, spotted leaves. Last month I requested some more in the Plant Heritage Plant Exchange so hopefully by the time I open my garden for the NGS (29 July, 19 August and 30 September), I will have a nice collection on display.
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Begonia masoniana
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Begonia luxurians in my garden last summer
It was great to see Lullingstone again, and see even more developments on the site. I can’t wait to go again later in the year.
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