Spring in Melbourne this year has been dramatic and changeable to say the least. This past weekend, despite the erratic and blustery conditions, the passionate plant aficionados were all a twitter as they turned up to the RBG. It was the occasion of the first Botanic and Rare Plant Fair at the RBG (Melbourne). This has been set up as a collaboration between the usually highly anticipated Friends of RBG Plants Sale (normally held twice annually), Diggers Seeds and the RBG.
With the proliferation of superstore hardware/nurseries and the subsequent homogenisation of plant species on offer, it was felt that there was a great opportunity and need to showcase the individual growers and plantsmen who are forging ahead with plants of distinction. These are not necessarily the plants that are dominating commercial nurseries, which are chosen on the basis of being consistent performers, reliable and readily available, fast to breed and bring to market. But, a bit like tomatoes in the supermarket all year round, they’re there, they’re available, but are they exciting? Do they bring the taste buds to life, set your heart pounding in anticipation of the one time of the year when they absolutely shine? Generally not!
For me what was so exciting about this plant fair, was that it was truly representative of the best we have to offer in terms of growers who are doing it differently. There was very little here that you can commonly pick up in a chain store nursery. Specialist growers included those selling hellebores, clematis, roses, bulbs, peonies, salvias, various perennials and rare and unusual seeds.
There were plants people such as Meg Bentley of the Salvia Study Group of Victoria, who has been growing salvias for over twenty years. She has a Registered Collection of over 400 species and cultivars of this fantastically prolific, floriferous and diverse plant genus and is the author of ‘A Manual for Salvia Growers’. Just look at the range of flower colours, leaf forms and habits of these salvias on display. In recent years these have become the ‘go to’ plant as they perform so well over a long period, but this collection included many more unusual species and cultivars than are commonly available.
Neville and Mim Burkett of Yellow House were also selling salvias, but offered an extraordinary collection of older style perennials. Neville was a conservation architect, and many of the plants that they have propagated have come from old estates he has visited in that capacity. They are passionate about the loss of older plant groups, and committed to conserving and propagating these garden treasures.
Matt and Mike at Antique Perennials are also keen to track back to genera and species that have been sidelined in recent years. They travel widely overseas in the search for unusual and exciting cultivars, and once they bring back the plant material, spend 3-5 years trialling and building up stock material, before these plants are released. With their ears to the ground in terms of what’s being used by the masters of the perennial movement internationally, they are bringing rare and sought after cultivars to our shores. Plants like this outrageously variegated Podophyllum delavayi.
Chris and Jenny England at Merrywood Plants were demonstrating pruning technique for the stunning espaliered fruit and flowering plants that they have such a great reputation for. I was particularly taken by an espaliered Ginkgo biloba that was on display, covered in fresh spring growth.
Verily Wood had a very special display of both antique and reproduction traditional gardening tools which seemed to fit entirely appropriately with the feel of old favourites, re-presented to us in a contemporary context. Mother and son Anne and Harry Barrett were showing their range of 1920s and 30s garden tools, with cast steel and ash handles, and explained that the tools harked back to a traditional understanding of what gardening is about. A tool for a job, such as potato ladles to dig up a crop undamaged, and rhubarb forcing pots. But they also stock modern interpretations of traditional hand tools: bronze heads with copper alloy and beech wood handles. These are the tools that you hand down from generation to generation, cleaned and oiled and kept with care.
There was so much more, including the extensive offering from the Friends of RBG. These are plants propagated from the Gardens own collection of plants, including some rare cultivars and unusual offerings such as this Drimys winteri.
I will write later about the panel discussions I attended which were held concurrently, but for now, I’d better go out into the garden, and get those rare and unusual beauties into the ground.