Magazine article The Spectator

Name Dropping

Magazine article The Spectator

Name Dropping

Article excerpt

One of the more unfortunate consequences of being a professional gardener, particularly one partly trained in a botanical institution, is that I must always know the name of a plant. It is a wretched compulsion, but one I am now probably too old to overcome. Although I am deeply envious of those who neither know nor care what their plants are called and only say, airily, when one asks, which one does: `Oh, my neighbour gave me that whatjermacallit; pretty, isn't it?', I know that I cannot properly concentrate on its attributes, nor study it closely, until I know its name.

My psyche was kinked long ago by the terrors of weekly Plant Identification Tests so that, even now, I approach a plant which looks at a distance unfamiliar, with eyes cast to the ground, searching for the label which will tell me what it is. In my youth, this was also a kind of scalp-hunting, I suppose, but it became an ingrained habit, which I make only sporadic attempts to break. My excuse is that, as a journalist, I cannot write about plants if I cannot name them, but that is convenient ex post facto reasoning.

Sometimes, these days, I am painfully thwarted. Some owners of open gardens do not label their plants, either because it is too time-consuming and expensive to do so or because the tags are so regularly stolen, usually by people who have already appropriated cuttings and who would like to keep a record of what they have pinched. Others think that, aesthetically, it is better not to turn their garden into a plant cemetery with so many mini-headstones, and I can see their point, although anyone who has ever tried to get hold of a plant that they have seen on a garden visit, will remember the acute frustration of not being able to discover what it was.

Most normal people are not too bothered about labelling in their own garden. But I am condemned by circumstance to a lifetime of labelling, if only because my memory now would make a sieve look impenetrable. Over the years, I have tried many kinds of label and marker, but rarely found them satisfactory. The problem lies in an unholy alliance between birds, the weather and the soil. The birds pull out the labels, and the rain mixed with splashed soil washes off the marking. The most widely available labels are made of white plastic, but neither soft lead pencil nor 'permanent' waterproof felt-tip marker will last forever on them. …

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