Don’t try to visit Joe Sharman’s Cambridgeshire farm right now. “I don’t allow anyone here at snowdrop time. People are politely, or sometimes very impolitely, asked to leave if they turn up,” says the man dubbed the King of the Snowdrops.

The rare exception is an occasional film crew or photographer, keen to document his holdings at their most impressive. “But they make proper arrangements, and they’re sworn to secrecy,” he adds. “I don’t allow them to take shots that would allow anyone to have any geographical knowledge of where I am.” Sharman is just as protective of the plot when he’s heading overseas for work, as with a trip to Germany this week. “I have paid people to be here when I am not.”

The reason is simple: such is the demand among galanthophiles — or snowdrop lovers — that collectors are prepared to fork out four-figure sums for a single rare bulb, something Sharman specialises in developing. It makes those delicate white little flowers akin to gold bullion — and poachers abound.

Across the world, horticulturalists such as Sharman and green-fingered non-profit organisations are cultivating rare or threatened plants to help shore up their supply for the future. Whether for profit or for social reasons, however, the challenges are the same: ensuring the security of their stocks, whether by secrecy, safeguarding or a bit of both.

Joe holds a terracotta pot with a flowering snowdrop
Joe Sharman’s snowdrop bulbs can cost in the thousands © Clive Nichols

Sharman’s interest in snowdrops was first piqued when a pair of eccentric snowdrop breeders took him under their wing as a young gardener. They invited him to swap meet-style lunches with fellow galanthophiles (the snowdrop genus is Galanthus, derived from the Greek words for “milk flower”). At such gatherings, attendees could exchange stories and bulbs, writing down requests for specific flowers in a little notebook as it was passed around.

Though everyday gardeners might overlook the intricacies of this late-winter bloom, it seduces devotees through its almost hedonistic promiscuity. There are just 20 official species but snowdrops crossbreed with careless abandon, producing new seedlings in nature every year. With human intervention, such pollination can be engineered to foreground different qualities or colours — a painstaking process for hobbyists, and a profession for the King of the Snowdrops.

Sharman mostly uses his thumbnail to daub pollen from one blossom into another. To him, the process of creating a new snowdrop cross is akin to writing a poem or novel. “I can’t have people around when I’m hybridising. I need to take a pause and gather my mind, because if you head straight into something it doesn’t really work.”

A dirty finger and thumb hold an open snowdrop flower
Joe Sharman prefers to use his thumbnail for pollination © Keith Heppell

The drooping snowdrop features pale yellow-green patches on its petals
A bulb of Galanthus Golden Fleece sold for £1,390 © Clive Nichols

Sharman estimates he has produced, bought or received thousands of different bulbs over his decades of breeding. His most recent rarity, Golden Tears, broke the record he had set for a single bulb, via a previous breeding, Golden Fleece, which sold for £1,390 after taking him 18 years to perfect.

Now, eight years after that sale, the white and yellow variety is commonplace enough that a single bulb can cost just a hundred pounds.

Early last year, it was dethroned by a bulb of Golden Tears, a riff on that previous record-breaker with a bright slash on its white petals, which sold for £1,850 . (It’s a contemporary obsession with more than a whiff of that 17th-century phenomenon, tulip mania, albeit with fewer bankruptcies.)

There is no gladhanding and gavel-wielding around these sales, though — rather than Sotheby’s or Christie’s, Sharman has typically sold his rarities on eBay. That may change, though, as he grumbles about the platform tinkering with its auction process. “It’s far more difficult now to see what’s going on, so the excitement has gone. There’s something about being able to see other people bid that gets your blood going,” he says. Still, he should remain unaffected. “I’m unusual in that my interest is not primarily pecuniary. I would have this passion for doing what I do even if I didn’t make any money,” he says.

A woman plants seedlings in a tray with people in protective suits the background
Staff at work at the National Trust’s Plant Conservation Centre © National Trust Images/James Dob

That mantra has long underpinned the efforts of the Plant Conservation Centre run by the UK’s National Trust. The 1.2-acre site, at an unpublicised location in Devon, is a discreet spot that is off-limits to the public; signposting is minimal and visitors must thoroughly disinfect their hands and shoes before stepping inside. One of its treasures is in the horticultural equivalent of the witness protection programme.

This narcissus — which staff refuse to identify publicly — was supplied in a cluster of just 10 bulbs, believed to be the only ones remaining in the world. Five are under painstaking cultivation on-site; the remainder were sent elsewhere for safekeeping. It hasn’t proved to be a vigorous varietal.

Robbery may be one risk but the true threat is more worrying: disease. Biosecurity drives such measures here, according to Alison Crook, the trust’s national curator of living collections. “If we had an outbreak on site of something like Xylella, one of the things that’s killing olive trees in the Mediterranean, that has a 100-metre kill range,” she says, of the clearance needed to ensure an infection is ringfenced. “That would wipe out everything we’ve got here.”

The centre was set up in the wake of the Great Storm of 1987, which caught the UK off-guard. Its hurricane-force winds brought down 15mn trees, including swaths of older specimens, and prompted the trust to start safeguarding the most precious of its living holdings: at-risk rare plants. Now, Crook says the lab-like operation acts as a vault for a variety of prized plants, which qualify for its emergency treatment for different reasons.

Yew foliage turns from green to yellow towards the tip
The Irish yew was brought back from just two specimens © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Illustration shows a dense pink and yellow flower head
An illustration from 1858 of rhododendron Van Houttei Flore Pleno

Take the relatively commonplace Irish yew. It is a fixture of many churchyards but all the trees growing now derive from just two, discovered in County Fermanagh in 1780. “It used to be a pilgrimage site, so exceptionally religious people would go and propagate from them — that’s why it’s in all the churchyards,” Crook says.

One of those trees sits in what’s now National Trust land, allowing cultivation of its cuttings at the Devon centre; the other, on nearby land, hasn’t survived.

The PCC works on rare plants, too, such as the rhododendron Van Houttei Flore Pleno, a half-pink, half-apricot double bloom that was thought lost to cultivation but discovered in a garden in southern England; now the team here is bulking up its rootstock. The same is true of the Tamar Double White narcissus, which was rediscovered locally.


World record price paid last year for a bulb of the snowdrop variety Golden Tears

The West Country was traditionally the UK’s main source of daffodils until the second world war, when its fields were repurposed for food in the Dig for Victory efforts; the bulbs that filled the farms there were churned up and lost.

“Then five years ago, this one turned up at the edge of a car park on one of our properties — just a little clump, and it smells fantastic. We’re using various techniques to increase that as fast as possible,” says Crook.

The reason for such renewed efforts is that the National Trust has just partnered with Blue Diamond garden centres in a multiyear programme to bring some of the rarest and most significant plants nurtured here to market for the first time. They will be commercialised on a niche scale and sell at a premium as part of the charity’s fundraising efforts; expect that rhododendron to be among the offerings.

Texas-based farmer Hoven Riley also faces security challenges with his favourite plant, though it’s not a rare species but rather a commonplace one under threat from plant poaching: the yucca. The demand for these sturdy desert plants, native to Texas and Mexico, has grown and their price, he says, has increased by more than 50 per cent in the past two years alone.

Combine that demand with lax laws on wild gathering, and it has created the ideal circumstance for unscrupulous entrepreneurs to denude much of the natural supply. (Plant-finding apps are an inadvertent aid to such rustling, in effect acting as crowdsourced maps for rare finds — it’s why the likes of iNaturalist applies taxon geoprivacy to certain species to blur their exact location.)

The son of a local cotton farmer, Riley worked as a tour guide in Alaska for a decade before returning to Texas to work on a different kind of farming. He uses 20 acres of his 240-acre holding to grow 20,000 or so yuccas, almost entirely the rostrata variety — its leaves, he says, are softer and less knifelike, making them better suited to domestic gardens. It has been an arduous process to cultivate the slow-growing succulent.

A yucca in a pot against a bright blue sky
The yucca is a common garden plant but under pressure from plant poachers in the wild

“It’s not like I had a serious game or business plan. It was just me being somewhat stubborn, persistent and pushing through.” Like a yucca, perhaps? “Yes, maybe.” Riley is aware of the value of his hard work. “I’ve talked to the sheriff and said if they see any yuccas in the back of a truck at night-time, around my place, they might be stolen.”

The Texan might be riled up by rustlers but not all plant hunters work beyond the law and after dark. Indeed, those such as Daniel J Hinkley act as ad hoc conservationists roaming the world to identify, retrieve and cultivate plants that might otherwise become extinct (think of him as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Bloom).

The Washington state-based horticulturalist stumbled into his secondary line of business after running a wholesale nursery with his husband, where they fielded constant requests for hardy, interesting plants that would thrive in the north-west. He was soon adventuring around similar climates and altitudes — mostly Nepal, Bhutan, China and northern Vietnam — to find new specimens to bring home and cultivate.

And, though he has partnered with plant seller Monrovia on a namesake collection, like Sharman, he doesn’t pursue these rarities for profit. “I have a real difficulty with taking something from the wild and putting a patent on it,” he says of this collection, which is 90-95 per cent comprised of his wild-foraged treasures.

Hinkley typically works with local universities to ensure all laws and protocols are followed on his trips — as on his next, 20th sortie to Vietnam, where he will venture into the countryside with botanists from the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in Hanoi. His backpack will be filled with Ziploc bags and sphagnum moss — that’s for living specimens, but Hinkley prefers to gather seeds as they’re hardier to transport over the long distances back home. Red tape around transporting such plants internationally has grown knottier.

“Every country has changing rules and regulations about what can leave, as does the US about what comes in, which makes it increasingly difficult,” he says, though he emphasises that the partnership with research institutions in situ has been crucial to his trade.

Hinkley is painstaking about permits, and that was one reason he couldn’t snip a cutting from one hydrangea he spotted as he zoomed past in a car on a dusty rural road in northeastern India.

He was instantly smitten by the sight: a double-bloomed, ivory-green plant — sterile like most such double-bloomed specimens, which typically sacrifice their sexual parts in favour of larger flowers. Improvising, he tied a yellow ribbon round a nearby tree and resolved to return when his permits were in place. That was in 2016 and, two years later, he did come back and has cultivated the flower back home since then.

The challenge for law-abiding plant hunters isn’t theft, or arrest, but rather that their own enthusiasm could prove the undoing of the very plants they are keen to sample and secure.

“You mustn’t touch a plant too much, or get too exuberant about it,” he says of the need to stay poker-faced in the field, “because if local residents find that a plant seemingly has value in the west they could dig them up for us if they think you’ve struck gold.”

Find out about our latest stories first — follow @FTProperty on Twitter or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram

Source link

By Admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *