Gardening half-truths go back at least to Joseph Banks, but his more noble legacy is our love of exotic plants. By Helen Razer.

Lies, damned lies and exotics

Blue Himalayan poppies, a rarity in Australian gardens.
Blue Himalayan poppies, a rarity in Australian gardens.

Iris at number 10 may be, now and until her death by topiary, the street’s, and probably the electorate’s, best gardener. But she is not terribly good at telling the truth. Then again, all gardeners hedge around their horticultural success and failure. Including me. In these very pages, I have made a pre-emptive, if not entirely fictional, boast of my achievement with papaver orientale. I said I germinated my oriental poppy and hence you may have inferred that it grew. Well, it didn’t. I watered it to death long before its heavy bordello petals outspread to the heavens, and I quietly bought a seedling online. I wasn’t proud. I lied, like Nixon, to a nation.

But you must understand that the tradition of half-truth – “my tomatoes were ready in November”, “I always make my own fertiliser”, “I just nudge the aphids away with my breath” – is as old as botany. Sir Joseph Banks, a most uneven man, is more or less the father of everyday gardens and is certainly the first great gardening liar. Banks minimised his failure and feigned ignorance of his success. We all do.

The man who Botany Bay was named in honour of and who erroneously reported its suitability as a port to colonists hauled more than 1300 species back on the Endeavour in custom-made “plant cabbins”, which enjoyed a more comfortable passage than Captain Cook himself. But much of his observation on the eucalyptus and acacia he would export worldwide was as fanciful as his accounts of the land’s Aboriginal inhabitants.

Yet, with his many thousands of plants uprooted from colonial ground, Banks gave us the habit of exotic plant collection. From his posts at the Royal Society and Kew Gardens he sent collectors around the world.

Iris makes a very good show of being a “humble”, “unpretentious” gardener who would never presume to do anything more unusual than strike a common rose. Actually, she is a secret collector of rare plants. I have seen the Himalayan poppy that proves it.

When I first met her outside my house some springs previous, Iris looked at my ornithogalum and said, “I don’t go in for those South African exotics.” I was polite and didn’t draw attention to her clivia – tough and lovely bell-shaped shade-lovers that shame the tatty agapanthus and, like most South Africans, grow across our nation and flower in early spring. But over the seasons, I have become less generous in tolerating claims that she cares only for “honest” flowers. Iris is an elitist, dishonest zealot, like every other gardener. There’s a lot more than petunia going on in those beds.

To call the blue Himalayan poppy an Australian garden rarity is a bit like saying that the Gutenberg Bible has a long waiting list on Amazon. The only means to access Meconopsis betonicifolia is from seed purchased by mail-order and the only way to germinate it is to simulate the climate of Tibet. You need to pop it carefully on wet kitchen towel and place it in the fridge to wrest it from dormancy – a process known as stratifying. Then, it’s into some perlite at a steady temperature of
18 degrees with mild humidity and indirect sun, and at that point I lose interest because no rare little blue annual is going to survive my irregular character.

As Murray Shergold, owner of one of our oldest commercial orchid nurseries, Easy Orchids, says of rare plant propagation: “It’s slower than the Second Coming, and it helps if you’re patient or you’re stupid. It’s definitely best if you’re both.”

Iris, who is not stupid, grows the Himalayan and edelweiss, another alpine diva, in Melbourne in a bed full of snapdragons and other common camouflage. I suspect there is a sterile laboratory behind her weatherboard facade, though she bluffs: “Oh, I just scattered some seeds.”

For all the man’s pseudo-science, Banks did contribute to an emerging study that brought us techniques of mass propagation and masses of extraordinary flowers. Many of the plants he coddled at Kew, such as the magnolia, the hydrangea (you can propagate this easy-to-strike dame now and still have hope for flower) and the fuchsia (almost impossible to buy as a seedling but very strikeable from softwood now), grow here in old-fashioned and retro-chic gardens. Perhaps unrecognised esteem for the colonial flower thieves drove me to plant a soft new mophead hydrangea next to a hard old banksia in my yard.

And perhaps the hunger even a casual balcony gardener will develop for collecting something just a little rare is colonial in origin. Perhaps, every time we choose a cream clivia over the common orange, or a rare heritage rose over a perfectly lovely modern hybrid, we are reprising Banks’s urge for a taxonomy of the world.

Of course, every time I plant, say, the crimson flowering broad bean (don’t do this until April) rather than its common white flowering relative, I tell myself it’s for “biodiversity” and species preservation. But I am also drawn, just like the men of the Enlightenment, and probably Iris, to haul the treasures of the world to my door.

Another urge at play in our exotic gardens belongs not just to the colonial past but to a globalised present. I guarantee that after one season of growing a few common nursery flowers, you’ll feel it, too. You will not be satisfied with caring for the mass-produced stock of major nurseries but you will wish for something other.

This urge to plant hollyhocks (I forecast a comeback for these spring flowering spires, which you plant in late summer) or okra (order seeds online to germinate now and harvest early for use in Vietnamese cooking and late for Cajun broths) is not just simple snobbery and competition. Although I do confess to garden-trolling Iris this autumn with 50 bucks’ worth of nerine bulbs (another tough and pretty South African genus to plant now whose blooms can appear from March right through winter). Last autumn, it was saffron crocus. (You may just get away with planting these pretty, and surprisingly affordable, rarities now, but don’t blame me when you’re up with the sun trying to harvest the tiny edible stamen with a pair of sterile tweezers and a magnifying glass.)

It’s not just a consumer fetish. The process of collecting unusual plants and imposing your own little circle of order upon their international chaos is, I think, pleasurable for the way it makes the “other” familiar.

Orchids, in particular, reveal this drive. Charles Darwin admired them for their beauty and the key they provided to his theory of natural selection. The rest of us want this weird other taken from the forest floor for the desire they unlock.

Shergold has seen it in the faces of collectors. “Over the years, I’ve seen them come in. Their eyes glaze over and they see botanical names instead of the world. And their pockets get really deep.” These hunters with credit cards will do just about anything to claim their orchid.

The Shergolds “became famous in our small way” for their early import of Madagascan beauties before Australian quarantine practice tightened. Shergold still propagates these difficult beauties. They are several times the cost of the disposable supermarket orchids whose normalising of the exotic Shergold accepts as a fact of business life. His Madagascars are snapped up “by the oldies. The real collectors. They can remember a time when you measured the cost of an orchid by the weeks you would have to work to buy it.”

“Disposables”, as Shergold knows them, gained popularity as a cost-effective cut-flower substitute after the GFC. He understands that people can now enjoy the beauty of a living flower bred for short display. But he says these plants mass-produced by tissue culture give us “a million orchids all the same, just like peas in a pod”.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m an old fart, but what they’ve done is made orchids available to so many more people by reducing their worth. The average orchid collector 20 years ago could tell you the botanical name and the country of origin. But now, Mrs Buff Orfington will tell you that she has ‘the pink one’ and that it comes from ‘David Jones’.”

What drives the exotic collector, beyond specimen preservation, is the chance to form a connection with a little group of plants whose preferences we learn, whose nationhood we remember and whose beauty our admiration can never contain.

Orchids or zygocacti or heirloom carrots. Victorian roses or forgotten broccoli or the wattles Banks carried back to Kew. Whatever species we collect and however we arrange them, they always together produce a memory of our private adventures in the garden and the very public journeys of the men who stole them. No wonder gardeners can’t tell the truth about the things that they grow. Even we don’t understand it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 29, 2014 as "Lies, damned lies and exotics".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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