“Now in my 80th year I can look back on a journey that has taken me through some of the world’s most exciting wild and garden landscapes and brought me experiences that have been enriching as well as humbling. My childhood ambition was to be an engine driver in the age of steam but fate had other things in mind and I have never once experienced regret” Roy Lancaster
Roy Lancaster CBE VMH Fl Hort FLS is a world-renowned plantsman. His birth on December 5, 1937 was the start of something big for plants and horticulture. His chance find of a Mexican tobacco plant in a local allotment brought him fame as a Bolton schoolboy and sowed the seeds of his future career.
Roy accepted an invitation to speak at two Algarve gardening conferences organised by the Mediterranean Gardening Association of Portugal. In 2013, he gave us his own personal selection of a range of plants for Mediterranean gardens and again in 2014 he gave us a talk on “Woody Plants for Mediterranean Gardens” and inspired many to look more closely at the full range available for Algarve gardens.
My Life with Plants is the story of his adventures with plants: from learning the ropes as a young apprentice to curatorship of the Hillier Gardens and Arboretum and a dynamic freelance career. The chapter called ‘Are you the nipper who wants a job?’ gives us an insight into the lost world of quality training for young people keen on gardening and horticulture which was provided by local authority parks departments. The time and care taken over nurturing not only the plants and gardens but also their future custodians is beautifully brought out by the telling anecdotes which Roy shares with us.
His enthusiasm for the natural world is exhilarating as he describes seeing tropical plants for the first time in the jungles of Malaya, when as a National Service army recruit he chose the tropical jungle posting in order to experience the exotic vegetation. This also led to his early correspondence with the Singapore Botanic Garden and the Natural History section of The British Museum with detailed journal entries to record not only the vegetation but the birds, fish and many insects he encountered.
It is telling that his platoon made a special request for him to leave behind the pickled green whip snake and the large Malayan scorpion in their jars of formaldehyde to be displayed alongside the football and boxing trophies.
The world travels in pursuit of encounters with different plant communities extend to visiting extraordinary people as well as wild landscapes and gardens. This includes Roberto Burle Marx’s garden in the hills behind Rio de Janeiro, and hunting for ancient bristle cone pines in California in a camper van with Wayne Roderick.
Anyone lucky enough to have heard Roy give a lecture will be in familiar and inspiring territory with this book. Here we have many more of those fascinating anecdotes. His enthusiasm for, and lightly worn but deep knowledge of, the plant kingdom encourages us all to look more deeply into this fascinating aspect of our natural world.
Above all, the book gives us precious time with one of those rare beasts, a world-class plantsman with unending curiosity who can vividly transport us to the four corners of the globe and show us the plants to be found there.
There is no snobbery in this book just as there is none in Roy. All plants are welcome and valued for their contribution. He delights in finding a native British grass in the Caspian forests as well as sharing the rarities encountered in his own Hampshire garden. You may know Roy from his plant hunting trips to China and Nepal. This work does not seek to detail those trips as his books on those are already available and much sought after. There is a useful bibliography and recommended-further-reading list together with a helpful index.
In this book, Roy takes us full circle from his own early life learning about plants to his delight and joy in now hosting student groups at his home and the nearby Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. I recommend you read this beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated book which allows us to share time with the woody plant genius that is Roy Lancaster.
Thank goodness he did not take up engine driving.
By Rosie Peddle
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Mediterranean Gardening Association – Portugal
|| My Life with Plants by Roy Lancaster
Published by Filbert Press in association with the RHS – March 2017
Hardback 312 pages, 200 photographs of people, places and plants
Available from MGAP: [email protected]