Sunday, August 22, 2010

Jim Archibald

Jim Archibald, who died last week, was one of the 'last of the great plant hunters'. This is what I wrote about him for an obituary to be published in The Daily Telegraph.

    For those of us in the gardening world who enjoy the challenge of growing unusual and rare plants, the annual arrival of a seedlist from Jim and Jenny Archibald was keenly awaited. Unillustrated, and consisting of A4 sheets stapled together, it would inevitably list scores of intriguing plants, mostly offered as seed collected in the wild. Some would be new forms of familiar species, some species of groups we know and are familiar with, but many would be completely unknown. However it was the introduction that many of us would read most keenly. Who would be Jim Archibald’s target this year: a botanist whose opinions on plant naming he disagreed with, the Royal Horticultural Society, Kew Gardens, or someone being holier-than-thou about the ethics of collecting seed in the wild? The introduction was always erudite, well-informed, witty and often very hard-hitting; in the world of gardening, where there is little openly-expressed disagreement they were a true tonic.
    Archibald’s career as a freelance plant hunter and seedsman extraordinaire began, appropriately, with another plant catalogue. That of Jack Drake, a famous grower of perennials and alpines in Aviemore. As a teenager Archibald was a keen gardener, and it was the listing of some plants grown from an expedition to Nepal in 1954 which fired his enthusiasm. His holidays were spent working at Drake’s nursery, and even at university (Edinburgh), where he read English Language and Literature, he continued to grow, and even sell, unusual plants. Early trips to look at plants growing wild and collect seed followed, to Corsica and Morocco.
    Travelling, often in out of the way places, looking for plants was soon established as a lifestyle. He would make light of the process, I remember him telling me once that “seed collecting in the past might have involved intrepid hikes or perilous adventures on donkeys but these days the road system makes it a lot easier, we rarely need to go anywhere more than a few hours from at least a track”. But soon he would talking casually about collecting alpine plants from the “mountains of the Iran/Iraq border region”. Then there is the story, legendary amongst alpine plant enthusiasts, of ‘the van to Van’, when he and Jenny towed a caravan to eastern Turkey, to use as a base for seed collecting.
    The only period Archibald was not spending at least part of the year travelling, it was running a nursery – The Plantsman, near Sherborne in Dorset, from 1967 to 1983. Working in conjunction with Eric Smith, it was the forerunner of the great many small specialist nurseries which make the British gardening scene so vibrant. The Plantsman was famous for its hellebores and hostas, many varieties bred by Smith. Unable to make a success of the nursery as a business, Jim turned to his first love, of travelling.
    Usually accompanied by Jenny, who he had met in the early 1970s, Archibald established an annual cycle of summer and autumn seed collecting, selling the seed in the winter and spring. With a clear focus on alpines and small bulbs, JJA Seeds sold primarily to enthusiastic amateurs, but also to botanic gardens (at least until the restrictions of the Convention on Bio-Diversity made this difficult) and nurseries. Some of his bulb introductions were used by Dutch breeders to produce new varieties for the general public, but it was commercial growers of alpine and rock plants who relied on him for a constant supply of interesting plants; it is reckoned that almost anyone growing such plants today will have some which originated as JJA seed.
    Famed for his memory, Archibald seemed to have an almost photographic memory for the plants he collected, even able to take fellow travellers back to the exact rock where he found a particular plant, many years after he first visited the spot. His favourite hunting grounds for the plants he loved were the mountains of Iran and Turkey; occasional run-ins with military check-points or secret police did little to dent his enthusiasm. In later years he spent more time in the mountains of the western USA, often working alongside the growing number of local botanist-gardeners who were passionate about both seeing their native flora in the wild and growing it.
    Archibald was resolutely not commercial. Many times I tried to persuade him to pay more attention to collecting seed from larger herbaceous plants – apart from anything else they could have been more remunerative, but he stuck to what he loved.
     Many of us also wished that Archibald had taken up journalism. Those seedlist introductions were always worth re-reading – barbs flung (but always politely) at the pomposity of botanists who concealed data (supposedly in the name of conservation), at the effects of political-correctness on horticulture, at the dogmatic application of ill-thought out quasi-legal concepts like the Convention on Bio-diversity or Plant Breeders Rights.
    Archibald’s knowledge and ability to communicate it was recognised by the Alpine Garden Society, who in 2003 gave him their highest award – the Lyttel Trophy, given annually in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in contributions to the growing of alpine plants, their culture and botany. His incredibly wide circle of friends and colleagues in the garden and botanical worlds will remember a man of great intellectual integrity, enormous and infectious enthusiasm, who combined real erudition and learning with an ability to communicate it, and great personal warmth. Eloquent too, one seedlist introduction ended -  “we sell dreams to ourselves and hope to pay for their reality by work and knowledge…what are seeds but dreams in packets?”


Alan Woollcombe said...

I very occasionally met Jim Archibald at my grandmother's, off whom he rented a small house in Sturminster Newton, Dorset, not far from Sherborne. During the winter months he and his wife would be sorting and sending off seeds. As a schoolboy I had no interest in gardens and plants, but I always recall being fascinated by the exotic idea of a planthunter. Alas, I never got to ask him about it!

Trevor Nottle said...

I will miss those wonderful seed lists filled with temptations, utter mysteries, acute critiques of mis-guided bureacratic environmentalists and the travellers tales. And I will miss getting those packets of seed so filled with promise. I imagine there would have been some seed stock left. I wonder what will happen to it?