Starting The Plantsman Posted on April 11, 2016

I was pleased to see, in the current number of The Plantsman, that they have put the index of all the numbers since the beginning online. The first was in 1979, so that’s 144 issues; a big fat index, full of good stuff.

The magazine has had a bumpy ride since its modest beginnings. It was dreamt up in the Council Chamber of the RHS, after meetings of the long-defunct Publications Committee. This was four years after the old RHS Journal morphed into The Garden. Membership of the Society was expanding briskly. The old Journal used to have a serious regard for botany, even printing original descriptions of new plants with the learned bits in Latin. That wouldn’t do for the new-look magazine; its mission bringing gardening to the people. Where to put the botany?

I think it was after a meeting in 1978, when we had just dedicated a whole issue to the shiny new topic of Conservation, that David McClintock, one of our learned members, suggested that a new magazine, in addition to The Garden, would appeal to the higher-browed element of the fellows (as we all then were).

There were other eminent botanist-gardeners there, the celebrated Prof Willie Stearn among them. Several nodded. I felt an editorial urge. David and I put our heads together. I think he suggested the title of The Plantsman; the perfect word for someone we struggled to define: a gardener who found fascination in the origin, the science, the morphology of plants as well as their use and beauty.

Unfortunately the RHS, or rather its President, the formidable Lord Aberconway, was not interested. A risky proposition, he or they thought – rightly, as it turned out.

We went ahead. David was a prominent authority on both heathers and bamboos, which anyone will tell you are among the trickiest areas of taxonomy. His scholarship, his generosity and his garden in Kent were famous. With David’s and the Society’s contacts it was not too hard to draw in relevant and authoritative articles from the approved specialists in each field, and on each genus. Elspeth Napier, editor of The Garden, took on the task of editing it in what was, I suppose, her spare time. Before long, Caroline Boisset, who now edits the International Dendrology Society Yearbook, came to her aid.

I found a rash publisher (my own, James Mitchell) to produce it, and by sheer good fortune a four-year sponsor who made it viable, a winery-owner, racing driver and owner of an Oklahoma nursery called Greenleaf. His name was Gil Nickel; his winery Far Niente.

In the first number, I attempted a definition of a plantsman. If eminently educated people (women especially) used to be called ‘bluestockings’, I reasoned that we were out to find greenstockings. Plantsmen and women know who they are. Sadly they are not very numerous, but they communicate, and their capacious brains need nourishment.

There was nothing glamorous about the new publication; in fact it resembled the old RHS Journal in its plain cover. There was one coloured plate; a botanical frontispiece. We published a series of monographs on genera of interest to gardeners, with Arundinaria, I remember, appropriately to David’s bamboo passion, as the first. At one point we approached Kew about a merger or marriage with Curtis’s Botanical Magazine; in hindsight a bit of cheek, I suppose. But it seemed The RBG and the RHS were never destined to link arms.

The Plantsman kept going for 15 years until the RHS changed its mind and formally adopted it. For some reason they restyled it The New Plantsman; its title from 1994 to 2002. I wasn’t privy to the politics, but in 2002 it became The Plantsman again, with Chris Grey-Wilson as editor and colour pictures on every page. Since 2005 Mike Grant has been editor. In 2006 it was named Garden Magazine of theYear.

I can’t take credit for the any of the success of recent years. My part was played when I looked Lord Aberconway in the eye and said ‘Dash it, we’ll go it alone’, thirty seven years ago.

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