Holding a National Collection

Holding a National Collection
Holding a National Collection often gets you into unexpected avenues. I am slowly passing on the responsibility of the plants themselves to younger and more energetic people but would like to share some of the perhaps unusual things I have come across in the past years. The National Polygonum Collection always caused raised eyebrows as the, I must say, very occasional visitor viewed the brave stands of Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) in all its varieties. However, having obtained material of good provenance from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to start with, we did have the right plants. Always a matter of prime importance to anyone starting a Collection. I found that we were therefore well thought of by the scientific community in general. In the late eighties I supplied material to Glasgow University for instance, where research was being conducted into the possibility that the Japanese Knotweed might produce a natural fungicide. This work continued for just a few years only. It was ended when the funding was not renewed! But just for a while I basked in the thought that the plant might actually be able to produce something really useful.
Growing a plant that everyone hates is itself a perverse pleasure perhaps, but I think I must have been the only Collection Holder who actively engaged in learning how to murder his carefully nurtured charges. This came about because I got a letter from Cornwall County Council in the mid nineties which sternly informed me that the writer had seen my entry in the Plant Finder, and I should wake up to my responsibilities and destroy my stocks of Fallopia japonica at once. I replied that whilst I understood only too well the writer’s worry I could not comply with his request as the plants formed part of a National Collection. Would he like to come down with his staff to see not only the basic plant but also all her hybrids and varieties, I continued? Further, for his comfort I could also tell him that due to my explaining to the only five potential customers I had ever had, that they could be fined up to £2000 if they let the plant loose in the wild, no sales at all had taken place! They duly came for a visit and we became firm friends, and I joined The Knotweed Forum which is a council funded organisation in Cornwall devoted to getting rid of Knotweed. Subsequently we formed a similar organisation in Devon. Mind you I still cherish in my memory the expression on my Cornish visitors faces when I showed them the male plants here. The reader may be unaware that the terror in question is actually female and can only increase either by ramping about, division or hybridising, and she lived in Europe for over a hundred years without a husband. The men from Cornwall were aghast to see the fine fellow in the Gardens as he was probably the most dangerous plant in the country, when you think of his potential! Funnily enough the male Knotweed is either entirely no-spreading in habit or only very slightly so.
Shortly after these events we were approached for various ‘Fallopian’ and ‘Persicarian’ materials by the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI). This not-for-profit organisation is involved with research into the difficult subject of biological control and their work, always incredibly carefully scrutinised, has helped to control several of the worst agricultural and horticultural pests all round the world. Bearing in mind several notorious mistakes that have been made in this field by others less scrupulous than CABI it was a very great pleasure to meet and discuss the ‘Problem’ with them. It was therefore a matter of excitement that last October it was reported that they had found a little plant louse that attacks only Fallopia japonica. The tiny fellow, only two millimetres long, is called Aphalara itadori and as it lives exclusively on the Knotweed there is a very good chance that DEFRA will give permission for field trials, and that the insect could provide control of the menace; removal of which has a potential cost in the billions! Of course, should this indeed be successful, I will look forward to receiving hundreds of visitors intent on seeing the only surviving botanical tigers left in the country, as it continues to thrive in the National Collection.
John Carter
by kind permission of the Devon NCCPG and the author