BRIAN MATHEW ON BRIAN MATHEW



I have had a most enjoyable life with plants, and, in honouring me with the Herbert Medal, the International Bulb Society has added some delicious icing to the cake! It is particularly appreciated since in my taxonomic studies I have often admired and utilized The Rev. Dean's [Herbert's] work which, although 150 or so years old, is still as valuable today as it was innovative in his time. His monographic work on Crocus, for example, which has been particularly valuable to me in my own studies of the genus, was extremely astute, considering the limited material which was available to him. In fact his taxonomic judgment was such that the basic ideas of his classification of Crocus are as valid today as there were in the 1840s. So, needless to say, it is a great honour to have been awarded this coveted medal and to be associated more closely with the revered name of William Herbert.

I was born in 1936 in the little village of Limpsfield in Surrey, England, and this in itself almost ensured an interest in natural history since it was surrounded by open commonland, woods and farmland with a rich variety of flora and fauna. My sister Jean and I were encouraged by our parents to become gardeners by the simple method of competition. We were each allocated a small plot, and the prize of six pence was offered to the one who was deemed to have the best display. Although I cannot remember either of us ever actually being declared the winner, as far as I was concerned Jean won hands down for her show of polyanthus. My own efforts seemed to involve interesting but far less striking plants and much movement of earth concerned with the construction of "ponds", subterranean explosions and, in the later part of the second world war, a substantial underground shelter from which I downed many a Messerschmidt and V l rocket with my air gun and, rather sportingly, the assistance of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfires stationed nearby. Far from being terrified, I and my friends found that the war transformed our countryside into an adventure playground, and plants were forgotten in favour of collections of shrapnel, spent bullets and pieces of aircraft. Transatlantic visitors threw us goodies from camouflaged trucks, and on Sunday afternoons a German prisoner-of-war schoolmaster came to have tea with us. I never once considered him as part of the foe, and the pilots of lowflying enemy fighters used to wave at us on our way home from school, so it was all very confusing. I remember very little of the end of hostilities, apart from a lot of flags, but I do recall clearly The First Banana, an undisputed petaloid monocot!

Most post-war gardening activities revolved around food, and at this my father was supreme, producing an endless supply of succulent vegetables throughout the year. There was no reason to compete with this excellence, and it is, therefore, not surprising that I went off in another direction growing unusual flowering plants. I would peruse our gardeners' dictionary making absurdly optimistic lists of those which I would like to grow. Studies at the local grammar school came first, however, and the only noteworthy personal horticultural event in those years was the discovery of a purple Helleborus orientalis on a garden rubbish dump near our home. This formed the nucleus of an interest which has lasted through to this day, and my book Hellebores, published by The Alpine Garden Society, is the end product of a most enjoyable study of these fascinating early-flowering perennials. After leaving school I almost enjoyed two years at Her Majesty's request in the Royal Air Force, supposedly making weather forecasts but in fact engaged in a now laughable but then secret project involving the A-bomb and the atmosphere. Above all it ensured that I and my colleagues had no parades or kit inspections, so it was all thoroughly worthwhile and satisfactory. One mystery which I never solved was why one of the RAF officers cultivated a plot of land immediately outside our "secret" unit office on which he grew nothing but Chincherinchees and never even picked the blooms. Was he an early Ornithogalum freak, or, perhaps, a KGB agent? We shall never know!

My father has always said that it was no use trying to make a career out of gardening, but, after leaving the RAF and finding myself at a loose end, I met Mr. Arthur G. Weeks, an old family friend, at limpsfield and one of those unforgettable characters who have such a marked effect on one's life. Mr. Weeks had a large, rambling garden with exciting features such as a woodland peat garden and a greenhouse full of treasures, the latter mainly devoted to the genus Lewisia. Here he crossed and selected the variants of Lewisia cotyledon and L. Columbiana, plus several other species, and this sowed the seeds for a fascination in these hardy succulents which has stayed with me through the years, culminating in my recent Kew Magazine monograph, The Genus Lewisia.

Although neither Hellebores nor Lewisias have anything to do with petaloid monocots, it is clear in retrospect that bulbs were in my blood from a very early age for it is on record from an unquestionable source that, when "very small", I would dig up the daffodil bulbs in my plot, scrub them under the kitchen tap and plant them again - they got so dirty in the soil! Mr. Weeks did have a fair number of bulbs, but, above all, he taught me that to communicate about plants it was necessary to have an undisputed Latin name. So it was here that I learned to say such splendid things as Orphanidesia gaultherioides and, more to the point, to understand what the epithets meant. Very importantly to me, he had faith in my abilities and he had soon mapped out a career [for me] via the horticultural school at Wisley, but to qualify for entrance one was required to have three years work experience, and this is where my second great piece of fortune came about. Mr. Weeks was friendly with the Ingwersen family who ran the nearby Birch Farm Hardy Plant Nursery, and I was lucky enough to be taken on. Surrounded by a wealth of plants and knowledge, a young enthusiast could absorb the atmosphere like a sponge. The years at Birch Farm were very happy ones, and it was a particular privilege to have worked there at a time when Walter, Will and Paul Ingwersen were all involved.

The course at the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley was also stimulating, with the company and competitive fun of fellow students, and here, again, I was lucky in that the rock garden was under the care of a great plantsman, Ken Aslet, and botany was taught by Chris Brickell. Chris's secretary at the time, Margaret Briggs, provided refreshing interest of quite a different nature. Fortune eventually came my way again in the form of a "yes" so that she is now Margaret Mathew; botanists are renowned for changing the names of all with which they come into contact!

Teaming up with some fellow students, I organized a plant hunting expedition to Iran in 1963, taking advantage of a Bowles Scholarship travel grant, named in honour of E.A. Bowles who, appropriately, was an authority on the genus Crocus. Fortune yet again smiled upon us, this time through Paul and Polly Furse who were already experienced bulb hunters and travelers in the region, and the information and advice provided by them was invaluable. Both were excellent artists and astute observers. Looking back at their notes from time to time, I still marvel at their diligence and depth of understanding of a wide range of genera, notably Fritillaria. Our five-month trip took us through some of the most interesting Crocus, Fritillaria and Iris country and involved another love, driving in adverse conditions which ranged from deserts to mountains and snowstorms with hardly a tarmac surface in sight. I suppose that if asked if I have any regrets about my life so far I should have to say that I am a frustrated rally driver!

A great many collections of bulbs were made on that expedition and on a subsequent trip to Turkey with Margaret and with John & Helen Tomlinson; in fact, far more bulbs were collected than would be decent today in view of the depletion of the flora. There seemed to be a super-abundance of bulbs, many of them little-studied in the wild and not many in cultivation; and the locals were not in any way interested unless they had some kind of use. In the mountain villages the preparation of herbarium specimens provided endless amusement for them, and rather than disapproving of our activities they would join in and collect even more samples. In those days there were hardly any collectors in the field, and the thought of conservation was not given a very high priority;, but now, like everyone else, I am deeply concerned and as involved as much as time will allow in addressing the problem of overexploitation of the world's bulbs. With so many people now able to travel and collect, things have changed, and we, including myself, should not take samples unless there is a very valid reason for doing so.

After these and other exciting trips to the Balkans looking primarily at bulbs and Hellebores, I found that my interest in plants was, perhaps, just slightly more botanical than horticultural, and I was successful in my application for employment in the herbarium at Kew Gardens, firstly in the tropical African section, then in the newly formed petaloid monocot section when herbarium teams were rearranged from a geographical basis into research units dealing with groups of related families. The whole of my career at Kew has revolved around the petaloid monocots, especially the Iridaceae, Liliaceae [sensu lato ] and Amaryllidaceae, but I have also worked on tropical African Labiatae, Celastraceae and Tiliaceae. With my combined interest in horticulture and taxonomy, I have tried to pitch my publications at a level which will to some extent appeal to a wide audience in both fields This approach is to be found in my monographs of Crocus, Iris, Helleborus, Lewisia and Daphne [with Chris Brickell]. Other books I have written include two with a floristic approach, The Bulbous Plants of Turkey [with Turhan Baytop] and Bulbs: The Bulbous Plants of Europe [with Chris Grey-Wilson]; and those of a more horticultural nature: Dwarf Bulbs, Larger Bulbs, The Year-Round Bulb Garden, Flowering Bulbs for the Garden, and The Smaller Bulbs. I have also contributed floristic accounts of various families of genera to the Flora of Turkey, Flora Iranica, Flora Europaea, Flora of Iraq, Flora of Tropical East Africa, Flore des Mascareignes, the Flora of Cyprus, the Mountain Flora of Greece, and the European Garden Flora, and approximately two hundred individual papers in botanical and horticultural periodicals. Fortunately, I enjoy writing, and I am equally fortunate in that Margaret is an excellent typist, although the word processor has transformed our lives in that respect. She can now do a leisurely check on my finished articles rather than receiving a scruffy heap of handwritten papers the day before the final deadline. I also enjoy lecturing, providing that I can make liberal use of visual aids in the form of photographs or living material. I am a great believer in the impact of good colour images in getting across a message, and I prepare most of them myself. Photography has also been an almost life-long interest right from the time when I tried in vain to achieve the impossible involving birds and a Brownie Box!

My main leisure pursuit has to be gardening, mainly using bulbous plants, but our small plot must be described as a collection of plants rather than a beautifully landscaped garden. However, it does contain a lot of monocotyledonous interest. When not gardening or photographing I may be found under the car, playing squash or getting excited over rugby football, these days from a seat in front of the TV!. We still live in Surrey with our son, Paul, who, although not gripped by quite the same degree of plant madness as his father, does, I have to admit, possess a rather well-grown collection of carnivorous plants. Unfortunately for my greenhouse space these appear to be totally incompatible in their cultivation requirements with bulbs.

Thank you, the International Bulb Society, for awarding me this much prized medal, and thank you for the good work which you do in promoting work on our beloved petaloid monocots.