In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act ii. Sc. 1.), William Shakespeare wrote a few lines that, from the first time I read them have always painted a picture in my mind – this is somewhere I’d like to spend some time. Shakespeare notes some of the most beautiful and fragrant flowers – back then probably more wildflowers than in a garden as we would know it today.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
Marica is working through her Project 365 – she wrote about the flowering of our ‘Queen of the Night’ cacti. Marica wrote – This plant will bloom when it is ready whether anyone notices it or not. I am so glad I got to see it and smell it. I wonder how many things in life we miss out on because we are not observant or even aware or worse still, we just don’t care.
I am also reminded that we all have different gifts; different things we can do or offer. The difference between us and this plant is that we are able to choose whether or not we will bloom, when we will do it, and how long for.
Over the Christmas/New Year break I re-read Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven. On reflecting about the story, and Marica’s writing, I realised we might also bloom unknown to ourselves. Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard (Stanza 14) is perhaps talking more about how a person might go to their grave with their song unsung, but it begins to capture the idea –
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Only begins, however, because it is possible that the sweetness is not wasted. It is possible to be hugely influential in another person’s life without being aware of it. There are two men who have had an influence in my life, they both shared the same first name, in my mind they look somewhat alike, they shared the same interests, and I doubt that they ever heard of each other, let alone met each other.
Alf King was my biology teacher at high school. He’s one of the few teachers I can remember, and yet I can’t actually think of anything exceptional that he taught me, from a biology perspective. What he did do was teach what was his passion in life – to me he was, and is, the epitomy of what a teacher should be – someone who is, in the twilight of their career, still as enthusiastic about the subject as they were straight out of university.
Mr King’s lab was the real McKoy – worthy of the Herbology lab frequented by Harry Potter. There were plants (Bryophyllums – of course) growing on the windowsills, along with a selection of other experiments. Mice – the labs smelled of mice. Cockroaches (in the range). Jars with preserved sharks and other specimens, including snakes, collected during the years spent in Kenya. I can recall him saying how he thought he’d discovered new species of plants – and if memory served me correctly he’d sent them off to the Linnean Society, only to find the plant had been documented decades before. He laughed about that – and I realised that biology could be more than some lessons in a classroom, rather a network of past, present, and future discovery. As an aside, I found in a recent Linnean Society newsletter some advice that I believe, even taken out of context, summarises Alf King:
- Recognise the likely benefits of following the rules.
- Optimise your use of the single side of A4.
- Include a budget.
- Avoid appearing greedy.
- Predict the ultimate outputs.
- Partition large projects into fundable portions.
- Look forward more than backward.
- Stand out from the crowd.
- Consider the broader impact of your outputs.
- Keep your feet on the ground.
So, although I was a good biology student (loved it), it wasn’t the biology lessons that I really took away, rather it was the collection of attitudes, values, and techniques that have influenced me and my practice, both in class and out, ever since. The blooming on my part, unseen and unknown by my old teacher.
The second influence came from Dr Alfred Bryd Graf. Dr Graf would never have heard of me, but he’s had quite an influence on me. He died aged 100 in 2002, after a long and successful career as a plant hunter and world authority on tropical and subtropical plants. He added at least 120 ‘new’ plants to the range of known varieties. He found new species of aglaonema, dracaena, sansevieria, begonia, and even the first white African violet. Dr Graf was no armchair horticulturalist – the New York Times noted in his obituary that his trips had their close calls, from unforgiving terrain to tribes who resented his intrusion in New Guinea. He visited the giant lobelias of Mount Kilimanjaro, the azaleas and rhododendrons of Sikkim and the bamboos of China, where he savored the country’s ornamental horticulture.
Dr Graf’s contact with me has been through his books ‘Tropica’, and the huge two volume encyclopaedia, ‘Exotica’. When Marica was working through her writing about the cacti she wanted to know more about them, and the correct name. Searches on the web showed a confusion of names and muddled information. I said to Marica, ‘The internet is -at best – an opinion, Exotica is the law.’ When I was more actively involved with growing and selling house plants, Dr Graf’s books were the final word in terms of identifying plants, quite apart from the astounding range of other information relating to the culture and origin of the plants. Seeing photos of the plants in their natural context was so amazing – often clarifying some of the other questions, for example what mix to grow the plants in or if the leaves change shape as the plant matures.
Apart from the obvious reference advantages, Dr Graf’s books have always been an inspiration to me – we didn’t make very much money working with plants, but I loved it. Here was someone who had somehow managed to take things that were interesting to me – travel with his wife to the far corners of the planet, explore, look at plants, take photos, learn new things, discover new species, and come home and write books that are cherished around the world. It doesn’t get better than that – I’m still motivated by that idea.