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A `What's Where' for Gardeners

Chris Philip's `The Plant Finder' lets Britons search for rare plants without going outdoors. INTERVIEW: BOTANICAL SLEUTH

GILLIAN WEST started planting her two-acre garden in Devon, England, 11 years ago. Now she opens it (on request) to the public, and it has been featured on TV. Mrs. West is one of Britain's thousands of super-keen gardeners. She started out with plants she today calls ``ordinary things.'' Now, though, she says, she ``goes for miles'' looking for less usual plants.

Her journeys are not merely geographical. In winter she walks with her thumbs through nursery lists and catalogs - ``running up big bills!,'' she giggles. ``It's a never-ending thing.''

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Nowadays she and others like her are enormously assisted by ``The Plant Finder.'' A plumpish paperback - coming out this spring in its fifth (annually revised) edition - it is designed to put buyers in touch with growers of specialty plants. Essentially, it is an enormous list.

Started in 1986 by Chris Philip, ``The Plant Finder's'' next edition will list some 50,000 garden (and house) plants available in the United Kingdom, and more than 500 nurseries where they are grown. (It also lists those nurseries which export.) West certainly finds it useful. When I spoke to her by telephone she had recently discovered in the book a nursery she hadn't known about before. She had been poring over its catalog of plants.

Margaret Angell, an American gardener living in Scotland, calls the book ``a shopper's paradise.'' Delphiniums, those spectacular spires of blue for the herbaceous border, are ``the love of her life,'' she says, and ```The Plant Finder' is worth it for delphiniums!'' She used it to track down one she had seen in the Edinburgh Botanics: Delphinium requienii X ruysii, or ``Shimmer.'' She also found a rhododendron that sounded good. Her only cavil: ``I wish there were pictures! You have to know what you are looking for.''

For `the serious gardener'

It is indeed a book (impossible to illustrate) for people who ``know what they are looking for'' - or at least for what Chris Philip calls ``the serious gardener - the one who wants something different from the general run of plants available from the normal garden center.'' He does not list garden centers (which often buy their plants rather than grow them). ``They all have approximately the same 1,000 plants. We aim to include the specialist nurseries, ones with unusual plants or specialists in one particular genera.''

Both Mr. Philip and Tony Lord, the plant-names expert who edits the book and who has made it a highly respected authority of accurate garden-plant nomenclature, note that the number of specialty nurseries is on the increase.

``The main thing,'' says Lord, ``is that there are lots more plants. The market is growing.'' He feels the market is helped by the book: ``The present edition contains two and a half times what the first edition contained.''

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Philip says he has already received ``75 applications [this season], to be entered in the next edition, from new nurseries springing up. Gardening is a leisure activity and people have more leisure.''

The 62-year-old Philip, however, doesn't appear to be a man of leisure. ``Every few years I change my business because I get bored easily,'' he claims. ``In my last business I was doing firework displays.''

He sold that business in 1984. ``At the same time,'' he says, ``I acquired five acres of Worcestershire in order to retire.'' But he didn't retire. Instead he found a new challenge. He couldn't understand why he was unable to buy the plants he saw in other gardens, or in books, or on TV - plants he wanted for his new garden - at ordinary garden centers. He wrote off for garden-supply catalogs, but even then got only a small percentage of the plants he wanted to fill his five acres. ``I thought there must be an easier way,'' he says.

He knew ``something about computers,'' he adds, and started to learn more about data bases. He engaged the cooperation of the Hardy Plant Society which, on a local level, compiled some plant lists - but with typewriter and card indexes. The he wrote to 500 nurseries to start a data base of plants.

But he ``very rapidly realized that plant nomenclature is in the mind of the beholder! Every nursery had different ideas about how to spell a plant name. Several plants seemed to have about six different names,'' he says.

Which is why Tony Lord came into the business: ``A bottomless pit of information about plant names,'' Philip says. Mr. Lord is more modest, but he is clearly meticulous and tireless in ``always checking newly available information against `The Plant Finder,''' as he puts it.

Some `rare' plants not so rare

The book has expanded to include just about every sort of garden and house plant imaginable - but not vegetables, orchids, cacti, or seeds. Oddly, they are still looking for a specialist in Saintpaulias (African violets), and growers of begonias and freesias are not well represented, they say, in the fourth edition. But many specialty nurseries (who sell the book along with bookstores) speak highly of ``The Plant Finder.''

For instance, hardy fuchsia specialist Peter Tabraham - his nursery is on the Isles of Scilly - has had numerous inquiries. Naturally, he appreciates the book as ``free advertising.'' The sole source of fuchsia, he has bred some 80 varieties, and offers ``a whole lot that nobody else sells - all my own raising.''

``What I find so remarkable,'' Philip says, ``is that 28,000 plants in `The Plant Finder' have only three or fewer known sources of supply, and I could probably say that 15,000 of them have only one.''

While some of these may be just slightly different cultivars of fuchsias or roses, the actual rarity of so many of the garden plants listed points to a remarkable aspect of the book. Garden plant conservation is very active in Britain, and ``The Plant Finder'' has become a valued resource for conservationists. ``National collections'' of particular kinds of plants are encouraged and fostered.

``It's very useful for them,'' says Lord. ``They can get some sort of idea about how many plants there are of each genus. They can see at a glance how many are - and aren't - around.'' These conservationists no longer have to slog through nurseries to find rare plants. And they have also discovered through ``The Plant Finder'' that many of the plants they had thought were dying out are more common than they realized.

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