Keeping up with the Wynn-Joneses
Telegraph Gardening - Saturday 24th January, 2004

Rae Spencer-Jones meets a couple who travel the world in search of rare and interesting plant species.

Bleddyn Wynn-Jones is expecting a visit from Plant Health. It will be the first of several inspections over the next few months before the 950 seeds, rhizomes and cuttings collected on his latest plant-hunting trip can be released from quarantine.

Every October for the last 13 years Bleddyn and his wife Sue have traded their home comforts at Crug Farm Plants near Caernarfon for a tent, trekking gear and a sturdy cool box. They are the only plant collectors in England and Wales to hold a permanent collecting licence, with the exception of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In December they returned from a three-month trip to the mountains and temperate forests of Vietnam, Taiwan and Sri Lanka. They had been looking for particularly elusive species of podophyllum, sarcoccoca and the evergreen shrub daphniphyllum. "In north Vietnam," says Bleddyn, "I spent a lot of time riding up and down one road on a motorbike, in the rain, looking for Daphniphyllum chartaceum. It is quite different from other species, as it has very large leaves and has never been in cultivation. On the twelfth day the sun finally came out and I was absolutely elated to find one plant full of seed.

"The main objective of the expeditions is to introduce lesser-known plants into cultivation," Bleddyn explains. "I get my teeth into a genus and can't understand why so few species are available. At the moment I'm obsessed with sarcoccoca, the Christmas box. I also attempt to find the answers to taxonomic mix-ups where plants have been identified incorrectly". Bleddyn found time to solve the mystery for his hosts of an incorrectly described sarcoccoca in Taiwan.

The Wynn-Joneses used to farm beef but began to look for something else to do in the early 1980s, when a future in agriculture began to look particularly bleak. "I've always been interested in growing things, so I started to plant every type of vegetable I could find," says Bleddyn. He blames his fascination with ornamental plants on his wife. "Sue planted a red-hot poker and I didn't like it. So I decided to fill the garden with shrubs grown from cuttings that I took from my parents' garden and (with permission) from Treborth Botanic Gardens and the National Trust property, Plas Newydd."

Already enthusiastic travellers, it made sense for the Wynn-Joneses to combine their passions. They opened Crag Farm Plants in 1991 and later that year set off on a month-long trip to Jordan, with the intention of collecting unusual varieties for the nursery. "It was a lesson in how not to do it," laughs Bleddyn. "Only one of the plants propagated from the seed we collected, a verbascum, remains on our list. The rest were just not suited to our climate."

Today they are respected specialists on a broad spectrum of temperate forest plants - shrubs, exquisite herbaceous perennials, climbers and bulbous plants - from Nepal, Korea and Central America. Bleddyn has a particular weakness for arisaemas, aconites and anemones. "There are over 200 species of aconites in China alone and only a fraction of them are available in this country," he says. The most recent trip, however, was devoted to collecting shrubs. Inevitably there are uncomfortable questions about the ethics of collecting from the wild, particularly in countries without the resources to benefit from introducing plants into cultivation themselves. "The quantity we take is negligible. Occasionally we collect seedlings, cuttings or a piece of rhizome, but it's mostly seeds," says Bleddyn. Any plant material surplus to requirements or beyond the nursery's expertise is given away to a national collection holder or a botanic garden. "We work closely with botanical institutions in the host countries and always try to give them feedback and herbarium specimens. Over the years we have built up exceptional contacts who give us access to places where few people go - we are very privileged."

On the road, routes and methods of eommunication have vastly improved. But rat-infested accommodation, leeches, ticks and poisonous snakes are still part of the experience. "If anyone thinks it's a glamorous lifestyle they should think again - though I do refuse to travel without my lipstick and a supply of filter coffee," says Sue. In Vietnam the mountainsides are covered with a layer of slippery clay, which makes for perilous climbing conditions.

In Taiwan, landslides and earthquakes are commonplace. Unusually, the 2003 trip passed off without serious incident, but earlier expeditions have had their fair share of drama - from an altercation with gun-toting Maoists in Nepal to a showdown with armed guards protecting opium fields in Thailand. On one occasion Bleddyn unwittingly stumbled yito a mine field. His closest encounter in North Vietnam was with a slumbering snake that he disturbed while collecting sarcoccoca roots. "Snakes are the thing I worry about the most," he says. "From the way the porters reacted it was very poisonous - I was lucky it was asleep."

Their equipment is remarkably unsophisticated for 21st-century plant collectors. The only technology is a palm-top computer for Bleddyn's records. Seeds are wrapped in kitchen roll, J-Cloths and coffee filter papers; tin foil stops seedlings and rhizomes from drying out; and everything is stored in the cool box. Paper bags are essential for drying powdery seed, such as hydrangea, and plastic zip-lock bags for cleaning fleshy fruit, such as that of the daphniphyllum. Processing the plant material is a gruelling operation, dreaded by the team. But it is carried out religiously, by hand, at the end of each day -whether in a tent perched on a mountainside or in the relative comfort of a local hostel. The seed cleaning was particularly challenging on the last trip. "There was a lot of under-ripe fruit from plants like daphniphyllum and schefflera, the umbrella plant, which makes it really tricky to extract the seed," says Sue, who does most of this work. "We prise them out one by one. You have to watch for toxic seeds such as arisaema, which make your hands swell if you don't wear plastic gloves."

Since that first trip to Jordan the Wynn-Joneses have collected 13,000 samples, already equalling some of the great Victorian plant hunters. Their impact on the market is enormous: you need only examine the RHS Plant Finder under hydrangea, clematis or thalictrum to see the contribution they have made - look out for the plants identified by a series of numbers prefixed by the initials BSWJ. The stars of their latest collection -assuming they get a clean bill of health - will appear on its pages in two years' time.

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Crûg Farm Plants, Griffith's Crossing, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, LL55 1TU.
Tel (+44) 01248 670232
Crûg Farm Plants, Griffith's Crossing, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, LL55 1TU.
Tel (+44) 01248 670232