"Cally Gardens is a grand sight; thousands of species grown as well as you will ever see them, grouped harmoniously by a nurseryman with the eye of an artist - and the spirit of an adventurer."
Patricia Morison in Gardens Illustrated, January 1997

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Prison for Plant Hunters and Thirty Years of Cally Gardens

Thirty years ago I was writing my first catalogue by the light of an oil lamp in my cottage on the banks of Strangford Lough, County Down, with curlews calling on the shore and the Mourne Mountains visible across the water. Having spent years collecting and propagating plants I had over 800 varieties and was ready to try my hand at being a nurseryman. Inspired by Graham Stuart Thomas’ book Perennial Garden Plants I decided to specialise in unusual perennials, and the selection process was simple; anything Mr Thomas liked but Blooms Nursery did not have, I went for. This paid off and I was able to start a nursery with virtually no capital on half an acre next to a tumble down cottage with no electricity. This was possible because I, along with everybody else, had free access to the greatest ‘capital’ of all, nature. I remember when it dawned on me that there are 300,000 species of plants out there and that I could grow, propagate and sell any of them. The following year I moved to Cally Gardens in South West Scotland.

As soon as I had sold some plants and made some money I wanted to go plant hunting to see them in the wild and, I hoped, to collect some seeds. I decided to go to Chile that was just beginning to emerge from the very dark days of the Pinochet regime and had been off the plant hunting agenda for some years. I did not assume that I could just wander around Chile collecting seeds. I did not know what the position was so I went to the Chilean Embassy in London where a charming Chilean diplomat was surprised but pleased that I had bothered to ask for permission at all. I spent three months travelling up and down the Andes and some of the plants I raised from the seed are still around, including Scabiosa ‘Chile Black’, Mitraria ‘Lake Caburgua’ and Buddleia globosa ‘Cally Orange’.

I hardly realised it at the time but I was making use of the right to interact freely with nature that we all took for granted in those days - the right to grow what we wanted for sale and to collect seeds subject to the normal standards of courtesy. Thirty years later those rights have mostly been removed, by people who had a financial interest in doing so. First Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) used the quite reasonable argument that plant breeding should be rewarded to introduce something very different, a system that awards the rights (in effect a copyright on a plant) whether plant breeding has taken place or not. This happened despite an on the record promise by the government that PBR would only be for the results of long expensive breeding programs.

I can no longer comb the nursery catalogues looking for new varieties for my customers because many of them are subject to PBR, and because PBR are available retrospectivly. If a variety is selling well the grower can obtain PBR and then propagation for sale becomes illegal. Any I have grown in the meantime must be thrown away or a royalty paid that is then passed on to my customers. They are likely to end up paying for plant breeding that never took place. A major source of new plants is no longer available.

The plant hunting situation has changed dramatically in the last few months. The Nagoya Protocol, part of the Convention on Biodiversity, was approved by the EU parliament in March 2014 and states that plant hunters who do not have a benefit sharing contract with the government of the country they are in are committing a criminal offence with two years in prison as the ultimate sanction. These contracts are unlikely to be available for small-scale horticultural collectors such as myself. Botanic Gardens and other prestigious organisations that can get them are not allowed to release any of the material collected to gardeners because the ‘intellectual property’ stays with the country of origin. (No one has ever explained how natural genetic resources that have evolved over millions of years, such as plants, could be anyone’s intellectual property.) As a result another source of new plants has gone, along with the most exciting aspect of my work.

The horticultural writers and personalities who earn their living from the gardening public have done little to alert them to these fundamental changes. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS, an organisation of which I was a member for forty years) not only failed to inform its members and promote discussion; they quietly conducted meetings with the government that legitimised the process. These took place in May 2014 when they were simultaneously heaping praise on Crug Farm’s fine display of wild collected plants at the Chelsea Flower Show. Perhaps the idea is that the gardening public’s appetite for new plants is to be satisfied by the stream of patented novelties that attract a royalty, rather than wild collected plants that are supposed to remain in the common domain. It is worth remembering that without plant hunters there would be no gardens, no RHS, no Chelsea Flower Show, and no patented novelties.

My conclusion is that this privitisation of nature away from common property is incompatible with the sort of gardening I have lived by all my life. Surely nature is not ‘intellectual property’, it is life and life should not be owned. For the background to all this, as I see it, please go to www.callygardens.co.uk and have a look at my essays ‘The Nurseryman as Plant Hunter’ and ‘Who owns Nature’.

Michael Wickenden.

The Nurseryman as Plant Hunter
The text of a talk on the legel restrictions on plant hunting given by Michael Wickenden at the Museum of Garden History, Lambeth, London on 1st October 2012. Download as a pdf: Click here

Who Owns Nature
The text of an article commisioned by The Royal Horticultural Society's magazine The Plantsman in which Michael Wickenden investigates the origins of Plant Breeders' Rights, highlights current problems and suggests a way forward. Read more.

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Illustrations © Clare Melinsky. Photographs © Michael Wickenden