Any Other Topics: Jim Archibald - Plantsman and personal friend
Started by: Val Lee
Go to latest contribution by Tim Ingram, 17 August 2012, 12:00. Go to bottom of this page.
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Friends & colleagues joined Jenny and the Archibald family in the ‘Chapel with a view’ Aberystwyth to celebrate the life of Jim and to say their fond farewells.It was a lively occasion, content arranged by Jim in his own inimitable style. Bix Biederbecke music greeted us on arrival – Geoff Mawson welcomed everyone on behalf of the family and introduced Lynne Baker who read verses from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ Steve, Jim’s son, recounted the family’s memories of Jim followed by ‘Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” Jelly Roll Morton, and Robert Rolfe paid glowing tributes to Jim’s Life in Plants. The Commital - accompanied by ‘Wa Wa Wa’ – King Oliver - was followed by more verses from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. Bix Biederbecke music completed the celebration – Jim’s memory was vivid, personal and remained different and controversial as ever!
Jim was slight of stature but a giant among plantsmen, we all have our personal memories, which no doubt many will wish to share in his memory. Plants were his passion, not only did he seek them out in their natural habitats, he grew and knew the plants in his own garden. ‘ Bryn Collen’ is a plantsmen’s paradise! Full of plants cherished but not cosseted and growing as nature intended.
Jim and Jenny (JJA) are known by their Bulb & Seed Lists world wide. Their travels, to the mountain regions of the world have introduced choice plants and exceptional forms to whet the appetite of gardeners far and wide. Together they brought back seed, (recording in detail their exact habitat and requirements); Jim would photograph both to perfection and then transport audiences world wide lecturing about their finds. I thank them both for sharing their world so generously – my thoughts will be with Jenny and the family in the weeks to come.
Here we reproduce in full Robert Rolfe's tribute to Jim Archibald's life as a plantsman.
Jim Archibald was an exceptionally gifted man, and in particular one of the very finest horticulturists of his generation, or any other. His occasionally iconoclastic but always reasoned views have had a great influence on informed gardeners everywhere. I’ll have inadvertently overlooked several important facets of his life, but whether you consider his achievements and international standing as a lecturer, as a plant-hunter, a photographer, a writer and a gardener, or simply cherish his memory as a shrewd arbiter and a steadfast friend, he was utterly remarkable.
I was barely a teenager when we first met, in the late 1960s. He had just lectured on his travels in southern Spain and the High Atlas to a gardening group I had newly joined. The previous month there had been a really wooden talk on conifers. When it finished … eventually … John Kelly, a nurseryman friend of the even-then august Mr Archibald, came up and said, ‘Forget that; just wait until you hear Jim’. And so from one of the worst lectures ever to one of the most compelling – I remember it well even now. He was erudite, fluent, funny, informative and had a very listenable voice, for he never lost his refined Edinburgh accent, though he didn’t pepper his vocabulary with Scotticisms, other than to use the adjective ‘wee’ when describing sundry small hummock-forming species. I assumed the surname Archibald was rather grand: Jim would have none of this, comparing its ubiquity north of the border with that of Smith (or given where this service is taking place, Jones) on birth certificates elsewhere in the kingdom.
At that time he was living in Dorset, at Buckshaw Gardens, running a nursery set up in 1966 with Eric Smith, who is nowadays best-remembered for his hellebore, bergenia and hosta raisings. The noun ‘plantsman’ can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, but it came of age when the two of them set up their Sherborne enterprise, registering their business as The Plantsmen. Eric specialised in hardy herbaceous stock, while Jim concentrated on alpine plants, many of which he had introduced himself. They supplied a discriminating gaggle of gardeners, and had some impressive commissions – the grounds of Syon House among them. But while Jim grew herbaceous plants for the wholesale market for eight years after Eric left in 1975, alpines were always his main interest. Part Two of their catalogue – Jim’s preserve – was headed ‘a specialist list of alpine house and choice rock garden plants’. Not, then, for the sort of customers who, as he once sardonically observed, felt it appropriate to stake their pansies.
Although not trained as a taxonomist, he had all the attributes that go to make up the finest of this breed. His natural ‘eye’ for plant habitats led him to make discoveries that had eluded notable earlier explorers. As he unaffectedly wrote, ‘you can spot their ‘sort of places’ miles off’. Or rather, he could. Kit Grey-Wilson once went to tropical East Africa, despite advice that the area chosen had been ‘worked out’ botanically: he found a couple of Impatiens new to science on the first morning of the trip. Whereas Jim travelled in 1996 to the Drakensberg, and on extensively-studied Mont-aux-Sources encountered an undescribed Moraea. It was a similar story in Turkey, and again in Iran, his latter-day paeony finds there of especial note. And it was his earlier discovery, in 1966, of a remarkable Dionysia in the Zagros Mts, named after him the following year, that first made the botanical community sit up and take note. This he found in a remote spot: other discoveries often came from rather more accessible habitats. He maintained that it was merely necessary to walk a little further along any given road than previous plant-seekers. He was also involved in important re-discoveries, most notably that of Fritillaria poluninii nearly half a century after it was found in Iraq by Oleg of that ilk in 1958.
I’ve mentioned Iran, and although his early Moroccan journey constituted his first important expedition (‘for want of a better name’, as he put it), the Iranian trip was the real trigger for many, many more enterprising plant explorations over almost 45 years. Some of these went relatively unpublicised – his visit to Colombia, for example, South America having first caught his interest in the late 1960s when he was a very keen butterfly and moth collector. (A business contact there would send over stocks).
But those seed-collecting marathons dating from the first half of the 1980s onwards were in effect recorded via bi-annual, rarely tri-annual seed lists. These took the form of comprehensive field notes, rejigged into reams of beautifully-crafted, seductive plant portraits. The declared purpose was ‘to bring a degree of innovation, a sense of responsibility and professionalism to the long-established business of plant introduction’. Over the years, the lists have also acted as a determinedly esoteric clearing house for material sent by friends from the Falklands, Peru, Siberia, China, Japan, the Tien Shan and heaven knows where else. They eclipse any others in their scope and readability, and I’ve kept them all, though some are so well-thumbed that they are dropping to bits.
This seed venture was first flagged up in June 1983: Jim tricked it out to look like a high-powered job advertisement, aimed at those ‘likely to be dissatisfied with their present situation, due to handling wrongly-named or lifeless seeds supplied in inadequate quantities at the incorrect time for satisfactory germination’. ‘If you feel that you have the right qualifications’, he added, half-seriously. One’s first thought was: ‘This man’s got a nerve!’ Well of course he had, and just as well that he kept it so steadfastly over the past couple of months, when he dealt systematically not only his own affairs, but also those pertaining to a sizeable chunk of British horticulture. You would arrive to find him with a list at the ready, full of prompts and agenda items that he ticked off one by one as they were discussed and dealt with. He had a knack for orderliness and precision, for all that he described his seed bank and his huge slide collection as chaotic.
He said that he was lazy. He was nothing of the sort, as those who have had the pleasure of visiting the inspirational garden he and Jenny developed near Llandysul will know. They have part-tamed and sympathetically re-ordered a wooded area over which red kites twist and turn, and within which a sometimes ferocious stream meanders, margined by the most deft and subtle plantings. Up the hillside, nearer the house, the polytunnels alone would keep most gardeners fully occupied. Here were meticulous blocks of Oncocyclus and Regelia irises, almost every Fritillaria in existence, Chilean alstroemerias in exuberant masses, a simply fantastic collection of paeony species, and much more besides.
Having introduced so many plants, others would have been tempted to make free with cultivar names. Not Jim. Some of the more outlandish that they coined provoked snorts of derision. Offhand, for him I can only summon up Linaria tristis ‘Toubkal’ from his first Moroccan trip (made with Barrie Gilliatt and Janette Stephen, who later became his first wife), along with Narcissus ‘Julia Jane’, Primula allionii ‘Stephen’ (after their children), Narcissus ‘Dinah Rose’ (after his friend Dinah Batterham), and a paeony named for Jenny.
He considered himself a hopeless correspondent. An intermittent one, certainly, but how could it be otherwise, given the masses of contacts and friends worldwide? And what pleasure his letters brought; often on creamy parchment-coloured notepaper, with a line drawing of an Atlas Moth top right, written in black ink, in his distinctive, slightly arty, well-formed hand. Amusing postcards would sometimes arrive too, and gifts other than plants – I own a tie (a little too lively to wear today) that he bought in the States in 1991, the year he and Jenny married, almost on a whim, in Carson City, Nevada, fitting in their seed-collecting activities around the service, or rather, given the dedication they are famed for in the field, vice versa.
He reckoned he wasn’t a natural writer, by which he meant that it was often a slog, but of course it is for everyone, from time to time. When he knuckled down to it, he wrote like a dream. It is a great loss that the brace of books he had hoped to write is not to be – he was always too busy, whether he was at home or abroad (where he was emphatically not on holiday). Writing recently to another inveterate plant-hunter, John Watson, he mischievously employed CITES-speak to observe: ‘There aren’t many of us left; almost extinct. Definitely rare and critically endangered.’
Regarding himself as something of a horticultural renegade, he precisely tossed the written equivalent of grenades in order to explode the unfacts and uninitiatives that threatened to hamper the (quote) ‘enthusiastic and adventurous gardeners’ (unquote) who formed his loyal constituents. This went down very well indeed in many quarters, badly in others. Which is what he intended. Even so, in reality he was at the very heart of the horticultural community, and his friends were largely drawn from what he christened ‘the hypersensitive horto-botanical establishment’ – just look around you today. No committees for him; no working parties or discussion groups, but he liked to judge at shows, where he inevitably, effortlessly upped the ante, and always amused.
He had the most infectious laugh, somewhere between a throaty chuckle and a husky wheeze, which was deployed liberally. Conversation never flagged, for he was endlessly curious (‘Now, tell me’, he would often preface his sentences), extremely bright and very widely-informed. He was in particular a gifted anecdotalist, mimicking with gleeful mirth the appalled reaction of a conservative American audience when a lecturer included a slide of a woman, stark naked and full-frontal, rising from a mountain lake. On another occasion, he related a High Noon type encounter between a serially wronged wife and a horticulturist whose enthusiasm for experimental propagation techniques was not confined to plants. Who now can begin to match his pleasurable, honed indiscretions?
In closing, I have been particularly asked to state what many of you will know: in life Jim was inseparable from his briar pipe. Because he found it diverting, I include the following aside. After the death of another celebrated smoker, Princess Margaret, ‘Private Eye’ published a cartoon. In the background Slough Crematorium, with a plume of smoke coming from the chimney. In the foreground two men, and the speech bubble: ‘One last puff: it’s what she would have wanted’. Well, what Jim would undoubtedly have wanted was his pipe. It is with him now. I just wish so very much that he was still here with us.
Jim was an AGS Exhibitor and Judge for many years. It seems particularly appropriate that at the last show Jim attended, this years South Wales Show, he and Jenny won the Farrer Medal with a magnificent plant of Colchicum hungaricum.
The loss of Jim is one which will be deeply felt across many countries and all our sympathies are with Jenny and the Family.
There are tributes to Jim on the Scottish RGC website and also on the North American RGS site.... here are the links....
Scottish Rock Garden Club
North American Rock Garden Society
Thank you Jim for all the contributions you made to my Garden,
so many wonderful plants. I will miss your wonderful lists of wild collected seed. My thoughts are with Jenny and their Family
When I was searching through some old Bulletins recently I came across an article by Jim entitled 'Among Moroccan Mountains' (1963, Vol. 31, p.314). Robert Rolfe has mentioned elsewhere of his fluency of language and simply you feel as though you are there with him! Partly this must be because of a personal knowledge of many of the plants described, so you can imagine them in the landscape in your mind's eye, but much more it is to do with the description of how they relate to that landscape in the personal eye of the writer. I find this connection remarkable, even though we live with it all the time. Those people who do things so well seem to do them effortlessly(!) and yet we know this isn't true.
I only say this because as I write about the plants in our garden, Jim & Jenny's names continually come to the fore. So many plants have been grown from seed from their famous seedlists. I was even more lucky to see their garden several times and came away feeling that Jim stood as high in the gardening world as you could get. It is presumptuous to say such things, especially since I didn't know them well, but I think it is a sign of how gardening relates so closely to exploring the world, in different ways for different people, but immediately recognised from one to another.
In a broader context though there have been and are many such people in the AGS and such a lot of fine writing of personal experiences growing and discovering plants. Dipping into the Bulletins promises many pleasures to come and perhaps a slower and more thoughtful approach to the garden. Jim's wonderful individualism lives on!
Many members will know that the SRGC are collating information and details about Jim and providing it as an archive on their website. Through the kind offices of David Stephens I have been able to scan slides taken at Jim and Jenny's garden in 2003 and 2005, especially showing the developing woodland garden, but also some of the stock collection of plants grown to supply seed in the series of greenhouses. These will be added to the archive on SRGC but just as a taster, and for anyone who has not discovered this wonderful resource, here is a picture taken in the woodland garden...