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Jim Archibald - a Tribute from John Watson

“Dear John & Anita,

“This introductory paragraph is a brief (general) note to our oldest and best friends … The prognosis (for me) is not good.” A touching personal farewell then followed: “Look after yourselves and keep collecting. There are not many of us left, almost extinct. Definitely rare and critically endangered.” Jim Archibald, 20 June 2010.

Tributes have poured in for Jim from many directions and sources, and have covered his varied talents and activities. So far as we know though, to date not one has been penned by any of his contemporaries in, as he sadly and prophetically reflected, the rarefied and diminishing world of plant exploration and introduction. This cannot be allowed to continue. So we offer a heartfelt, nostalgic and we trust honest remedial contribution from our own parallel – if limited – viewpoint.

We choose the AGS and SRGC websites jointly to express it partly because Robert (Rolfe) has already included in his moving AGS panegyric a slice of my opening quotation from Jim’s letter. But then again Jim was as unmistakably Scottish through and through as Stuart tartan, a haggis or, and we don’t doubt he’d love this one – Bonnie Scotland’s prominent, flamboyant-blooming and prickly national flower! 

It might be supposed that plant collectors in their small, esoteric and highly specialised world must needs form a tight and supportive brotherhood. Ah, what a naïve, unreal, Utopian dream (we can just imagine Jim snorting over his pipe at the very idea). Oh yes, like fans of the Old Firm all sitting down to a peaceful, civilised tea party together after a fixture at Ibrox or Celtic Park, perhaps? Check history, Dear Reader. Your average plant hunter is prone to be a suspicious, jealous, paranoid, territorial lone-wolf of an animal. He isn’t beyond the odd dirty deceptional trick either (e.g. falsifying localities) to conceal from rivals the communal bounty of Nature he has unilaterally declared belongs to himself and himself alone. (Male gender only here: I fondly suppose any of our kind among the fair sex to be less aggressively competitive, if no less intrepid!) Think of that other indomitable Scot, George Forrest, vs Reggie Farrer (another wordy, pedantic English fellow!) or anyone he considered to be invading his patch (i.e. most of China). “Some orchid hunters were killed by other orchid hunters.” and “When men working for rival growers crossed paths, they sometimes killed each other … Both (plant) hunters were heavily armed and belligerent. After boasts and threats and a display of side-arms they nearly ended up in a duel.” Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief: 67-69. (1998).

Fortunately, that extreme intensity had largely evaporated from our chosen genteel pastime by the time Jim’s and my generation arrived on the scene. Indeed, I have a happy and indelible memory from the late 60s of a carefree gathering over a meal in London after a Vincent Square RHS show. It consisted of a fair collection of us handful of then neophytes enjoying each other’s company and swapping anecdotes. As I recall, we included at least Brian Mathew and Jim himself, with Margaret Merritt, Sydney Albury and Martyn Cheese from the bunch that made up my teams. Roy Elliott was the current highly regarded and authoritative Editor of The Alpine Garden Society Bulletin. He avuncularly dubbed the leading lights among us ‘Young Lions’, and regarded us as heirs to Farrer, Forrest et al., the shining new hopes for continuing plant introductions. (Perhaps ‘mini’ Farrers and Forrests would be more appropriate in that swinging era of Mary Quant!) Alas, only two of those just mentioned are alive and kicking still like me. Scientia longa, vida breve.

When working in the field around roughly the same time and places, both we and Jim used to impute any freshly dug holes encountered in Turkey to each other. We only found out years later that he and his blamed ‘That Watson lot’, while our villain was always ‘The Arch-fiend Archibald’. There was also our jocular and irreverently Pythonesque New to Science hymn. This we sang to the tune of Bread of Heaven (correctly Cwm Rhondda, what a remarkable anticipation of Jim & Jenny’s home region!), belting it out at triumphant max. decibels following particularly fruitful sites as we landrovered across Turkey. Refrain: ‘New to science, new to science. Found by us and us alone, us alone … Found by us and no one else. Not by Davis, Not by Mathew, Not by J.C. Archibald … Archibald. Not by J.C. Archibald.’ etc., etc. (Polunin, the Furses and any more were fitted into the verses.) Including such horsing, rivalry was largely friendly, comparative and twofold. It served as a measure of competence in our early and less secure days. We also appreciated we were bound together collectively. We had to do well, satisfy the desperately limited number of specialised ‘punters’ (aka subscribers) we all shared, and fill them with confidence. They must be kept kidded that to continue digging into their pockets for ‘expedition’ shares was a Good Thing. So: How were we matching up to the rest? And: Were they cutting the mustard?

For all that, we basically worked individually, as most collectors always have. Few are those perfect, persistent partnerships such as Ludlow & Sherriff, Ruiz & Pavón (but think of poor, maltreated, cast-aside Dombey) or Humboldt & Bonpland. There’s usually too little glory and gain to go around for more than one. If a partner or team is needed, collectors such as Peter Davis, Jim, Brian Mathew and I have tended to take on board competent lay outsiders or amateurs who represent little or no threat to our career profiles (with exceptions, such as Davis & Polunin). The ideal, of course, is the inseparable marriage pairing. Paul and Polly Furse, are probably the most celebrated couple, being immortalised in Eremurus furseorum, Scilla (or Fessia) furseorum and Sempervivum furseorum. We might cite in addition Bleddyn & Sue Wynn-Jones and Rod & Rachel Saunders. Jim and I also co-incidentally hit that happiest of jackpots as J&JA, Jim & Jenny Archibald, and F&W, Anita Flores de Watson & John Watson. 

One result of the typical plant explorer’s temperament will also come as a surprise to many if not most. Unless we’ve collected together in the field, we may have very little direct face-to-face communication. Somehow we seem to live in quite remotely separated localities, seldom research in the same institution at the same time, are freelance, and often on the move. Nor can I recall many instances of significant written correspondence between our genre (Humboldt and Bonpland being one worthy anomaly). In all likelihood it may often boil down to having too much to do in too little time, too many other irons in the fire, rather than aversion. We know aspects of each other’s professional lives inside out from field-lists, autobiographical travel writings, introductions recorded in the literature, incidentally attending each other’s lectures now and again, and reports from mutual friends. We may meet briefly but effusively at shows, or at weekend and international conferences. Even then I can recall trying to get in a decent word or two in edgeways with Jim, Brian or Kit (Grey-Wilson), only to be unable to approach for their clamouring hordes of surrounding, idolatrous fans. ‘Rock’ stars indeed! With luck we might have managed eye-contact and a quick wave over the sea of heads, nothing more. So the odds are we may never spend 24 hours together under the same roof (or stars, or canvas). Jim and I never did. Hence we marry, have children, divorce, remarry, and some of this private domestic life may remain an undiscovered mystery by one or both until, perhaps, our offspring have grown up themselves. Certainly this has also proved true for Jim and myself. We’ve known each other best during the equivalent times Rossini referred to for musical compositions as the follies of his youth and sins of his old age. We mostly lost touch during our ‘middle periods’. Certainly mine was the standard ‘dull middle period’ of classical music, but Jim continued on a high with The Plantsmen nursery and related enterprises, then renewing exploration at full steam ahead in the 80s to what would become a far more roving, international curriculum vitae. It took almost a decade before I dragged myself out of the swamp of Four Seasons Nursery (for want of a better way to describe it) and paralleled him again in the glorious activity we were both born to. Occasional inklings of his and Jenny’s productive travels and superb introductions, especially from Turkey, our old stamping ground, would meanwhile reach my wistful hearing or gaze, and awaken envious longings. Yet I’m sure that at any time from the later 60s onwards we never thought of one another as anything but close and interested friends and colleagues, and eagerly sought out whatever news we could of each other.

Fate drew us closer of late, particularly in the last decade. The planned wanderings of Jim and Jenny carried them ever further afield. That eventually took in South America, Anita’s continent of birth and by then my permanent residence and centre of study. We didn’t meet up, but our interest in their achievements sharpened. A couple of fine calceolarias were recorded from their collections. We had spent decades of mostly futile and occasionally semi-successful attempts to introduce Andean rosulate violets. How was it Jim and Jenny could make just one foray into the violas’ stronghold, walk out with seeds on that single occasion only, and a client of theirs then swept the show board with a perennially persistent and magnificent flowering specimen, a Farrer Medal winner to boot [Bull. Alp. Gard. Soc. 66(1): 52-53, 67(4): 442]? To snatch the opportunity of a technical aside here, although captioned and recorded for posterity as Viola dasyphylla, it is unquestionably V. columnaris. For the record, V. dasyphlla rosettes are plane. They never form tightly imbricate, raised columns as can those of the eponymous V. columnaris, and its leaves are obovate, the blade longer than wide. In V. columnaris the blade of the strongly spathulate leaf is always broader than long, as per the show specimen photograph just cited. True V. dasyphylla may be seen as a superb portrait in the wild taken by Ger van de Beuken in the next issue of the same volume, [66(2): 238], or in the AGS Encyclopaedia of Alpines vol. 2 as plate 534 (Er, in turn erroneously captioned V. fluehmannii!). This in no way reduces or belittles the achievements of both introducer and exhibitor. Ah, that Old Jim Black Magic. No wonder we licked our wounds and took consolatory refuge in the backwaters of taxonomy!

Well, not quite so desperate. We did in fact continue collecting and distributing seeds until the middle of the decade. But we reached a point where the whole process became too stressful and financially unprofitable. It involved – extensive fieldwork to gather enough material to justify a list; drawing up and pricing the list in full; rough-cleaning; flying to the UK; final-cleaning and packeting; getting the lists printed; posting them out to prospective clients; processing and despatching resulting orders; plus any incidental correspondence. This is not entirely a self-absorbed litany. Jim and Jenny had to go through much the same procedure every time they marketed their own direct wild gatherings, albeit that they travelled ‘the other way round’. It was then that Jim stepped in with the magnanimous offer to include in their lists however little or much seed material we might be able to manage, with no obligation to provide a regular annual supply. This has helped both to sustain us a little economically since and to keep our Andean introductions flowing.

A further factor discouraged and disheartened us, touching Jim’s sensitive nerve and perception deeply as well. We refer to the growing Kafkaesque effects of biodiversity rights and protective conservation concepts, allied to national measures to prohibit entry of agricultural pests and diseases. These may have been necessary in some form or other and to some degree, and may even have looked effective in theory. But once put into practice as legal, ‘scientific’ and bureaucratic measures they have become more like rabid monsters escaped from their Pandora’s cage. Let alone their effect on ‘bystanders’ such as ourselves, they even damage the studies of responsible academics we know, as well as retarding protection and understanding of some of the very organisms they were designed to benefit. The likes of Jim, Roy Lancaster and ourselves have effectively been labelled ‘ecological outlaws’ by some academics and institutions (happily by no means all). This arose due to our material not having passed through a tortuous process of official application, approval and checking by the country of origin, which consists of many interlinked steps, some of them quixotically illogical. So even if correspondence is acknowledged, as sometimes not, it is impossible for any but a handful with the highest institutional backing, limited and fixed aims, and all the (salaried!) time in the world on their hands to comply. Meanwhile, local cynical official corruption often rules OK, with rare plants ripped en masse from the wild as hapless victims. Enough of this. In the old days I would have said rivers of ink have already cascaded from Jim and myself on the topic. Perhaps the equivalent in this electronic age is our fingers having covered miles (kilometres?) on the keyboard! A review of Jim and Jenny’s collected seed lists provides the full set of Jim’s uncompromisingly acid and elegantly expressed reactions to the situation, laced with sardonic wit. A few years back we Watsons gave up formulating our opinions in black and white on these matters as a sheer waste of time that could be better and more gainfully spent. Clearly no one was in the least interested or influenced. We had been tilting at windmills. We noticed Jim’s acerbic commentaries had disappeared from their latest seed lists too. Perhaps he came to the same conclusion. I should love to add a small, select anthology of his most pointed barbs as tossed at this common foe (to be headed ‘Oh, bitter dictum’, I think). Alas, I can’t. Not here and now anyway. My incomplete collection of treasured Archibald seed lists is buried somewhere semi-irretrievably in our endless rows of McDonald’s frozen French fried potatoes boxes, which serve as chaotic, disordered overspill files in the lumber room. … buried somewhere ... Jim would surely empathise and be thoroughly tickled by that.

“In the hope that still more ridiculous fantasy will again bear a bit of prophetic truth, I look forward to a future when an International Society of Plantsmen will sway world government and be effective in the preservation of wildlife … Its motto – ‘Conservation, Cultivation, Companionship’ will be universally acclaimed as summarising much of what makes life worth-while …” Sampson Clay, ‘The Future of the Alpine Gardener’ [Bull. Alp. Gard. Soc. 29(1): 132. (1961)]. That was published precisely one year to the month before a 20-year-old Jim and I, at 26, set out on our maiden plant hunts to Corsica, and Turkey and The Lebanon respectively. It anticipates remarkably everything Jim came to stand for as his experience and knowledge matured and developed. He hated hypocrisy, pomposity and sham. But most of all, when it came to the wild plants he himself cared about so much, he was incensed by summary moral judgements, together with assumption of sweeping, unchallenged authority by those of the scientific establishment he detested, as well as their servile horticultural ‘running dogs’. He considered such people to be less interested in genuine practical protective measures for threatened species than in exercising political power play and arrogant academic élitism by persecuting responsible growers without good cause, and in the most extreme cases, all forms of horticulture other than ‘hallowed’ botanical gardens. It would have been satisfying to record among his achievements that he had helped to change that history. But seemingly the juggernaut has become unstoppable and Sampson Clay’s fantasy, a concept and name so dear to Jim’s heart, has indeed sadly proved ridiculous. Our titular choice of job-description, ‘plant hunter’, should therefore be seen as deliberately provocative, and one we are sure Jim would have approved of as thumbing our noses, him posthumously, at his human pet aversions. The phrase ‘plant hunter’, not least the ambiguous word ‘hunter’, expresses the very essence of all that our powerful opponents in the worlds of biodiversity and conservation hold against those of us who are not of their rank, qualifications, status and exclusive circle. Good. Let them choke on it!

“For want of a better name we had called ourselves an expedition.” James C. Archibald, ‘Among Moroccan Mountains’ [Bull. Alp. Gard. Soc. 31(4): 314. (1963)]. Jim despised pretentiousness too, and, like us, avoided as far as he could use of the word ‘expedition’ to describe his travels in search of plants. His attitude towards it is implicit in the quotation above. Originally a grand word to describe audacious and large-scale primary exploration, it became co-opted and farcically debased in the 60s by every bunch of academic students who had managed to con a grant enabling them to spend a month or so holidaying in southern sunshine under the guise of serious research. So we have avoided the ‘e’ word here barring this explanation to do with Jim.

Unfortunately, I am not the one to fit all the pieces together and complete a full jigsaw portrait of Jim. Colleagues and friends closer to him personally during his lifetime are far better placed to review aspects of his many-faceted operations on ‘the home front’ which are virtually unknown to me and mine. These include his supreme skill as a plantsman-gardener and exhibitor, which covers a quite remarkable range of rare and demanding subjects; the ability to propagate and handle in commercial quantities when wearing his nurseryman’s hat; and the clerical and communicative labour involved in organising and distributing the fruits of their and others’ field work. Of all this we feel unqualified to comment.

Our speciality is plant exploration and introduction from the wild. Even so, it would take a researcher of the ability, experience and tenacity of a Robert Rolfe to track down and record the history in cultivation of all the plants Jim introduced in his time, either permanently, or by bringing them to our collective attention as desirable objectives (an often understated aspect of the plant hunter’s achievements). Publication of an orderly inventory of Jim’s fieldwork, which I don’t have, would be a valuable task as well. Working from a few early references of his own and memory only, plus the unique biographical miniature by our joint biographer, Bobby Ward, I have managed to formulate a vague overview.

Quite clearly Jim’s first essay to Corsica in 1962 was of the same ‘dip-big-toe-in-water’ nature as my simultaneous initial work-out. Without doubt though, he would have been thrilled to have introduced the compacted, stemless form of Matthiola tricuspidata from there and seen it as permanently established as that other Mediterranean alpine seasider, Morisia monantha. But flying starts are seldom the rule in our trade.

Morocco 1962 may have been a small step in the history of plant hunting, but it represented a giant step forward for Jim. Without need to refer to his own account, I would have become aware of Carduncellus pinnatus var. acaulis and Linaria trisitis anyway, as these made their own mark. The plant which undoubtedly impacted most, and most lastingly on horticulture from that fieldwork though was the petunioid form of Narcissus romieuxii which Jim named ‘Julia Jane’ (e.g., as featured in John Blanchard’s monograph), Curiously, it didn’t appear in Jim’s travelogue, where he only mentions N. bulbocodium var. nivalis with the seed capsules grazed off. Might it be one and the same, introduced as bulbs?

This beautifully clear and well-signposted beginning to Jim’s collecting career is a public highway any of us can tread. After that the trail becomes more obscure. Casual maps in the form of his seed lists are required to follow his further progress in detail. To the loss of us all, he doesn’t appear to have added to his opening literary burst by writing up his numerous subsequent trips, most immediately to Greece in 1964. Nevertheless, all the world knows of his next major itinerary, and it may perhaps be looked upon as his most outstanding: The Great Dionysia Hunt of 1966 (which also took in a lot more than dionysias). I recollect some of Jim’s by then badly and sadly faded historic slides being shown by Kit Grey-Wilson as part of a lecture on the genus. By way of compensation for us all, many of the same shots as taken in the wild were reproduced in their prime for Kit’s published monograph (I have the 1989 edition): DD. curviflora, diapensiifolia, haussknechtii, janthina and michauxii. Not, of course, to neglect the most important of all, eponymous D. archibaldii! He also introduced Crocus scardicus that year.

To speed up, a final superficial, short-changing cherry-pick here of the 80s onwards, cribbed mainly from Bobby Ward and Robert Rolfe. It adds precision to my vague image of scads of salvias from Turkey. If known the year of collection is noted; Alkanna aucheriana, Draba cappadocica (1984), Campanula choruhensis (1986), C. troegerae (1986), Michauxia tchaihatcheffii (1986), Veronica oltensis (1986) Iris paradoxa forma mirabilis (2000) and I. urmiensis (2000) are all from Turkey. Digitalis thapsi is a Spaniard from the 80s and Campanula hawkinsiana hails from Greece again. Saving the most Archibaldian of this group to last, their new species, Muscari mcbeathianum (1885), is another Turk. “And there’s more where that came from”, for any who still remember catchphrases of the Goons. Lots more. A reoccurring, shadowy, elusive image of show reports and plant awards flickers across my memory from numerous pages over the last few decades “ … collected by Jim and Jenny Archibald in …” But my inferiority complex is showing, and other neglected obligations demand time as well. So I’d better leave off tracing further goodies to list and put in a belated effort at trying to catch up with Jim’s lifetime achievements …

Given everything he contributed to our communal interests, is it reasonable to have hoped for even more? Anything more? “It is a shame that Jim has not continued publishing his travel logs, such as those on Corsica and Morocco … His daily journal about love of the land, people, and his freedom to see native plants seems idyllic …” Bobby Ward, The Plant Hunter’s Garden: 24 (2004). Amen, say I, and probably very many others. That is a note of sorrowful, albeit selfish regret, not reproach. And who am I to complain, with so much of our own explorations in search of plants yet unwritten? But following those mouth-watering hors d’oevres of his, if only he had laid on main dishes to follow, written up as permanent memorials of his accomplishments, such as the hunt for dionysias, and the visit to the central Andes, and … and … Surely Jim must have experienced the odd dramatic or exciting event and suchlike now and again along the way to spice up the plantly bits, as we all have? I vaguely recall some news of a close shave involving the vehicle in Iran. Perhaps something could be strung together out of episodes in the introductions of his long series of seed lists and their detailed floristic descriptions.

In the esoteric game of Hunt the Plant, which a few of us play as pros, it could be said that all paths lead to Farrer. Yet again, and not for the last time, that emblematic name crops up here, now in direct conjunction with Jim. The title of Jim’s award-winning survey of sect. Oncocyclus irises, ‘Silken, Sad, Uncertain Queens’ [Bull. Alp. Gard. Soc. 67(3): 245-264] is drawn straight from The English Rock Garden. But its sober, highly informative, impeccably researched style, although lucidly written, contrasts dramatically with Farrer’s literary extravaganzas. It also perhaps no less confounds prior expectations of Jim himself. There is none of the intimate immediacy of the early travel accounts, often tilting towards the lyrical. Nor does he unsheath the rapier of his controversial pamphleteering alter ego. This is his third style, and he is master of it, as of the other two. But the third is the most difficult and demanding by a long chalk. As I recently wrote to a friend, travelogues are easy meat by comparison. Other than identifying plants seen underway (which can simply be omitted if unnameable), and checking place names, it simply involves digging into the memory bank, abetted by photographic back-up. Anyone who has ever attempted a decent in-depth, objective review of a group of plants will know that genre requires exhaustive research, above all in relevant literature sources. Jim’s survey of the oncocyclus section was that well researched, and stands as a model of a practical ‘plantsman’s monograph’. It exactly compliments strictly taxonomic accounts and usefully, one might dare to say authoritatively, contradicts them where experience in the field or from cultivation overrides with a more logical alternative interpretation. If only he had written a larger output in this vein, or far more preferably, had lived longer to record similar gems from his vast compendium of frequently unique experience. But not entirely at the expense of his wit and artist’s vision, please.

This present appreciation of Jim, admittedly superficial and deficient as it is, presents him as ‘plant hunter extraordinaire’. On reflection, maybe there’s no such beast as an ‘ordinary’ plant hunter. Being extraordinary (some might even say eccentric) may well come inseparably with an activity Martyn Cheese and I once defined as: ‘What a job for grown men!’ It would hardly be surprising should our particular crust-earner not appeal to folks who consider themselves ordinary. At all events Jim was out of the ordinary, even by plant collectors’ standards. Perhaps above all, no one in our sphere of innocent, jewel-like little flowers since Farrer (and who less ordinaire than him?) has proved the pen to be, if not mightier than the sword, then at least wickedly and controversially sharper – one hell of a sight sharper. That may be Jim’s most obvious distinction, as opposed to achievement. But there were other outstanding factors. It isn’t difficult to compile a list of collectors who began their careers by gardening, and became inspired to seek plants in the wild. In the same vein, nursery owners have sallied forth to collect for their established businesses. The Ingwersens, Clarence Elliott, Norman Stevens, the Wallises, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones and several intrepid types from North America and places once behind the Iron Curtain come easily to mind. But has anyone else bar Jim actually started out as a plant hunter, then metamorphosed into a commercial grower? (Metamorphosed is singularly appropriate for one so enamoured of Lepidoptera, as was Jim.) But in fact, rather than changing from one to the other, he managed the remarkable trick of adding the cultivation of his own and others’ introductions to the curriculum while continuing a highly fruitful, if inevitably at times somewhat sporadic and uneasy marriage with his other discipline, collecting. That seems to me perhaps his greatest and most unique achievement. One final aspect stands out. Perhaps Jim hardly approached the almost Mozartian or Mendelssohnian precociousness of the said Reginald John Farrer, who ‘knew his botany’ by eight years old, had already had his first botanical paper published when a teenager, and was starting to establish his nursery while still up at Oxford. Looking for solid facts to record, I read through Jim’s accomplished accounts of his first two explorations, to Corsica and Morocco, the latter following almost frenentically on top of the former (a young man in a hurry!) [Bull. Alp. Gard. Soc. 31(3): 205.218, 31(4): 314-340.]. His recorded knowledge of the floras he encountered is deeply impressive. Although he and I began our very first field trips simultaneously in March 1962, the confident botanical field knowledge tripping off Jim’s pen clearly outstrips my early amateurish stabs at identification. I had no inkling at the time he was a significant six years younger than myself. What a start for a mere stripling of 20! What a continuation! And what a magnificent full career!

John Watson