Planting seeds of a labour of love
PERHAPS it is a clever twist of evolution – how there is always somebody for everything; someone with an inexplicable passion for what most of us would not devote a second glance towards.
For the humble restios – a family of rush-like plants native to South Africa, the self-appointed guardian of the species is Michael Woolls Blanco.
The former freelance documentary filmmaker from Redland has devoted his retirement to nurturing and propagating these grass-like plants.
After five years of constant devotion, Michael has more than a thousand of the potted plants – and his broad collection, which spans 19 different varieties, was recently honoured with the title of a National Collection by the Plant Heritage organisation.
Indeed, at first glance restios are nothing spectacular. But Michael’s passion for the reedy, wispy foliage is contagious, and after just a few minutes of listening to him explaining the intricacies of the plants, soon I find myself genuinely intrigued by the bushy little things.
“In fact they’re not so little,” Michael says, as he leads the way through one of his numerous polytunnels, which he maintains on farmland near Abbots Leigh.
“Some of these plants can grow to three or four metres in height. They’re wonderfully architectural when they reach full size – that’s what initially attracted me to them. But they’re painstakingly slow growing – especially in pots.
“They’re hardly known at all in this country, but I think one day they could become popular, especially with landscape architects – precisely because they are architectural in form. I can imagine, at some point in the future, being able to sell restios commercially from the collection – especially to professional landscape gardeners and architects.”
But for now, Michael’s collection exists purely to fulfil his love for the plants.
“I’ve always been a keen amateur gardener, so when I decided to leave the world of TV documentary making behind, I was keen to properly get into horticulture. When I started reading about restios, I realised they would be a fascinating thing to try to propagate – simply because they’re so famously difficult.
“It’s almost impossible to get restios seeds to germinate,” he laughs. “For years, horticulturists couldn’t work out how to do it, despite the fact that many of the species of restios positively thrive in the wild in South Africa.
“It’s only fairly recently that science worked out how it’s done. There is a chemical reaction when the seeds are introduced to smoke, which can cause them to start germinating.
“In the wild, they often have grassland fires – but when you’re propagating them in a polytunnel, you have to find other solutions. We use specialist little discs, which are imbued with the same chemical signature as the smoke in the wild fires. With these discs, in five per cent of cases, as long as you also get the correct balance of heat in the day and cold at night, then the seeds might just germinate.
“But that still leaves 95 per cent of seeds which are entirely infertile. So you can see just how much of a challenge it is to propagate a single plant – never mind a collection of more than 1,000 restios.”
Michael is understandably proud of his plants being dubbed a National Collection for the restio family in the UK.
“It really is quite an honour, but also a real responsibility,” he says. “It’s like being given the job of maintaining these plants here in the UK – you become the expert on the subject, and even have to regularly publish results of your propagation – just like a scientist.
“I even had to state what would happen to the collection in the event of my death – I’ve arranged for them to go to the University of Bristol’s Botanical Gardens, should anything happen to me.
“It’s important work, because although some of the plants thrive in the wild, some really are quite endangered, so to be able to propagate them is to help maintain them.
“These are plants that are completely unobtainable here in the UK – for many of the varieties, these are the only examples in the country.
“So coming up here each day to care for them really is a labour of love.”
From Bristol Evening Post article