When I’m writing about gardens there is one publication that I refer to more than any other and that’s the RHS Plant Finder. Not only can I rely on it to give me the most up-to-date botanical plant names, but also to tell me where those plants can be bought. It’s part of the ‘furniture’ of garden writing. Despite its complexity, a new edition appears every year, both as a book and on the RHS website. I went along to RHS Wisley to meet Judith Merrick (its compiler), to find out more about the publication, the people who create it, and the people who use it.
Every September, Judith and the RHS Plant Finder team send out a questionnaire to all the nurseries that would like to be included in the next year’s edition. The nurseries have until 31st December to provide details of the plants they will be offering for sale in the following year. Some send their information on-line, while others send in hand-written documents. Some nurseries know the correct name for their plants, others don’t. Some of the 4,000 or so plants that are new to the RHS Plant Finder are so new that they have yet to be named.
All the information that is sent to Judith is entered on a data-base. Before plant details can appear in print, they are checked and re-checked by RHS Wisley’s botanists: people who play an essential role in the RHS Plant Finder team. As the deadline of 31st December approaches, stress levels rise. If complex information pours in from nurseries at the last minute (just at the time when RHS staff are taking annual leave), the team is under a lot of pressure. Receiving information from nurseries by early December is one of the best Christmas presents Judith can have!
Very few keen gardeners today question the need for a botanical naming system, but we are sometimes surprised to find that a plant name we know well has changed unexpectedly. These changes are never made on a whim. They can be the result of information sent to the team by the nurseries suggesting that plant names should be changed to those already used in other parts of the world.
When this happens, the RHS Advisory Committee on Nomenclature and Taxonomy are on hand to advise the RHS Plant Finder team on the best course of action. The aim is to find a balance between the needs of gardeners and those of botanists. We gardeners like stability, but RHS botanists need botanical and taxonomic correctness if they are to communicate with other botanists around the world.
I asked Judith about the people who find the RHS Plant Finder most useful. Close to the top of the list are the nurseries themselves. Many of them are small and without a large budget for marketing. Supplying Judith with information about the plants they are offering provides them with very welcome free advertising.
Their entries in the data-base allow the RHS to build up a picture of the plants available in the UK and Ireland and to ensure that they are correctly named both in the RHS Plant Finder and on the RHS Horticultural Database. This in turn is of benefit to keen amateur and professional gardeners, garden designers and garden writers. Indeed, it is very useful for anyone who is looking for a particular plant and its nearest supplier.
Lastly, there are the people who love visiting nurseries. While the ‘plantaholics’ amongst us head straight for ‘The Plant Directory’ section of the RHS Plant Finder, avid nursery visitors jump to the maps and nursery listings, around which they plan their travels. Created for plant lovers by plant lovers, these are eccentricities that the compilers of the RHS Plant Finder can well understand.