How to think like a modern plant hunter…

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: April 30th, 2017 In: Garden travel

If you google ‘plant hunter’, Michael Perry, aka Mr Plant Geek, will pop up sooner rather than later.

Plant hunters used to be Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian adventurers.

Michael Perry, Mr Plant Geek

Michael Perry, ‘Mr Plant Geek.’

Kew describes a ‘plant hunter’ as a ‘keen and knowledgeable botanist with adventure in their hearts, someone who will take risks…to seek out the most beautiful and unusual plants.’

What is a modern plant hunter?

Today’s plant hunters actually help create the most beautiful and unusual plants. Michael helps develop ‘plants and plant concepts’ (such as the Egg & Chips plant from Thompson & Morgan). He travels the world, plant hunting, advising, demonstrating, lecturing and filming.

An amaryllis border

An amaryllis border in Florida. Grown as a house plant in the UK!

He’s currently to-ing and fro-ing from Florida, where’s he’s filming for HSN, the broadcasting and shopping channel (a rival to QVC, where he’s also appeared regularly.)

But a modern plant hunter doesn’t just fly in and out of places. Their noses are always pressed to the window, seeking out plants, new ways to grow plants, new plant concepts…there is always a plant to observe, record or adapt.

The Middlesized Garden rarely takes guest posts, but I’m delighted to welcome Michael’s plant musings from Florida:

Michael Perry says:

‘I remember poring over all sorts of horticultural books as I grew up, marvelling at the full colour picture plates of plants I’d never seen, and didn’t imagine I’d ever see.

Little did I know that almost 30 years later, I’d be half living and working in a neighbourhood where those plants were as common as a privet hedge, a border of petunias, or a fuchsia bush…

Now I’m super lucky to be working for the spring season in Florida, as I present for USA channel, HSN. My ‘hood’ is the St Pete area, which- unlike it’s namesake- is a warm, lush, tropical paradise. It can be hard to get my head straight- am I working or on holiday?? I tend to blend both and sunbathe between TV segments!

Frangipani growing in Florida

Frangipani on the streets of Florida. You can grow it as a houseplant if you give it 5 hours a day of direct sun, plus some humidity.

But, we came here to talk about plants, didn’t we?

So, here in Florida, privet is not a ‘thing’. The hedge specimens of choice are Ixora, Schefflera (only seen in the UK as a HOUSEPLANT!), and Trachelospermum in all shapes and sizes. In fact, I’ve been told Trachelospermum is the smell of spring to Floridians, in a similar way that daffodils are to us (or are they? what smells of ‘spring’ to you?)

Schefflera hedge

A schefflera hedge – once again, it’s grown as a house plant in Northern climates!

And forget hanging baskets with shimmering petunias and begonias, it’s kinda too hot for them and you see them few and far between. Around St Pete, the grand avenue trees often play host to giant hanging baskets with Platycerium (Stags Horn Fern). They are utterly spectacular!

Ruellia simplex

Ruellia simplex, otherwise called ‘wild petunias.’ They’re able to withstand the heat in Florida.

Bedding can sometimes feature Begonias, if in reliable shade, but my main spot is Pentas. A colourful little member that I’d love to see grown in Europe more often, but alas it needs higher light levels than we can provide. Around St Pete, Pentas is the bedder of choice, giving a similar look to those funky little Phlox drummondii we often grow.

Our houseplants – their kerbside thugs

As everywhere is so warm and lush, plants grow QUICK. I am often aghast to see beautiful, tropical specimens trimmed back to keep them behaving themselves. In Europe, we’d be praying they’d grow that much! Exotic ferns, bromeliads and Shell Ginger are all kerbside ‘thugs’, but in the nicest possible way!

Amaryllis in a border

Amaryllis in a border rather than a pot – be still, my beating heart…

And, Amaryllis are border specimens. Gosh, I needed a lie down to get over the shock after every exploration!

Shell ginger growing on the roadside

Shell ginger – a ‘kerbside thug’ in Florida!

Trees are showstoppers too, for example the Banyan Tree with it’s dangling roots. Or how about the graceful Norfolk Island Pine?

Banyan tree in Florida

A Banyan tree. Believe it or not, you can even get this as a houseplant. Banyan trees as Bonsai anyone? (affiliate link)

Whatever tree you spot, it is often clothed with Spanish Moss too. This ethereal, silvery moss is actually a parasite. It is deceptively difficult to get a good shot of, as that Florida sun is always just behind it..

Spanish moss is an air plant

Spanish moss, a parasite dangling from trees. Now getting popular as a house plant in the UK….see video at the end.

It isn’t ALL exotic though, I have spotted a few rather happy Rose bushes too. In fact, I am told the Americans really admire English gardens and want to grow more of ‘our’ plants!

Could you get the Florida garden effect?

But, can you grow those Florida specimens in the same way in the UK? The answer is mostly NO, I am sorry. However, there are a few ‘get rounds’, for example Amaryllis ‘Sonatini’- an outdoor Amaryllis, Pentas can be grown but with varying success, the best is apparently one called ‘Northern Lights’.

You may find that Griselinia gives a slight ’Schefflera look’ as a hedge though. Hmm, ferns can of course be grown, but may not become so abundant, but a nice patch of Athyrium always pleases! The Stags Horn Ferns are best kept indoors though, although could cope with a few sunny patio days!

The grass is always greener…

Isn’t it so funny how we Europeans wish we could grow the Floridian hot house tropical beauties, yet the Americans ache for the English simplicities of a Fuchsia bush or formal box hedge? Funny old bunch, us plants people!’

Note from Alexandra: Read more here on how to grow exotic-looking plants in a cool climate.

Michael Perry also has a line of t-shirts called ‘Rude Botany.’  They are decorated with slogans such as ‘rubus cockburnianus’ and ‘clitoria ternatea’. All real botanical names!

Rude Botany T-shirts

The Rude Botany T-shirts from Michael Perry.

You can follow his adventures via his blog, Instagram feed, Facebook or Twitter.

Get the Florida look in houseplants:

Here’s a selection of 6 different Spanish moss or Tillandsia available from Amazon (affiliate link – you can click through to buy. If you do, I may get a small fee.)

Or read this for more about the exotic look indoors with orchids.

And for a bit more about Spanish moss or Tillandsia (aka airplants) see this from the RHS Orchid Show in London recently:

Meanwhile, what do you see in the front gardens when you go on holiday? The back gardens? The street planting? (I’ve written a post here for Michael’s blog on how to find private gardens to visit when you’re on holiday.)  The British gardening tradition isn’t just Gertrude Jekyll and native plantings. We’ve always borrowed from all around the world.

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