Episode 146: Seeking Rare Plants

This week’s guest is Nick Macer, plant hunter, self-taught botanist, rare species expert and owner of Pan Global Plants, a nursery based in the Severn Valley, which, to quote the website, offers “a selection of the finest, most desirable and often rarest plants capable of growing on these isles”. And that’s key – Nick hand selects plants, in the past, directly from where they were growing in the wild and brings them into cultivation. He’s renowned for choosing sublime varieties and for openly sharing his knowledge and experience. I did intend to talk to Nick a bit about his plant hunting trips, but as a stop has been put to these recently due to rules around the transportation of plant materials, the conversation went in other directions.

Dr Ian Bedford’s Bug of the Week: Mealybugs

What we cover

How Nick got into plant hunting

How plants make the grade for inclusion into your nursery catalogue

Rare plants – hardy or non hardy?

Propagating rare plants

Using rare plants in the garden

About Nick Macer

Coincidentally connected to last week’s episode on Georgian gardens, Nick Macer rented land at Painswick Rococo Garden before moving to Frampton-on-Severn to set up Pan-Global Plants, which specialises in rare and unusual plants, many of which are well-suited to growing in a UK climate.

Nick trained at Merrist Wood and went on to have placements at Westonbirt Arboretum and the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. He’s travelled the globe to find the most beautiful specimens to bring into cultivation and continues to work at the nursery and to share his knowledge in person and in the media.



Patreon Membership

Nick Macer  0:00

I first got into it just to just do a desire to just get out and see plants in the wild. You know, you can read about these things as a young, keen horticulturalist. And there comes a time when you really want to start seeing if yourself, start putting things into context. So I mean, I did a little bit of, I suppose, looking at botanizing in the wild, a little bit on early holidays with my young family. So that’s kind of a taster. And then when I wanted to start heading further afield, we’d go to places like China. South Africa, I did on my own, and then I started going to Mexico. But with others, so yeah, I mean, those sorts of trips that take you really away into some pretty amazing places with amazing plants. Yeah, that’s getting really inspiring.

Sarah Wilson 1:05

How did you learn botany? Was it something you taught yourself? Or was it something you studied?

Nick Macer  1:08

Well, here’s a question. I wouldn’t ever describe myself as a botanist. I’m sort of, I suppose what you’d call a sort of botanical horticulturalist. So with a keen interest in such things, but from a horticultural sort of background and basis. So, how did I learn? Just through, I’ve learned what I’ve learned through through reading, talking, research, you know, I wouldn’t call myself a taxonomist. Yeah, it’s like, dabbling in things, isn’t it? You know, you can become quite good at some things. Just by having a keen interest. I would say, you know, I would say that’s how I’ve learnt. No one No one taught me all my plant knowledge. I think that’d be the same for most plants, people. I think it has to be really.

Sarah Wilson 2:08

Well, I think it probably does, because I think they’ve stopped a lot of the botany qualifications even.

Nick Macer  2:15

Probably, yeah, I’ve heard things, but I don’t know. I don’t know the detail.

Sarah Wilson 2:19

No. So when you set up your nursery, did you set it up so that you had an excuse to keep doing all these trips and bringing stuff back? Or did you already have a nursery which you widened the remit of?

Nick Macer  2:31

Um, I’m trying to think…Yes, I did have a nursery when I started going plant hunting in earnest. But I’m trying to think back, it wasn’t really about plant hunting in those days, plant hunting, to collect seeds. Although we did earlier on in those early days, it wasn’t about collecting seeds, I think it really was mainly, like I was hinting on just now. The desire to go and see plants in the wild. And to really understand how they are, you know, what, what they’re interacting with, how they’re interacting together, how they interact with the landscapes, etc, etc, etc, that I mean, that can really inform how you use them, shall we say, in gardens? I mean, you know, not just in a visual way, but also on a more ecological sort of, way, look at the way it’s coping with six months of drought in pure, broken rock, so that’s clearly a very drought tolerant plant, for example. But also the visual side of things going to see amazing hillsides of beauty. And you think, wow, God, why don’t we plant 15 rows in a group somewhere. Why don’t we do incredible, beautiful things with rare plants?

Sarah Wilson 4:40

And why do you think we don’t?

Nick Macer  4:41

Lack of inspiration? Lack of this is exactly what I mean. You know, I think you go and do these things, you see them you think, wow, let’s do it. But I think a lot of people don’t, and they don’t get that inspiration. I mean, obviously some of it is fear of the unknown. And apparently that’s a bit tender. You know what it is? A lot of people assume unusual plants are tender. That’s something I hear a lot at the nursery. Some local person might pop in, particularly, hell bent on interesting plants, and they’ll say, Oh, I’ve got a spot to put something. What should I put in there? So well, what about this amazing thing? And it’s particularly rare. And they say, stop there. No, I don’t want that. I’m not interested in difficult to grow plants. And I say, No, no, no. It’s not difficult to grow. Because it’s rare. It’s rare, because it’s rare. You know, there are multiple reasons why it might be rare. So people do have this idea. Sometimes, things they don’t know might be tricky to grow. But it’s often the case that rarities are incredibly easy. They’re rare, because they’re, you know, difficult to propagate. They haven’t been around, it’s just been introduced, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Sarah Wilson 6:11

So are the majority of the plants that you sell in your nursery? Are they hardy?

Nick Macer  6:17

Yes. The majority of the plants I sell in my nursery are hardy. Definitely another thing, often I noticed customers, people come, they come in, and their eyes are drawn to the exciting things, which might be on the slightly more tender side of my range, which is expected really, I would probably do it myself. And it happens to be one of the more tender things so people do sometimes they go yes, this is nurseries full of tender things, but it’s not true at all. Most of my stuff is hardy across most of the UK. But I do like to do a range because of course there are places like Cornwall you know, central London, there’s all sorts of spots where there are all sorts of people all sorts of gardens that can grow more tender things and of course people do experiment as well with microclimates within gardens in slightly, you know, cooler places a good microclimate, you can grow something that’s slightly more tender. So with climate change as well, that gives us more opportunities to experiment. So I do a range.

Sarah Wilson 7:32

And you mentioned, obviously, some of these things are slightly more difficult or maybe more difficult to propagate. How do you propagate the majority of the things that you bring back from plant hunting trips? Is it by seed?

Nick Macer  7:45

Well, I don’t bring anything back anymore. Because it’s the whole problem area with regulations and whatever. But in the past, I have been collecting seeds. Yes. Clean, dry seed, a pinch of seed here and there can go a long way.

Sarah Wilson 8:07

So it can be tricky, I presume to get these things to germinate. If you’ve got no experience of that. So is a lot of that trial and error?

Nick Macer  8:15

Or you mean no experience of that particular species? No, I would say you’re mainly informed by your knowledge of that genus, for example. I mean, it’s quite rare that you will find something that you have to really wrack your brains to work out. I mean, once you’ve sown 1000 different types of seed, you start to get to know, the general gist of things, you know, I wouldn’t say it’s too much of a brain strain really, not when you’re a professional nurseryman.

Sarah Wilson 9:03

Obviously, you mentioned that you can’t bring things back now. Have you enough in your collection at the moment as it stands? Do you feel like you’ve got enough to be going on with or are you you know, are you kind of a little bit put out?

Nick Macer  9:19

Always, always looking for more. But the thing is that in the UK, there is an incredible amount of material already here. And there’s a lots of very obscure, wonderful, special things hiding away in specialist collections. As in, I’m not talking about Botanical Gardens, necessarily. I’m talking about private planets. You know, there’s an incredible wealth that we have here. And then again, there’s also hybridization, you know, creating new plants through hybridization. So, you know, I’m currently fiddling around with creating hardy begonias as a few of us are, for example, plus other things, so that yeah, there are ways around, still keeping fascinating new plants coming to the public. There’s also selections to be made, you’ve raised a bunch of things from seed from cultivation, and you start selecting very fine forms, you know, that carries on as it always has done. So, I do a bit of that as well as naming plants. And even, you know, hybrids, a chance hybrid turns up. My new Mahonia that I launched last year, was a chance hybrid from garden seed, just happened to be a really, really good hybrid, and that’s, you know, that’s never been seen on Earth before. It’s a gorgeous looking thing. And it came from UK seeds, you know, so there’s all sorts of opportunities. My new one is, wait for it..it’s called Pan. Then there’s a gap and then Demic. So you know, it’s a bit of a Marmite name. Not of everybody likes it. But it had to be done!

Sarah Wilson 11:32

Yeah. listening to you speak, obviously, I think it’s fair to say you would like to see more of these rarities in gardens. And I think, if you’re a professional gardener, you probably like you said, you may want to plant these plants en masse, you may want to put them into customers’ garden, you can’t get hold of them in any sort of quantities. If you do they’re very expensive. So does it does the kind of does it fall to the home gardener to get these things more widely grown? Or is it just never going to happen?

Nick Macer  12:06

Well, firstly, I think it is going to happen if people wanted to happen, it can happen. And you know, secondly, not necessarily expensive at all. So you know, if you’re talking about buying some special beautiful plants that aren’t, you know, the rarest of all, you know, they’re not they’re not expensive, certainly not from my nursery. I mean, anyone who knows the price of plants, he goes to garden centres and sees how much they are for commonly growing things. And then you start going to specialist nurseries and thinking, No, actually, they’re not really very expensive at all. I would say generally, plants are a bargain, quite frankly. I mean, you could say, oh, you would say that, but you know, I honestly I do look at the market. At what’s being sold at what price, I’m not gonna mention any names, but it doesn’t take much research to realise how how cheap a lot of specialist plants are. So I think your other point was availability. So if you wanted a load of something, you would have to find the right amounts but you know I don’t have to worry about it. But I think there’s enough out there often to satisfy the demand. I do have some quality customers who are professionals who create gardens. So you know, they find they find enough to do that sort of thing.

Sarah Wilson 13:50

I was thinking when I said about the expense of it, I think I was thinking if it became very popular and you were saying it was difficult to propagate then I’m guessing that would add to the cost.

Nick Macer  13:59

Yes, it would of course it would. Yeah. But you’re still not talking about much. Yeah, I’m just trying to think of the price of some really expensive things on the nursery. So a lot of my trees are say 35 pounds, and that’s a two litre tree and a five litre might be 45 pounds, which you know, for a whip of something common obviously it’s going to be really cheap. A tree in a garden centre is gonna be identical to that price or more for something common. So these are rare plants but if I was going to sell a really rare tree and I’m talking very, very rare possibly never been available ever before, literally. I have things like that occasionally and I might charge you 50 pounds for that. Or 60 pounds. But I still wouldn’t call that expensive.

Sarah Wilson 15:04

No, no, I wouldn’t. I think we massively underpay for plants, if you think about the work  thatgoes into producing them. And I think you’ll really find in the future that we do end up paying a lot more for, or the correct price for plants. Thinking about a plant that would make the grade for you, what makes a garden worthy plant? What makes a really good plant, in your opinion, or does it differ on what you’re using it for?

Nick Macer  15:37

Wow. What a question, what makes a good plant for me? I mean, there’s so many different plants out there. Well, let me try and distil it. For me the things that excite me they have both Oh, okay, let’s let’s take it from this angle. So if I was to walk into a garden, the most exciting gardens for me are where are where botanical interests and horticulture combine good horticulture and botany. So good design, and, and fascinating plants? That to me is the high point. So you know, you can have a wonderfully designed garden? But is this feeding my soul? It’s gorgeous. But oh, I know that plant. And I’ve seen them a million times before. It only goes so far. So it’s beautiful. But it only go so far. If you go in there and it’s beautiful, that’s fair enough. If you have that botanical side that’s interested in plants, you want them at least to be interesting. Oh my god, I’ve only seen it once in my life. Here it is growing in an unusual position.

Sarah Wilson 17:31

Yeah, so I yeah, I’m trying to now distil what you were saying. So it kind of almost it’s the novels that attracts you. But it sounded like what you were saying at the end there that sometimes it’s when it might be out of context as well.

Nick Macer  17:46

I was in context. Well, um, I suppose. So. I wasn’t quite saying that. But I’m just trying to think that that could that could be relevant. When I’m in gardens are so out of context. Normally, I think that’s a big credit question. Yeah, it’s it’s a funny one, isn’t it? things out of context? What does that mean? Like one monkey puzzle in A? in a field? Yeah, that’s, that’s out of context, isn’t it? But then run 25 Different heights in a field and different ages suddenly becomes not out of context? Well, yeah, I mean, yes,

Sarah Wilson 18:28

it’s an interesting thought, I have to say. And also, it made me think when you were talking about seeing plants in communities and trying to, you know, plant in a way in a garden that mimics that because that is what makes a you know, a beautiful garden. Well, for you. That’s kind of what makes it beautiful, is that it works ecologically. And it sits obviously as it would in the natural habitat. Is there anything to stop us saying, Okay, fine. Well, then let’s go and plant a plant community that you might find in a UK woodland, would that have the same attractiveness?

Nick Macer  19:01

What are you saying, like get a load of native plants and put them in a garden? Well, I mean, what is a garden? You know, I mean, so you’ve got a load of native plants. And you’re putting them together in a way that would that nature would surely say, in the wild if left to its own devices. You have to ask yourself, what makes it a garden? Yeah, so yeah. So so how, you know how would we so you’re saying get the get those elements those plants and then and then planting them in a in a pleasing way? Yeah. Okay. So I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Sarah Wilson 19:49

I mean, it just sparked it when you said about you know, you’ll see something in the wild growing and it just, you know, it works and, and if we instead of planting one shrub we plant 15 and kind of make It look like it might in its natural habitat.

Nick Macer  20:02

Yeah. So so if I just jump in there. So my main point there was really about getting the most exciting things that I’m seeing and saying I want that look in my garden. And if just that, that example was was about that, but also about, say, if I’m looking at something amazing, I think I was talking about Arbutus. So when you see that in the wild hanging out of a cliff, in Greece, or wherever, and the peeling bark and the beautiful, you know, funky, sort of form of the tree. The whole thing to me is just, you know, beautiful, a lot of people you know, would agree here. And when you see right in Wow, what a tree, why do we see that more often, but so if I would have bought it, my, in my job, I had a large garden club, someone, if I planted one, it would be great. If I planted five or six or three here, one here for over there, whatever, it’s your domain, and then you start building up that community of special things. of, you know, the finest things that make you excited that that was that was my point. Really, rather than trying to go for the Yeah, yeah, that was that was my point. Really, it was it was more the, the the the beauty side of it, but also the exciting side of it, which is the fact that you don’t see it very often.

Sarah Wilson 21:44

Okay, so is anybody doing that? Well, at the moment, in your opinion? Garden designers? Or public gardens and, you know, head gardeners anywhere?

Nick Macer  21:55

Interesting question. I don’t know. I’m put on the spot now. Who’s doing that? Well, I can’t think, I don’t keep up with the with the design side of things as much as I could do, I’ve just got my head in the plants all the time. So I can’t think of anyone. I’m sure there are some people doing a bit of that. Yeah, I can’t think of any.

Sarah Wilson 22:23

Have you got a garden as well in the nursery, have got your own garden? Do you kind of experiment with these things in a garden setting as well?

Nick Macer  22:30

I do, the nursery is within a an acre walled garden, so half of it is nursery. And the other half is garden so I do mess around a bit at work. And at home. I haven’t been in that particular property long enough to have created the garden yet, but I’ve started – the main thing there has been to keep the deer out first. Yeah, I do. I do mess around with things. And a good example of what I’m talking about can be found on the nursery at the moment I’ve got a got a raised bed area made of basically 60 tonnes of type one roadstone, which sounds horrific, but it’s a curving shape. And I’ve done that because I wanted sharp drainage, because my soil in Danbury by the Severn river is, it’s quite rich sort of alluvium. So I’m going for sharp drainage so I can start growing some exciting things that I’ve been finding on my travels. So yeah, I planted various things. But at the moment I’ve got some drifts of agave I found in Mexico back in the day. And they’re just amazing, amazing, beautiful rosette forms – Agave latifolia. These are not just one plant poked in the corner. I wanted to plant lots. I’ve got something like, I don’t know five or six planted out on the end of this bed and they’re now some of them are approaching, I think they’re about nearly 1.8 metres across. So when they when they fill out they become really, really striking things. Yeah, I mean, in  how many gardens in the UK can you see drifts of agaves that size? Not many. So it’s a sort of, it’s a sort of wow factor that that kind of thing excites me. So you know, so I think we need to be more brave and more bold with our plant choices.

Sarah Wilson 25:26

Well, apart from obviously, Mahonia Pan Demic, if you had to say to somebody, okay, right, here’s maybe two or three plants. Go ahead and try them. They’re brilliant. You won’t regret it. What would you recommend?

Nick Macer  25:39

Oh, no, sorry. I’m useless at being put on the spot. My mind is blank. When people ask me this customers always say this sort of thing. I’ve got too many plants. I’ve got so many plans. It must be something like 1500 different types out there. I could just say certain things everyone gets excited about nowadays.

Sarah Wilson 26:25

Ok, I’ve got horrible clay soil. What if I wanted a shrub that I can plant a few of, group about? It’s wet? It’s claggy. What would be really good?

Nick Macer  26:35

Wet and claggy? Yes. Okay, so problem sites, maybe a rhamnus? Imeritina is something I’ve seen in the wild in Georgia. That’s quite huge. So it’s related to our native rhamnus. Which can be good for wildlife, of course. But it has huge, huge leaves in comparison. So it’s quite a striking foliage plant really. So that’s rarely seen. That would be a good one for that those sort of conditions. But also maybe some of the more unusual willows or even not so unusual, but gorgeous. well as things like Salix exigua. That’s beautiful. So really, that’s been around a long time, but it isn’t grown enough. It does sucker. So you’ve got to be careful of that. But it’s so gorgeous, that most of us forgive it. What else would be good in your claggy, wet soil? No, I’m just trying to think of certain things popped into my head, but they’re too ordinary. I’m trying to think of rare things and special things.

Sarah Wilson 27:57

That’s two good ones. To be honest, I’m impressed that you came up with anything unusual that would suit that.

Nick Macer  28:05

Yes, well, no, there’s there are lots of other things. I’m just trying to think what they are. I don’t do a huge amount of things for wet, wet, wet soils. But I’m just trying to think I was trying to get something herbaceous to add to that…

Sarah Wilson 28:24

Yeah. Well, I did throw a horrible one at you. Because most exotics would not like those conditions, would they?

Nick Macer  28:32

Well, no, I have to go back again, to my original point, I take it from by exotics, you mean just sort of rare plants? Because a lot of my plants aren’t what you call sort of exotic, they’re exotic to the UK, but they’re not sort of, you know, tropical. But no, I would say that, you know, it’s like the hardiness thing, the nursery is full of hardy plants, as well as a few tender things or semi tender things. I mean, there’s all sorts of things for all sorts of positions. You know, whether they’re rare or not, it really the rarity thing, I just had to push that again, the rarity thing. So yeah, you can find very unusual things that that grow in really, really difficult spots. I’m just useless at being put on the spot. Sorry.

Sarah Wilson 29:33

Fine. I will direct everybody to your websites and media.

Nick Macer  29:38

Yes, well, the website is terribly out of date at the moment I have to apologise but I’ve got a new one coming very, very soon. Hopefully in the next month or two hopefully.

Share this Podcast!

Related Podcasts