Roy Lancaster

My Life with Plants

71TOPKqo28LIn 1995, three relatively unknown horticultural upstarts found themselves along the Jaljale Himal, a high elevation ridge running into the extremely remote northeastern corner of Nepal. It was late autumn and our tents were frequently covered with snow in the mornings. Each night, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones and I would gather in the cook’s tent to savor our warm onion soup. During these evenings, we took turns reading passages from the only book we had brought along, Plant Hunting in Nepal by Roy Lancaster; an appropriate selection as we were retracing his footsteps during his times on this ridge twenty-four years earlier. More than merely a means to help us decode the botany we were surrounded by, we read the book for the infectious voice of awe and enthusiasm that the author conveyed. We were more acutely appreciative of where we were and precisely what we were doing.

It is the embodiment of this all-consuming passion for the natural world that is brought together in Roy Lancaster’s accounting of his 80 years, and counting, journey in My Life with Plants. One is invited into his world as a young lad in Lancashire in northwest England. It was here that the story begins with a boy of modest means and an unquenchable thirst for discovery of all things natural. Gratifyingly, it is not just plants that feed his passion, but birds as well. Gratifyingly, I say, as it has always been about Roy’s catholic inclusion of and enthusiasm for the entirety of what surrounds him that has influenced countless budding naturalists across our globe.

The reader cannot help but be captivated in watching the inquisitive lad blossom, from deciphering the moors near his home, to exploring the luxuriant botanical fabric of Malaysia while in the National Service and then on to Cambridge to cement his passion with a degree. Along the way one is introduced to his mentors, the many individuals who remained unsung during their lives who are at last receiving kudos from the master they inspired.

Then to Hillier’s Nursery, the iconic enterprise in Hampshire, where Lancaster recounts the titillating exposure to the vast collection of hardy plants housed there. Writing The Hillier’s Manual of Trees and Shrubs, he sharpens his pencil and gains his voice. Soon enough, it is a voice, literally and figuratively, the entirety of Great Britain and beyond learns to recognize and respect through articulate and captivating writing, lecturing, and as a gardening correspondent on BBC.

My Life with Plants at 312 pages with hundreds of historical photographs is an all-too-short condensation of a lifelong devotion to the craft as well as to the encouragement of those following in his footsteps. Long after reading those passages in a cold tent in eastern Nepal, I have had the opportunity to savor bits of conversation with Roy, over a cup of tea or the occasional pint of beer. In those treasured moments, I have been held spellbound by the recounting of many of the same reflections found in this autobiography. But at last and collectively, the world’s horticultural community who owes so much to his contributions to understanding and appreciating the world around us, can witness his life so intricately, decidedly, and seamlessly unfold.

Daniel Hinkley, horticulturist, Indianola, Washington