A potted history of a Bedgebury wildflower blogger

I was born on the outskirts of Sheffield, close to the Peak District, in 1954 to the best parents ever!

My mother attended Sheffield school of art, became a draughtsman and then a full time mother. My father started an apprenticeship with the Forestry Commission before his marriage, but this was interrupted by the war when he served as leading hand in the sickbay of an Arctic convoy destroyer. After the war he could not afford to support a household on an apprentice wage so decided that the role of an excise officer in the bonded warehouses would be a more lucrative, though not so exhilarating, career.

My brother Roger was 3 years older than me and got me into all sorts of scrapes. When he was not getting stuck up trees or having illicit bonfires he also had a keen interest in botany. He knew, when I fell off the dry stone wall that he had told me to climb, and into a bed of nettles, that he should rub me with dock leaves. As my cries got louder he led me back home to mum. She sat me on a kitchen chair and dabbed my bare arms, legs, neck and face with calamine lotion. The coolness soothed the nettle rash then set hard into a pale pink crust - a very interesting look indeed! So, in one fell swoop, I had learned about nettles, docks and calamine, and not to trust my brother!

Young botanists Roger Helen 2My sister Patricia is 4 years younger than me and James was born in 1961 after our move to Kent.

Most of our holidays were back in Yorkshire seeing our many relatives, so I got to know moorland, chalk cliff, weald, downland and forest plants from both the north and south of England.

In adult life, Roger was a volunteer with a couple of wildlife trusts. Going on walks with him became a contest to see who could name the most plants while my husband and sister in law walked patiently behind chatting of other things.

My love of wildflowers started at a very early age. When we were children, my parents used to take us out every Sunday, whatever the weather, for long walks; sometimes longer than we wanted. Dad’s pipe smoke was excellent for keeping the midges at bay on the moors, and we vied with each other to walk under the pungent tobacco umbrella. My parents were both former members of the South Yorkshire rambling club and thought nothing of taking a 4-year-old up Mam Tor for a picnic. We have got a photo of Patricia, aged 6, before a climb up Helvelyn. She says she couldn’t manage it now!

My father told us the names of the wildflowers as we went. He used to slip the Observer Book of Wildflowers into his jacket pocket so that we could look up anything he was not sure of. It became a game to try to find more and more unusual forms of plant life for him to identify. If it was not in his pocket book, we would look it up in the big book when we got home; this was well before the days of computers and Wikipedia. This also gave me a lifelong love of books.

Flower Fairy C M BarkerOne year, Father Christmas gave me the first book in the Flower Fairies series and I was smitten. If you do not know them, do look them up. They are by Cicely M. Barker and are full of delight. On each page there is an enchanting illustration depicting the flower with its accompanying fairy and opposite, an instructive verse. I read the books so often that I knew the poems by heart and I longed to be able to draw that well (my mother could).

I had an inspiring English language teacher at secondary school who would break down words and explain the Latin or Greek roots, and an English literature teacher who made Greek and Roman legends come alive for us; this helped me understand plant names. Take for instance Hesperis matronalis (sweet rocket) - Hespera was the Greek goddess of the evening and matronalis means "of matrons", so another common name is Mother of the Evening. This is because the flowers have a particularly strong perfume at dusk. 

Rhubarb fairyI won a place at Maidstone Art College and went on to become a lithographic artist for 16 years. When the dreaded Apple Mac computer made pen and brush almost obsolete in industry, I turned to my other love and got a job in our local plant nursery, eventually becoming head of seed germination. We supplied plants to the RHS gardens, Highgrove, The Queen Mother memorial gardens at Edinburgh and Walmer, Elton John, Barnsdale and the Wisley Pound roundabout, to name drop but a few. It was my job to order the seeds, for the coming season, for the plants that that we did not propagate from cuttings or divisions. I normally got it right but sometimes I could not resist sowing something weird and wonderful that didn’t sell; but the boss was very lenient with me!

After 15 years, the nursery owner sold up to emigrate to America. Now what to do? 

I could not bear the thought of an inside job, so flicking through the Wealden Advertiser found Sissinghurst Castle and Bedgebury Pinetum advertising for staff. I was offered both jobs but decided that if the Forestry Commission was as good as dad said, that had to be the one for me. 10 years on and I am still with the Forestry Commission (now Forestry England) and, though much busier now, there is still time to drink in the beauty of the Pinetum and Forest.