Friday, 8 January 2010

Chlorophyll in his veins



I am sorry to say that my first intimation of the existence of J.C. Raulston was the news of his death, arriving via the medium of the Alpine-L discussion forum on 22 December 1996, the morning after his fatal car crash. It was immediately apparent that he was a man who had been hugely admired, respected and loved by a vast number of American horticulturists. In succeeding years I have learnt a lot more about this remarkable man from American friends and have had the pleasure of visiting the arboretum that now bears his name on several occasions. His life-story has now been revealed in Bobby J. Ward's biography of 'J.C' Chlorophyll in his veins. Published early in December, my copy reached me in the last post of 2009.

Although I had read through most of the typescript last summer it was, as always, wonderful to see the finished result. It is a simply but attractively produced softcover book, privately published by Bobby Ward with a cover price of $25. The book is available from www.bobbyjward.com.

As the book's subtitle indicates, J.C. Raulston was a 'horticultural ambassador', tirelessly promoting good plants and practices to the horticulturally underdeveloped American public and staid nursery trade from his base at the North Carolina State University Arboretum in Raleigh. This remarkable place, now called the JC Raulston Arboretum, had itself been established in the face of severe opposition from within the university. With J.C.'s dynamism it rapidly became known as one of the horticultural hotspots on the American east coast, a position it retains today. One of its most remarkable features has been the practice, established by J.C., of distributing vast numbers of plants to the nursery trade and the horticultural public, part of his philosophy of 'Plan and plant for a better world'.

'Chlorophyll in his veins' takes us in extraordinary, thoroughly researched detail, through Raulston's career, and in part peers into his private life, though this is a subject that could be studied at greater length. His legendary sex-life is scarcely touched upon - this is a horticultural biography - but his contribution to the gay horticultural world is fully acknowledged. He was an extraordinary personality, perhaps something of a flawed saint, but his influence on American horticulture was vast. It is no wonder that superlatives are used of him by those who provided jacket endorsements; 'this century's most important horticulturist' (Tony Avent), 'one of the most-loved personalities the gardening world has known' (Pamela Harper) and 'this giant of American horticulture' (Dan Hinkley).

One of the more regrettable of J.C's failings is that that he did not publish more. Although he wrote copiously for the Arboretum newsletter, he published only one book, and not very many horticultural articles. In small part this dearth of publications is remedied by the printing here of transcripts of a few of his many presentations to horticultural groups. Despite being only a tiny sample they give an impression of what a talk by this man was like - full of wisdom, wit and irreverence. Mainstream American horticulture and its dullard practitioners get short-shrift in his talk 'The joys of horticultural deviance', while 'Untangling the hardiness question' reveals both the depth of his knowledge and his skill at passing this on to an audience. It would have been nice to have met him, but Bobby Ward's book is the next best thing.

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