Contributed by Ginny Oakes

On March 23, 2020

Bergenia ‘Balbithan’

One of the contributions to our plant display in February was just two leaves of Bergenia ‘Balbithan’ brought by Karin Proudfoot. The accompanying description told us that she had bought it at Great Comp last year but could find nothing else about it except that it is listed by The Plantsman’s Preference nursery. She added that it is a good doer with upright, well-coloured foliage, impervious to extreme weather.

I definitely liked the look of this plant and wanted to know more. We found out about Balbithan House in Scotland and Mary McMurtrie, who lived and gardened there, but we couldn’t confirm a link. I contacted William Dyson at Great Comp to see if he had more information. “Not guilty,” he said, “I don’t grow it.” Back to Karin, who explained that she had bought it at the Great Comp Snowdrop Sensation from one of the visiting nurseries. Purely by chance I found a list of the nurseries that had attended that event. I discounted all those that I knew were selling snowdrops, which left me with just a couple of possibilities.

At the first one I called I only got an answering machine but my second try, to Rose Cottage Plants in Essex, was much more productive. I spoke to Jack Barnard, the charming and very helpful owner. I explained my predicament and he was very understanding but his is a bulb nursery and he doesn’t grow bergenias. Just as I was about to ring off I remembered something that Karin had told me; the stall where she bought it was across the bottom of the courtyard at Great Comp. Might this help identify the nursery? “Oh, that was Joe Sharman.” I knew Joe was there, (well, he wasn’t, he was in Germany but his snowdrops were) but his stall was at the side and, as far as I could remember, only had snowdrops. Jack explained that another nursery had offered to house Joe’s non-snowdrop plants so this was looking promising. A phone call to Tim Fuller at The Plantsman’s Preference confirmed the source as Joe Sharman of Monksilver Nursery. Bingo!

I left Joe an email message and, true to his word, he rang me back one evening soon afterwards and, yes, he did grow Bergenia ‘Balbithan’. “Can you tell me any more about it?” I enquired. He explained that he had visited Angela Whinfield of Snape Cottage in Bourton, Dorset, where he saw the bergenia and, being an experienced plantsman, realized what a good plant it was. He must have been given a division, which he has propagated and distributed to discerning gardeners. Angela had had it from Mary McMurtrie of Balbithan House. We had the link!

Mary McMurtrie was a Scottish botanical artist and horticulturalist. She wrote and illustrated several books of wild flowers and became internationally recognised for her botanical art.

She was born Mary Margaret Mitchell in 1902 in Skene, Aberdeenshire. After leaving school she became one of the first female students at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. She married Rev John McMurtrie in 1924 and the couple had four children but he died in 1949 leaving her to raise the youngest two children alone. She used her love of gardening to set up a nursery in the garden of the house that she bought in Aberdeen. It became a thriving business. In 1960 she bought the 16th century Balbithan House in Kintore in Aberdeenshire. She restored the house, transformed the garden and opened a nursery, which she ran until into her 80s. She also became a well respected botanical artist, exhibiting her watercolour paintings locally, in Scotland, at the Royal Horticultural Society in London and internationally. She published several books of illustrations and was invited to illustrate a number of other publications. She completed the illustrations for her last book, Old Cottage Pinks, shortly before her death on 1 November 2003 at the age of 101.

In her obituary published in The Scotsman, she was described as, “a delightful person, totally devoted to botany, flowers and her family, and extraordinarily modest. She was remarkably unassuming but a gifted painter.”

So, there we have it. I really like knowing the history of a plant, the person who raised it or first selected it and all the small details. For me it makes a plant special and adds greatly to my enjoyment.

However, despite all my sleuthing I didn’t actually have a plant. I had aranged with Joe to bring one to the plant fair at Great Dixter. “So long as it’s not cancelled,” I said. This was at the time when everything was being called off because of the Atlantic storms raging across the country. “A volcano is the only thing that will keep me from going to Dixter,” he assured me. Who can possibly have imagined that the volcano would take the form of a pandemic with us all staying at home and all events cancelled?

But I’ve had good news! Joe has been in touch and arranged to send me plants in the post. How about that? In years to come, when the plants are thriving, as I’m sure they will, I’ll be able to think about their history and all those people who have played a part in me being able to enjoy them.

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