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Brian Mathew

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Botanist and horticulturist

Wisley Diploma in Practical Horticulture, 1960–1962

Brian Mathew - Botanist and horticulturist As a young boy, Brian and his sister were given a patch in the garden by their father who was a good gardener. They competed for 6d a week (which they probably both got), but it was a stimulus to early gardening.

Later, after doing National Service in the Meteorological Office, Brian continued in the same vein, with a few months to spare he worked in an elderly neighbour’s garden. Arthur Weekes was a well known horticulturist who bred Lewisia and was extremely enthusiastic.

Brian loved it, working there from morning to night, enjoying all the plants and reorganising the rock garden. Arthur suggested Brian look into horticulture as a career and took him to meet the Ingwersen’s who ran a nursery in Sussex. Three years after working at Ingwersen’s nursery, Brian started at Wisley. He doesn’t remember why he chose Wisley, except that it seemed the natural place to go and he had visited it a few times before. Brian was a ‘mature’ student of 23 at the time, as were most of his fellow trainees and all were men.

The aspect Brian enjoyed most about the course was the plantsmanship and the plant identification tests really captured his imagination. They became a challenge and he was highly miffed if he didn’t get 100%. It became a battle between himself and other students to come out on top, and trying to beat Chris Brickell and Bob Hall (the Botanist and assistant) at their own game.

They all fought to keep awake during the evening lectures, having practical demonstrations during the day while slowly rotating through the departments. Brian’s favourite was the Rock Garden, where Ken Aslett, a tremendous plantsman, worked. They got on very well and a lot of his knowledge rubbed off. Because of the botany he learnt from Chris Brickell and the extreme interest in plants he gained from Ken Aslet and the rest of the botany staff, he found himself more and more drawn to the botanical side of things.

The course was valuable as it made him realise that he wanted to see plants growing in the wild. To that end a group of his fellow students got together and raised the money they needed to buy a Land Rover and drive out to Iran for a six month expedition. Sending specimens to Kew, Brian got to know the people in the Herbarium and made tentative enquiries about starting work there. After the expedition however, he worked at Wisley as foreman on the Rock Garden before eventually ending up at Kew where he stayed for 25 years.

Brian is a prolific author, writing Dwarf Bulbs and a string of botanical papers. His contribution to horticulture has been recognised with an MBE and VMH (Victoria Medal of Honour) and thinks that being at Wisley was absolutely crucial in firing his imagination and giving him the basic structure for his career.

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