Charles Quest-Ritson examines the incomparable hepatic glands of John Massey.
John Massey is a happy man. His radiant face is familiar to plant lovers across Britain and beyond. Plants were the great love of his life: he found them, grew them, selected and sold the best ones. In 1967, when he was 18, his father bought him a small, run-down nursery in Shropshire. Today Ashwood Nursery is one of our best known plant centers. It’s hard to leave without spending a lot of money – and feeling very pleased that I did.
Plant lovers have hobbies, and sometimes this passion develops into a long-term relationship. Mr. Massey had several hobbies, including cyclamens, auricles, hellebore, hydrangeas, and liverworts. Not content with simply creating a collection of plants that fascinate him, he busied himself with breeding new varieties, selecting potential parents, transferring pollen to pistils, planting seeds, evaluating seedlings, and introducing the best. All this brought him fame, fame and rapid growth in sales.
I first met Mr. Massey at the RHS show in Westminster on February 17, 1998, when he put on a liver show. Hepaticas are very similar to our regular tree anemones, but are the easiest to grow. H. transylvanica And H. noble (both Europeans) – usually bright blue. Mr. Massey’s colors ranged from navy blue to pink and white. Some were completely double, others were shaped like camellias. Caught on white with raspberry anthers. Plant lovers have never seen anything like it. Why didn’t we know about them? The exhibit electrified the judges and received the Gold Medal.
Mr. Massey returned to Westminster in 1999 with another liver disease and won another gold medal. I wonder what he will show us in 2000? At the first show of the year, in January, the main attraction was the display of his double-flowered hellebore hybrids. Then, on February 15, 2000, the liverwort show was not from his own nursery, but from Japanese enthusiasts whom he convinced to bring back from Japan an extensive liverwort show, all in distinctive pots. It was then that we realized that generations of Japanese nurserymen and plant lovers had discovered, selected and bred the unusual forms of their native plants. Japanese liver liver.
Mr. Massey has traveled everywhere hepatica grows naturally, from the Pyrenees to New England and Ulleungdo, 75 miles off the coast of Korea, which most of us have never heard of. Wherever he goes in search of plants, he enlists the support and knowledge of local wildflower experts and, being both outgoing and personable, gets along well with everyone he meets.
Now he has published a mass celebration of the kind, My Liver World (Available exclusively at Ashwood Nurseries, £45). This is a personal account of his discoveries, his enjoyment of the sights and the people he met and befriended along the way. There seems to be no end to the number of attractive varieties he has seen and photographed both in the wild and in cultivation. And he’s equally intrigued by the variation that liverworts show in their foliage – beautiful leaf patterns and color contrasts.
The variability of flowers and leaves of hepatica makes them an excellent object for development in horticulture. Mr. Massey’s book gives a comprehensive account of hybridization in Germany, Scandinavia, and Japan, and now of himself. So many nurseries hide their work that Mr. Massey’s openness is refreshing and typical of the man. About half of the book is devoted to hybrids. Everything is also illustrated. He describes the crossings he made and the results of his experiments. Consider this botanical riddle: “Most species of liverworts interbreed with each other. Although these crosses seem to work both ways… the resulting offspring can be quite different… for example, X. maximum intersects H. noble produces HOUR. X schlieterium. Now if X. maximum is the mother, the leaves are usually just green, and the offspring are 99% sterile. On the other hand, if H. noble mother, the leaves are mostly marbled, and the seedlings are almost all fertile … ”How do you explain this? Mr. Massey leaves the question for future researchers.
you can buy My Liver World just for his amazing photos. Some pages show close-up row after row of hepatica flowers resembling old Polyfotos in full bloom. And fall in love with each of them. It is hard to imagine that this book could ever be improved upon as a monograph—a monumental exposition that is also a pleasure to read and pore over.
Mark Griffiths conveys sage advice about pruning old plants from one of the great gardeners, but cautions us