Being a plant breeder and having a young family doesn’t leave me a lot of time for leisure gardening, but still, as an unashamed plant geek, I can’t resist indulging in a few plants and veg. This month is all about a humble potato.
In early February I started chitting tubers of a very special potato on my windowsill: La Bonnotte. Being French you may think I am a bit biased, but of all the potato varieties I have ever had the chance of tasting, this definitely tops my gourmet list. Sautéed whole in their skin, simply with salted butter and herbes de Provence, they are truly divine, with an unforgettable sea-like, sweet, citrusy and chestnutty note. It’s important to cook them in their skins to keep the taste, but the inward eyes would make peeling almost impossible anyway. I had ordered 2kg of seed potato and when they arrived, I was very tempted to cook some straight away… This was far worse than the Stanford marshmallow experiment, but I shall wait until harvest time!
La Bonnotte is normally grown on the small island of Noirmoutier, where the light sandy soil, oceanic microclimate and the addition of seaweed all participate in developing the unique flavour. It may also have to do with the absolute TLC every plant receives: La Bonnotte is planted by hand using the old technique of lazy beds – definitely not for the lazy gardener – which are essentially wide, parallel raised beds without any wooden borders. On the mere 5 hectares where they are grown, the tubers are planted on the 2nd of February and harvested before maturity 90 days later. The backbreaking job of harvesting and severing the growing tubers from the mother plant is again all done manually; machine harvest would just ruin the soft skins and delicate aromas.
With the mechanisation of agriculture in the 60s, La Bonnotte very nearly became extinct, but it was saved in extremis by passionate Noirmoutier growers and the INRA in the 90s. By April 1996, it was ready to go back on the market to the delight of chefs and gourmets alike. The first hand-harvested crop of 5 kg was auctioned and fetched the incredible price of €2,300, making La Bonnotte the most expensive potato in the world. Nowadays the price is more like €10 a kilo for the very first ones, still a high price for a spud!
Now back to reality. I very much doubt I’ll have the time and dedication to build lazy beds and add Irish moss seaweed when my own La Bonnotte tubers are finally ready for planting. I think I’ll plant some in the ground and some in bags. I’ll also be growing some tasty Jazzy as backup and comparison. Suffolk is a tad colder than Noirmoutier so I plan on planting in early March and won’t be able to taste them until the end of May. By then I’ll know if La Bonnotte tastes just as good without the influence of the sea, even if in Noirmoutier it has been nicknamed pomme de mer.
Master plant breeder, Charles Valin, head of Thompson & Morgan’s award-winning plant breeding programme, gives his top picks for 2017. Charles’ plant breeding accomplishments include the world’s first white bidens, the first properly dwarf buddleia, the first intensely scented trailing violas and the first ever bright blue verbascum.
1. Strawberry ‘Just add Cream’.
I’ve got high hopes for this fabulous new strawberry variety bred by us here at T&M. I’m confident that the exceptional flavour and aroma will make it the new favourite of chefs and gardeners alike.
2. Lily ‘Corsage’.
This stunning lily dates from 1961, but is still among the most elegant Asiatic Hybrids ever created. Each soft pink flower has delicate spots and a subtle eyeliner edge. It is also pollen-less, so there is no danger of staining if you use it as a cut flower and it is safe for cats.
3. Petunia ‘Mini Rosebud Romantic’.
Like a miniature version of the classic double petunia, this lovely variety is ideal if you don’t like dead heading petunias due to their stickiness – this one is absolutely non-stick!
4. Coreopsis ‘Sunkiss’.
The brightest yellow flowers and largest central blotching of any C. grandiflora type to date. This is a breakthrough in seed-raised coreopsis, allowing it to be better priced compared to traditional cutting-raised young plants. Combines well with other plants.
5. Dianthus ‘Dynasty’.
A double-flowered, more elegant version of the classic Sweet William, ‘Dynasty’ is perennial and perfect for cottage gardens. It has a lovely fragrance too and makes a fabulous cut flower.
6. Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’.
This variety has been around for a while, but I think it’s still the best performing Alstroemeria for the garden. The contrasting bronze foliage and never-ending blooms are hard to beat!
7. Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’.
This plant is a gardeners’ dream: it has nice glaucous blue evergreen foliage, flowers for nine+ months of the year and its strong Narcissus fragrance wafts quite a distance even on the dullest of winter days.
8. Wasabi Rocket.
This popular salad green has even more of a kick than the traditional rocket and it’s much easier to grow than the real Japanese Wasabi plant in our climate. Just what sushi lovers have been waiting for!
9. Pepper Padron.
I have personally tried this one in Spain. It is served gilled as tapas and has become a sort of edible version of Russian roulette: they are so tasty and mild, so you tuck in confidently, thinking they’ll all be the same, but roughly 1 in 10 of them is devilishly hot! This is bound to be a favourite with chilli fans.
10. Scabious Kudos.
In my opinion, this is the best performing Scabious around; it just flowers and flowers and flowers. It performs equally well in the garden and in containers. Kudos is also a Mecca for bees and butterflies which we all need to attract to our gardens.
Chelsea Plant of the Year 2012, ‘Illumination Pink’, has been renamed to recognise the work of its creator, Thompson & Morgan plant breeder Charles Valin.
Foxglove ‘Illumination Pink’ has taken the gardening world by storm since its launch in 2012. Unusual blooms, repeat flowering and multiple stems keep this unusual cross-breed high on the Thompson & Morgan best seller list. But it has left the experts scratching their heads when it comes to classification.
In recognition of the work carried out by Charles Valin in creating this unique cross as part of Thompson & Morgan’s breeding programme, James Armitage, Principal Scientist of Horticultural Taxonomy at RHS Garden Wisley, has announced Digitalis x valinii as the correct botanical naming convention for all existing and future crosses of D. purpurea and D. canariensis. He said: “The clever use of island species in the creation of D. x valinii has paid rich dividends.”
Lauded as a revolutionary hybrid by RHS taxonomists, it was felt that a reclassification was needed to distinguish all present and future crosses of the UK native Digitalis purpurea and the exotic D. canariensis, while smoothing out confusion over previous naming conventions for its Canary Island parent. 19th Century taxonomists named the Canary Island foxglove Isoplexis canariensis in 1829, recognising its morphological and behavioural differences compared to others in the Digitalis genus, namely a shrubby and candelabra habit and differences in petal shape and flower positioning on the stem.
Modern studies have since indicated that the two genera should not be treated separately, and in 2012 the RHS recognised all Isoplexis as Digitalis, just as the first commercial cross was launched to the public by Thompson & Morgan. This reclassification outdated early naming suggestions for ‘Illumination Pink’ and its sister lines, such as Digiplexis, while Digitalis ‘Illumination Pink’ just didn’t do justice to the work involved in creating it. It’s common for new cultivars to be named after people, but to have a species named in your honour doesn’t happen very often and was more common in the era of the great plant hunters. Charles said: “I am humbled and grateful to receive such recognition for my work on Digitalis. Having a plant named after you certainly doesn’t happen every day!”
During his time with Thompson & Morgan, Charles has developed over 40 unique creations across a wide range of genera, while overseeing the seed and plant mail order specialist’s unique breeding programme. View a full list of Charles’ currently available introductions, but key lines alongside ‘Illumination Pink’ include the dwarf Buddleja ‘Buzz’ Series, the world’s first black double petunia ‘ Black Night’ and Cosmos ‘Cupcakes’. Several of Charles’ latest creations are being launched in the Thompson & Morgan 2016 Spring Catalogue. Watch this space!
Charles Valin at Thompson & Morgan’s plant breeding grounds near Ipswich
Charles Valin, Thompson & Morgan’s plant breeder has been awarded the 2013 Reginald Cory Memorial Cup by the Royal Horticultural Society.
This prestigious award is given to encourage and reward the production of new garden hardy hybrids. Since 2005 it has been presented to a plant breeder whose work in the hybridisation of a particular species has resulted in the introduction and general availability of exciting new hardy hybrid varieties.
Charles’ most fabulous – and now famous – creation to date is the foxglove, ‘Illumination Pink’, which won the 2012 RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year award. Thanks to Charles’ work, Thompson & Morgan will be launching further colours in the ‘Illumination’ range this year, including an apricot version named ‘Chelsea Gold’ to mark the centenary of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
Originally from France, Charles has been breeding plants at Thompson & Morgan for nine years and is responsible for creating some of the company’s most impressive new plant varieties.
Foxglove ‘Illumination Pink’
His achievements include the hugely successful dwarf, branching buddleja, ‘Buzz’™, which now comes in 5 colours, and the highly popular fuchsia ‘Lady in Black’ which is renowned for its ‘flower power’ and which can be used as a climber. Charles was also the first breeder to create an F1 hybrid laurentia and is also well-known for his work with hollyhocks, hellebores, fuchsias and begonias.
Charles says that he feels very lucky to have a job that he enjoys so much and that he finds it both fun and exciting to see what he can create through his work. Thompson & Morgan’s managing director, Paul Hansord, commented “We are very proud of Charles and pleased that his work has been recognised by the RHS”.
Find out more about Charles’ work in plant breeding at home, there’s a reward if you discover a new variety too!