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Book Review - My World of Hepaticas by John Massey with Tomoo Mabuchi

Title: My World of Hepaticas

Author: John Massey

Language: English

Subject: Gardening, Genera Specific Book - Hepatica

Type: Hardback

RRP: UK £45.00 + P&P

Pages: 296 inc, contents and index. Full colour, glossy.

Publisher: Orphans Press

Publication Date: 2022

ISBN: 978-1-3999-2304-0

Genera specific books are very often the product of a life’s work, (obsession may be a better word than work), with a particular plant. You would have to have some nerve to consider writing one without this experience, so I am always very confident why buying one that it will be a definitive text and ooze with experience, knowledge and valuable observations. As expected, this book, written by a renowned nurseryman, as it is, does not, in any way disappoint!

Throughout it is crammed (though not in an overdone way) with superb images of plants, both on nurseries and in the wild. As well as Hepaticas, the landscape in which they are found is explored and the myriad people involved in finding, collecting, breeding, selling and trading them over the author’s career are documented and their image included. This is a diary of experiences and joyful work, as much as it is a roll call of honour for those involved and an encyclopaedia of species and varieties of the genus.

A rare balance between something pictorially beautiful enough to be a ‘coffee table book’ and descriptively heavy enough to be an educational tome. My kind of book indeed.

For those of you who may not have heard of the author, John Massey, he is the owner of the world-famous Ashwood Nurseries and a highly respected plantsman who holds the Victoria Medal of Honour as a mark of his superb work over the years. Ashwood nurseries are known for their work with a number of winter/spring flowering genera, not least of all Helleborus, with the much-loved Helleborus x hybridus (Ashwood garden Hybrids) series being a mainstay of the UK garden scene for years and still not bettered (in my opinion). John's passion for Hepatica is well known and is perfectly summed up by the great Roy Lancaster (one of my Horticultural Heroes), who writes on the back cover;

"If it were possible for Hepaticas to nominate someone to write an appreciation of them, they would, to a plant, choose John Massey..."

High praise indeed, but well-deserved and John has done the genus proud with his writing here.

To the book then; the author takes us through the world of Hepatica starting, as one probably should do, with a well described introduction to the Genus and John's experiences over the years, including a short list of names of luminaries who mentored and inspired John's journey through plants.

The second chapter looks to the history and classification of Hepatica including a look at regions where Hepatica exist in the wild. This is followed by no less than 6 full pages of comparative and utterly beautiful foliage images ( see below) to aid identification and showcase the diversity in the genus. I love comparative images, always have and probably always will. When I see one it reminds my of the fabulous Phillips and Rix series of plant books (right), as well as the Gardener's Guide book series (below) and of course, Roy Lancaster's pieces in RHS The Garden magazine over the years. Useful and visually a delight!

Chapter 3 takes us from the abstract into the specific and we are introduced to Hepatica species. Starting in Europe with Hepatica nobilis and then H. transilvannica (a plant that always reminds me of my first year plant identification lessons at Hadlow College). For each species, we are shown geographical range, climate and site preferences, images in situ and of localised plant partners witnessed during expeditions in Norway and Romania to name just two. We get to read wonderfully detailed plant descriptions and field notes of local conditions, before being introduced to subspecies, naturally occuring varieties and hybrid forms of each species. Detail is never spared and this is so detailed that it is as valuable as a botanical reference as it is the details of a personal journey building knowledge and understanding.

From Europe we move to North American specie with H. americana (a species I don't know well, but are obviously beautiful from the images included. The same level of detail of description of the species and subspecies, habitat and local plant partners is included and field notes again take us through a field trip to the Appalachian Mountains.

Chinese species of H. asiatica and H. henryi are covered in detail next, before the short jump to Japan, where many varieties were raised and are highly prized. Japanese species H. yamatutai is described and its local relationship with Hellebore species H. thibetanus (see below) and other spring delights like Epimedium showcased. A short mention of species in Korea are described before japanese selections of Hepatica asiatica are described. Back to japan again, H. insularis, H. maxima (both occur in Korea as well), are described and a few forms pictured.

We move then to the lands between Asia and Europe. Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Kashmir where Hepatica falconeri grow, with the question of is it a hybrid or evolutionary transition linking Hepatica and Anemone being asked. Here the field notes speak of the delight of exploring an arguably dangerous part of the world, looking for and photographing plants in North Pakistan and the Kashmir.

More detail on Hepatica in Japan is then giving and a historical timeline provided, which is useful, especially when we look at the number of Japanese cultivars introduced and to better understand their value and importance in Japanese Horticulture. Somewhat quietly, the author proposed controversy here, suggesting that Japanese Hepatica grouped into the species H. nobilis, should be separated into their own species and he sets out his argument for this. It seems enough at first sight for me to agree with him, but thankfully is a job for Botanists to determine. A helpful map of distribution of species in Japan and guides to differences follows to support the claim.

We then are shown to the more tender Japanese species of H. japonica var. japonica and the enchanting image of H. japonica var. japonica f. lutea taken by the author (above) has me smitten and looking for a plant to grow under cover. Utterly gorgeous and worth building an alpine glasshouse for alone I'd say! It is here where images of cultivated forms of this species go into overdrive with myriad colours and petal arrangements on view in vivid colour.

The epic 3rd chapter is subdivided by region and very readable travelling as you can through the field notes and enjoying the experiences witnessed by the author.

The book then transitions into chapter 4, moving from wild observations of species to hybrid species, both wild and garden crosses (accidental and deliberate). An image is above. It gives examples from a number of species hybrids and a range of named cultivars as well as commonly grown (as common as Hepatica can ever be) subspecies and hybrid forms. The same level of detail and valuable observations exist throughout this shorter chapter.

Chapter 5, is where everyday gardeners looking to hone their skills will find their most confident footing. Entitled 'Hepaticas in the Garden', takes us through garden setting, best species to use, examples grown by some well-known and loved horticultural heroes and lots of lovely images including Ashwood nurseries' garden (see above). Advice is given on when to plant and how to do it along with plant partners to grow with them. It ends with a warning note that Hepaticas are not easy to grow, with a reputation of being difficult. This can be true in my experience, but as John points out, if you get the conditions right for them, they are much more accomodating.

Chapter 6 discusses Hepatica in the Alpine Glasshouse, which is interesting, but most gardeners are unlikely to commit to this level of investment unless they are truly bitten by the bug. I may just be headed that way myself.

Chapter 7 describes propagation techniques in great detail and leads us to Chapter 8 'Breeding' where we get an insight into the processes of breeding Hepatica and the categories they are described by when they flower.

Chapter 9 highlights showing plants at Garden and Flower shows, something which Ashwood Nurseries have excelled at over the years (see above). It includes a diarised description of the creation of an RHS Chelsea Flower Show display by long-time Ashwood Nurseries' propagator Philip Baulk. Detailed over several pages, the process of inception to reality of creating one of these outstanding displays should not go without mention. I supply plants to many show gardens each year and know how much work goes into producing them. Philip's guide is an excellent explanation of the thinking, planning, delicate timing and huge effort required to produce plants for a show. This is a fascinating read indeed.

Inevitably when growing any plant, Pest and Diseases must be considered and these are ably described in chapter 10, including treatments and mitigation measures as a guide for those growing Hepaticas at home.

Chapter 11 is a wonderfully sentimental homage to friends and mentors entitled 'The Cast' and includes images and descriptions of each person and their contribution not just to John's experience, but to the genus as a whole. Publications written, varieties bred, named or introduced are all highlighted and this is a lovely read. It includes a page on Tomoo Mabuchi (see above) a plant geneticist, who is credited on the cover and provided all of the scientific research contained within the book from his work on the genus, with some of his papers included in Chapter 12 of the book. Chapter 11 also includes details and several pictures of Glenn Shapiro's National Collection of Hepatica in Lancashire - one to look out for if available for a visit for sure!

The book end at chapter 12 with botanical notes from Tomoo Mabuchi, which are detailed and comprehensive.

What a read! Well written, sumptuously adorned with vibrant images throughout (just look below...). many are the authors, but a comprehensive list of credits is included prior to the index. Probably not a book for a generalist gardener, but if you are into Hepatica a must have and if you like those allied Genera flowering in late winter to mid-spring, definitely one to consider. As much a reference work as it is a personal story. A highly detailed guide and geographical representation of a much-loved plant. Worth every one of its £45.00 and although new varieties will inevitably be introduced not yet present in this book, everything word in it is sure to last the test of time.

The book can be bought directly from Ashwood Nurseries by clicking here to visit the site.

Please note, the links to Amazon are paid affiliate link. If you purchase the book from Amazon, using this link I will receive a small payment from them. It doesn't cost you anything and the book is priced as per the Amazon price. Thanks

Please note, Images of the book are my own with permission from the author/publisher. As with all images on this site, they are not for reproduction or use without written permission. Permissions can be sought from emailing though images of materials copywritten by another party will not be given.

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