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Trouble With 'Leylandii'

I read an article recently that troubled me. It was entitled: 'Blooming bamboo crisis looms'. Apparently, the bamboo species Fargesia murieliae - a plant many of us have in our gardens - has started to flower in unison across the land. 'So what?' You may ask. Well the point is, bamboo shouldn't flower. Not this one anyway. 'What a pleasant surprise,' you say. Well actually no, you see there's a catch. When it finishes flowering it dies.

It's not the simple fact that Fargesia murieliae flowers and then dies which troubles me, it's not that gardens throughout Europe are - over a window of time spanning approximately four years - going to be freckled with dead bamboo plants. I don't care about all the pseudo-Japanese gravel gardens that are losing their one and only specimen. I'm not even concerned that London Zoo will be struggling to find something to feed its giant pandas on. No, what bothers me is the how and why of this phenomena.

A boffin from Kew gardens came up with the most plausible explanation. 'Fargesia murieliae was always going to do this,' he says; 'it was genetically programmed to flower and die on or around its hundredth birthday.'

It's no good sticking your hand up and saying: but I only bought my bamboo two years ago from Plants 'R' Green. You see, your plant, everyone's plant was raised from a cutting, whether it was from a cane cutting, a root cutting or, an Irishman's cutting doesn't matter. Essentially your bamboo contains genetic material as old as the first cultivar of this species used for commercial production.

In case you haven't twigged (sic) yet, we're talking clones here. A cutting is a clone; in the nursery trade we call it vegetative propagation, but it's still a clone. Left to its own devices, Fargesia muriliae and most other plants would multiply by producing seed. If you had bought your seed-raised specimen of bamboo from a specialist nursery - well then you wouldn't live long enough to see it flower so there wouldn't be a problem.

This phenomena of plants doing the unexpected has been playing on my mind. It seems to me - stealing a phrase from sport - we have been guilty of taking our eyes off the ball. Commentators have got all worked up about Dolly the sheep, and about genetically engineered maize, but they've neglected to consider the possible consequences of one of a gardener's and nurseryman's most cherished practices: taking cuttings.

In the light of what is happening to bamboo it's not unreasonable to speculate that other garden plants, particularly those propagated on a vast scale, have surprises in store for the unwitting. Let's take a plant we all know, one grown by the million. Love it or hate it lets consider X Cupessocyparis leylandii. You know it as a tall elegant conifer; you know it as a dense evergreen hedge; you might know it as the cause of more neighbour disputes than any other plant in the history of gardening. But do you know it as clone no.11? Because I'll bet a Boeing 747 load of garden compost - all the leylandii, hedges and specimen trees you can point to are clone no.11.

Imagine a scenario in a few years time when clone no.11 reaches its fortieth birthday. It's going to have a coming of age party. It's going to have - by our standards - a late puberty. Small, barely noticeable apertures are going to appear on the underside of heavily lignified branches. On balmy summer evenings when half of suburbia is in the garden barbecuing supper, stomata begin emitting a seemingly innocuous gas with a series of distinctive phhhutt sounds. Few people notice the delicate aroma; most think it's the family pet passing wind.

Headlining the breakfast news the next morning are reports of a series of strange and particularly horrific deaths. Most reports are from the Home Counties, a few in Cheshire and one in Harrogate. The victims are said to have experienced a cannabis-like 'high' before their lungs dissolved as if they were filled with neat hydrochloric acid.

More cases are reported. Daily, it's the only item on the news, the only feature in the papers. The country is panicked - gripped by fear.

Scientists suggest a link with X Cupressocyparis leylandii, and within hours the Minister of State for Agriculture is summoned to Brussels. The Minister of State knew he was responsible for agriculture, forestry and fishery, but no one had told him that he was also responsible for horticulture. He has to look up the word in the dictionary.

Talks begin immediately, and they continue through the night, and then into the next night. When the Minister finally emerges half the journalists in Europe are camped outside the European Parliament, waiting to hear what he has to say.

The EEC has banned the export of all plant material from the UK to mainland Europe. All mainland nationals are advised to return home as quickly as possible. A television and radio debate begins immediately, within hours they are joined by the press. The Prime Minister recalls parliament from its summer recess for an emergency debate. Twelve hours later - hastily drafted legislation has been made law. All leylandii hedges and trees irrespective of age are to be uprooted, shredded and incinerated. A hundred million ecus will be allocated immediately to facilitate the swift execution of this policy.

Over the ensuing weeks, Penguin books print and sell out three new editions of 'Day of The Triffids' by John Wyndham. Protest groups march through the streets of every major town, blaming the deaths on everyone from right wing extremists to God. Scientists and cranks alike pontificate on whether the end of man is nigh. Surely, we know now what happened to the dinosaurs?

As hedges are ripped down and privacy is lost, open warfare is unleashed between neighbouring householders. The number of deaths and serious injuries caused by such incidents increases a thousand fold. House breaking increases by a hundred thousand fold. The army is drafted in to keep the peace. The Prime Minister announces a state of emergency. He appeals for calm. The President of Europe demands the total isolation of the UK, the closing of the Tunnel, the closing of all air and sea links.

All because no one knew what would happen on X Cupressocyparis leylandii clone no.11's fortieth birthday.

Naah. That could never happen in this country.

- The Composter

All Articles � 2000 Paul Lathrope
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