7 May 2020

Our Garden Horticulturists – Will Ritchie

Bruce Langridge

Today’s focus is on the Garden’s Curator Will Ritchie. Since joining the Garden three years ago, I’ve not only enjoyed his passion for plants, gardens and conservation but also the importance he puts on botanic gardens working together nationally and internationally.

What is a curator? His formal job role is ‘Oversee the development of the plant collections, gardens and estate to promote plant conservation, research, education and horticulture’.


Where were you brought up?

I grew up near Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. We lived rurally with the Cairgorms National Park to the west and the coastline to the east. We had an incredible Site of Scientific Interest nearby that I explored as a young natural history enthusiast, learning to identify some of the basics like lyme grass, sand sedge and crowberry and spotting the seals and dolphins. Unfortunately, it’s had a few changes over the past decade, it’s now one of Donald Trump’s golf courses. It makes me very sad when I think about it but perhaps fuelled a passion for conservation.


How did you develop an interest in horticulture?

My paternal family has strong traditions of agriculture and horticulture in the East Lothian area. The family farm continues to be run as a plant nursery to this day. When I needed extra money as a teenager to go see football or gigs, it seemed a natural choice to find work gardening. While still at school I began a part-time job at Pitmedden Garden, which was a family affair as my sister ran the tearoom and my father was already a volunteer. The best part was I would get the old scones thrown out of the window as I passed on the lawnmower as an extra snack.


What kind of training have you taken to develop your career?

I trained in practical horticulture but also graduated with a BSc (Hons) degree in Horticulture with Plantsmanship at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). It was the perfect course for me as it combined the study of horticulture and botany. I could never separate the two, it always seemed a natural fit, I was equally comfortable in the gardens and herbarium. When I received a scholarship for postgraduate studies in the United States, I did the same again and took both horticulture and botany classes. I found refuge in many botanic gardens during my time in North America, working on research projects, teaching and conducting fieldwork. They are always a home away from home for me.


Horticulturally, where have you worked before?

Well, I have a CV featuring lots of gardens in the UK, USA and the Middle East. One of my favourite and most extraordinary experiences was working at Oman Botanic Garden. Like, our Garden, it was a 21st century national botanic garden, a project dedicated to the study and conservation of Oman’s flora. I worked in the nurseries, growing all these odd plants in temperatures above 40°C for much of the day. We also conducted fieldwork, collecting seeds and cuttings to establish ex situ conservation collections. The landscape of the country was incredible, on one side of the mountain you were in the desert, on the other you would be in a lush green valley. I really enjoyed seeing a botanic garden develop and being part of the project at the beginning. That was new. It probably helped inspire me to apply for the job I have now.


You obviously enjoy travelling to look for plants – you’ve spoken with great enthusiasm about your plant collecting trip to Vietnam for instance. Can you tell us what your favourite plant/seed collecting trip has been?

I really, really enjoyed working in Mexico. I was based in the herbarium at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City for a summer. We would study the flora during the day, enjoy the bright lights of the city in the evening and then head into the field at the weekends. The country is so diverse, it’s a meeting point for plants migrating from the tropical south and temperate north. You can be looking at agaves growing in the snow or cacti in the rainforest.  In Durango, in central Mexico, it was cool and wet and sheep grazed the uplands. It felt like Wales. Sometimes it just didn’t make sense but that’s why it was incredible. Such a rich culture too, the history, art, food, I can’t speak highly enough about my time there.

How are the horticultural team coping with the Covid-19 crisis?

The Horticulture team are coping very well with the circumstances, I’m very proud of them all. We are working new shift patterns, maintaining social distancing and finding new ways to practice horticulture. It’s really important to us that the collections continue to thrive and the gardens are looking great for when we re-open. The Botanic Garden is a special place and I think it’ll play an important role in helping people to reconnect with nature when visitors and volunteers are welcomed back.

Do you have a favourite part of the Garden?

I have some special places in the Garden where I go when it’s quiet to write in my notebook. I find time to reflect on progress, plan new planting schemes and come up with new ideas. Very little of these notes come to fruition but it’s a relaxing way for me to process my thoughts. I think that’s why I love gardens so much, they either soothe or inspire me.

I can’t choose a favourite plant, but I have a sentimental attachment to two. Senecio candicans has the most incredible silver leaves. I remember seeing it as a child in the Rock Garden at RBGE. Its probably one of the first plants I remember and it still fascinates me to this day. We have some growing in the Chilean section of the Great Glasshouse. The other is Acer griseum which can be found on the Broadwalk. On my first day as a student at RBGE we were given a list of plants to learn, Acer griseum was the first one on the list. I was daunted by the Latin and scientific names. Now I feel so comfortable with botanical nomenclature, it reminds me I can learn anything if I’m patient and dedicated.

Lastly, can you tell us something surprising about yourself?

To my great shame I’m not even the best horticulturist in my house. My partner Sammi grows lots of nutritious vegetables for us in the garden and her allotment. Her passions are food and community gardening. I have learn a lot from her and she challenges me to think about the social role and values of botanic gardens every day.