When Elizabeth MacGregor tells people that she breeds violas, their most common reaction is “Oh, pansies?” Although she doesn’t like to talk ill of other people’s breeding efforts, at this she admits that she struggles to contain herself. “In fact I loathe and detest pansies,” she confides. “They are so often bred to produce large blobs of harsh colours, which is really the opposite of what I love.” Elizabeth has been breeding plants for more than 30 years, and there are definite themes within her breeding, small flowers being among them. “I will always go for a mass of small flowers over a few big ones. They produce more of a show, and at the same time they are more delicate.” But she initially chose violas because of practicalities.
Her interest in gardening was sparked in the early 1980s when she and her husband, Alasdair, moved into a cottage with a long and thin, quarter-acre garden in Warwickshire.“My knowledge and interest developed quickly as soon as I had a garden of my own,” she says. This interest piqued, she found herself surrounded by amazing gardens, such as Kiftsgate and Hidcote, and John Treasure’s garden in Tenbury, which boasted a huge clematis collection.
She fed her new interest visiting these gardens and by joining the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, which became the basis of her burgeoning interest in hybridisation. “The Warwickshire group was really astonishing, just the depth of knowledge. I found myself surrounded by people who were complete plant addicts, and listening to talks from plantspeople and leading nurserymen. There was so much to learn.”
Through research, trial and error she began experimenting with making her own plant crosses and was delighted at producing a couple of “seriously good clematis”. She caught the bug, but with little space she tried her skills on diminutive Viola cornuta, producing plants with masses of small, delicate flowers and perennial habits. She started selling her plants to local garden centres and via mail order.
Very soon though Elizabeth found that the garden wasn’t giving her enough scope for her ambitions. “I desperately wanted a nursery with a garden where customers could see the plants growing, so we started the hunt for a bigger garden.” Eventually they hit upon Ellenbank, in Galloway, a three-and-a-half-acre garden containing a beautiful, half-acre, curved walled garden. It is here that Elizabeth has been able to experiment with all of her favourites – clematis, thalictrums, geums, geraniums and more – and to develop her own hybridising style. “I love the species, and I love plants that look natural and close to how they look in the wild, but I try to lengthen their flowering period or encourage them to be more floriferous.” She does this by crossing a plant that flowers early in the year with one that flowers later, or by looking for sterile hybrids, which – unable to set seed – will keep on flowering far longer than the species would.
With a growing number of her own plants on her list, she started exhibiting at garden shows throughout Scotland, and later at RHS Flower Show Tatton Park. “It was pre internet, and a wonderful way for a rural business to reach a great many customers that we wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise.” Elizabeth also revelled in the contact with nursery owners who she found wonderful sources of plants and knowledge, and in the feedback from RHS judges in particular. “Our first show we were awarded a bronze and then had a run of silver gilts, but one particular judge took me through the stand in great detail pointing out exactly what they are looking for and how we could improve, and from then on we started getting golds.”
From 2003 to 2011 she was awarded nine consecutive golds, plus the award for Most Creative Display in the RHS Floral Marquee in 2004 and Best Exhibit in 2007. In 2011 her Anemone Wild Swan (= ‘Macane001’) was awarded Plant of the Year at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
In 2011 she and Alasdair made the decision to stop exhibiting. “The shows are wonderful but stressful and very physical, and we were away for so much of the summer. It was time to reassess what was most important, and spend more time on the garden.” Their son John moved to the garden with his young family and now the three of them run the nursery together.
Happily, she is now able to spend more time creating her elegant and long-flowering plants, a job to which she has come to realise she is particularly temperamentally suited, and which she finds particularly satisfying. “There is a sheer dogged perseverance that you need and that I seem to have. If I get a good visual idea I will attempt it again and again, cross after cross, until I get it right. I love creating something that didn’t exist before.”