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Profile: RHS director of science Alistair Griffiths

The RHS director of science and collections on how a childhood love of plants sowed the seeds of a career and how 30 million gardeners can help reverse the climate crisis. Words Claire Masset. Portrait Charlie Hopkinson.

Professor Alistair Griffiths wants to transform the way we garden. As director of science and collections at the RHS, his mission is to make gardening better for people, for nature and for the planet. It’s an ambitious aim, but Alistair is the right man for the job.

His quest springs from a lifelong love of gardening and the conviction that science can improve the world. “My grandad inspired me. When I was four, he bought me two little sedums in a car boot sale. My dad then gave me a piece of front garden. Soon the sedums had overgrown the whole thing.” Like his stonecrops, Alistair’s infatuation with plants hasn’t stopped growing.

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When he’s not working, he gardens. “I have to be surrounded by plants,” he smiles.

As a young Lancashire lad, Alistair wanted to be a forester. “But I found out what it was about and decided against it. I didn’t want to cut down trees, I wanted to grow them.” He left school at 16 and built up his plant knowledge with a diploma in horticulture at nearby Myerscough College and a part-time job in a garden centre. This mix of the academic and the practical has been a leitmotif in his career.

A spell at Ness Botanic Gardens near Liverpool introduced him to botanist Dr Hugh McAllister. “Hugh was an inspiration. I wanted to be like him. He encouraged me to go to university.” And so, in 1998, Alistair graduated from Reading University with a degree in botany and plant biology. “I did my third-year research project in the High Atlas Mountains, studying the conservation status of Cupressus dupreziana var. atlantica.” Explaining his academic success, Alistair says with unaffected modesty: “I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but I have a lot of passion.”

After his degree, he worked for a short while in a high-street opticians but was unhappy. “I remember my gran sending me a picture of the Eden Project and suggesting I apply to work there. I didn’t think I could do it, but I got an interview and they took me on.” He started by propagating plants, then moved into the plant records department before becoming head of science. He did a PhD while working at Eden. “Looking back, it’s not something I’d recommend.”

While Alistair was at the Eden Project, from 1999 to 2013, the role of director of science at the RHS came up a couple of times. “I wasn’t ready when it first came round.” The second time he was. Since June 2013, he has headed a team of 70 scientists and nearly as many PhD and post-doctoral students. Their aim is to maximise the environmental and health benefits of plants. “What’s exciting is that at RHS Garden Wisley we can turn science into applied action,” he explains. “Some students are looking into climate-resilient trees, measuring things such as carbon sequestration, pollution capture and cooling effects. Others are studying the noise-reduction properties of various plants, to tackle noise pollution in cities. We’re also looking at how plant scent, colour and shape can boost our wellbeing.”

FOR YEARS, WE’VE UNDERPLAYED THE BENEFITS OF ORNAMENTAL PLANTS; ALL WE HAVE USED THEM FOR IS BEAUTY

Alistair wants to design a blueprint for a wellbeing garden (he’s even working on aversion in his own garden).“ We can create habitats that help with human stresses. For years, we’ve underplayed the benefits of ornamental plants. All we have ever used them for is beauty.” As his book – Your Wellbeing Garden – explains, gardens and green spaces are so much more than places of beauty. They can heal,  calm or excite; increase our physical health; bring us closer to other people; protect us from extremes of temperature, noise and pollution; and create habitats for wildlife. Alistair’s team is helping to increase these positives, known as ‘ecosystem benefits’.

Alistair believes we’re entering “a new, golden era” of horticulture. Hilltop, the recently opened Home of Gardening Science at RHS Garden Wisley, is physical proof of this. A place for behind-the-scenes, cutting-edge research, it also features an open-to-all permanent exhibition showcasing the benefits of plants and gardening. Visitors also have access to a 28,000- book library, learning studios and a teaching garden. They can even take part in experiments. “We’ve got the UK’s biggest garden plant herbarium at Hilltop. We’re hoping to expand it to include all 400,000 in the UK and create a database of their uses from an environmental, and health and wellbeing perspective.” All this information will eventually be available via the online RHS Plant Finder facility.

Climate change is the most pressing issue for Alistair. “There’s a lot we need to do. We need to inspire people to use gardening as a vehicle to help reverse the climate and biodiversity crisis we’re facing,” he says. “That’s what’s critical: how we steward the planet. The Earth will carry on, it’s we who are at risk. But we can turn it around.” His task may be considerable, but his message is simple: “Garden with your footprint in mind. Thirty million UK gardeners can make a huge difference.

USEFUL INFORMATION

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RHS Hilltop, the Home of Gardening Science, is based at RHS Garden Wisley, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB, To plan and book your visit, go to rhs.org.uk/gardens/wisley