Who's Who: Alan Street
One of the country's most sought-after nurserymen, Alan Street of Avon Bulbs, has sadly died. We share an interview from our archives, originally published in 2013. Images by Charlie Hopkinson
Meeting Alan Street for the first time, you might think he was French, because he has a particular kind of style you don’t often see in an Englishman. He’s a sharp dresser. His boots are terrific. So is his haircut. The suits, in which he appears alongside the Avon Bulbs displays at the Royal Horticultural Society’s shows in London, are immaculate dark pinstripes. If he wears a muffler, he does so in just the right insouciant way. But you need that good eye, that attention to detail if you are to win the number of Gold Medals that Avon Bulbs has gathered in over the years.
Nobody who saw it will ever forget the stupendous display of snowdrops Alan brought to the RHS February show three years ago, when more than 5,000 flowers were displayed among moss and leaves with such grace, such elegance, such sympathy, you thought they must have been growing there for ever.
He’s 56 years old and Avon Bulbs is effectively the only job he’s ever had. “Every day for the past 34 years I’ve got up and come to the nursery and lifted and divided and propagated. And nurtured.” Nurturing is a word Alan uses a lot. And it’s this acute, visceral attachment to his plants that makes him such a great nurseryman. They still enchant him, all the flowers he brings into being with his twin-scaling, his seed sowing, his careful garnering of offsets.
There was a moment when he thought he might have been something else – a specialist perhaps in French carved capitals of the 12th century. Back in the seventies, he had a place to study Fine Art at Norwich University of the Arts, but he never took it up. Then he decided he would do his bit for society and become a psychiatric nurse. “Are you really ready for that?” asked a friend. He realised he wasn’t.
But he did love the garden at his parents’ home in Oxfordshire. Nothing special, he says – sweet williams, marigolds, plenty of veg – but whenever they came back from a family holiday, he would rush round checking what had happened in his absence. “There was a love of plants there that just couldn’t be taken away. And it’s never left me.”
So he signed on for a three-year course in nursery practice at Merrist Wood College in Surrey. There, he discovered the first of the plants that he’s been responsible for introducing to the gardening world – x Halimiocistus wintonensis ‘Merrist Wood Cream’, a cross between Halimium and Cistus with creamy rose flowers blotched at the base with dark maroon. It’s still in cultivation and the proud possessor of an RHS Award of Garden Merit.
But the flower he’s most associated with is the snowdrop and earlier this year, the Avon Bulbs catalogue offered an extraordinary selection of 89 different kinds, cosseted, nurtured and slowly built up into saleable quantities by Alan. It included ‘Blewbury Tart’ the strange, angular, very green double snowdrop he discovered in the churchyard of St Michael’s church at Blewbury in Oxfordshire. “Dug up with the permission of the vicar,” he stresses.
That was in 1974, before he’d started at Merrist Wood and certainly before the current, widespread galanthomania had begun. But Walter Stagg, who ‘bought’ Alan as part and parcel of the nursery that became Avon Bulbs, was already collecting snowdrops in the early eighties. Many came from the gardens of the late Priscilla Bacon at Raveningham in Norfolk.
Alan’s other great love is what he calls his “old ladies” – the ancient, papery-petalled narcissi he’s gradually been collecting from neglected orchards, churchyards and overgrown gardens. “Such charm, such grace,” he says as we gaze at a bunch he’s picked of ‘Bath’s Flame’, with a delicate frilled cup of orange set against primrose yellow petals, raised more than 100 years ago by the great connoisseur of daffodils, the Rev George Engleheart of Bath.
When we meet, he’s just come back from speaking at the Philadelphia Flower Show. It’s not easy taking time off, although he says in the odd spare moment he loves poking around in flea markets. But the nursery is where he’s rooted, nurturing his treasures (look out for his new dark-flowered Agapanthus ‘Alan Street’ which he selected as a seedling about ten years ago). “You can make a living in the nursery trade,” he says reflectively. “You’ll never make a lot of money, but you do make some wonderful friends.”
Anna is a contributing editor of Gardens Illustrated and her books include The Tulip, The Naming of Names and Landskipping. She was awarde the Gold Veitch medal from the RHS in 2001.
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