Meet: Bob Cherry, our favourite modern-day-plant-hunter
Photo - Linda Ross
After 40 years developing plants and showing them off in the beautiful gardens at Paradise Plants at Gosford on the Central Coast of NSW, plant hunter and developer Bob Cherry is selling up and moving on. Graham Ross spoke with him about his work.
How did you come to buy this patch of land at Kulnura?
In the 1960s I started a retail nursery in my parents’ backyard in Gosford, and then expanded onto two adjoining quarter-acre blocks. I enjoyed growing and sourcing different plants. My interest then was primarily azaleas, which were terribly fashionable at the time, and houseplants, particularly begonias and polyanthus. My interest in camellias, particularly sasanquas and the species camellias, was kindled about this time. I soon needed room to plant my collection and started looking for a site for an expanded nursery and a garden.
This block of 222 acres was ideal. A permanent spring-fed creek flowed through a steeply sided, wooded gorge. I considered it a wonderland. A full spectrum of Sydney sandstone flora was present - from heathland, hanging swamps, various types of eucalypt through to rainforest. With this biodiversity came a wonderful variety of fauna as well. I purchased the land in 1972 at a crown land auction. A local estate real agent asked me why I had bought such a horrible block of land! One hundred and fifty acres of the land is still, and will remain, undisturbed bushland.
As well as creating the wonderful gardens at Paradise Plants and developing new ranges of camellia, poppy, polyanthus, primula and michelia, you are also one of that rare breed, the modern plant hunter. What area overseas has been your favourite to explore?
Western China is my favourite. There is a great range of altitude and environment featuring the greatest flora in the world. We have been lucky enough to manage more than 30 trips into this wonderland.
Do you have any idea how many new camellias you’ve bred, named and released under the Paradise Plants label in the last 40 years?
Breeding camellias is a slow process. From hybridising to marketing takes at least a decade! We have named about 30 sasanquas over the last 20 years. Nothing new was released over the past few drought/recession years, but in the next few years we will be releasing the best results of 20 years work. We’ve accumulated some wondrous cultivars, including new dwarf ‘Petite’ varieties; numerous upright sasanquas, including formal doubles, pinks, reds and bicolours; a new ‘Slimline’ sasanqua range, ideal for narrow spaces, as well as a new range of Japonica hybrids, which are magnificent, compact plants, prolific bloomers which we will call ‘floribunda’ hybrids.
One of Bob's favourite camellias, 'Incarnata'. Photo - Graham Ross
It’s a tough question, but do you have any favourite camellia cultivars?
I do love camellias with a bit of history. C. reticulata ‘Purple Gown’ is a Yunnan reticulata which has been grown and enjoyed for more than 1000 years in China. C. japonica ‘Incarnata’ is an incurved, formal double pink camellia, which was introduced from China to the west in the 1700s and given many names since. The mayor of a Chinese city gave my plant to me when we visited for a camellia show in the early 1990s. He told me the plant had been grown and enjoyed in the city for more than 2000 years.
What are your tips on growing camellias?
Once established, camellias are about the most easy-care plants you can find. They do need regular watering for the first year of establishment, but that’s about it.
What is it that has driven you to achieve so much in horticulture?
Just a love and curiosity of everything in the plant world.
To read more about Bob and his Paradise Garden read "Two Dogs and a Garden", by Derelie Cherry, Paradise Publishers, 2009.