Horticulture Week Podcast: a rose to remember 18th century Welsh black gardener, John Ystumllyn

Matthew Appleby, David White and Zehra Zaidi

We Too Built Britain's Zehra Zaidi and Harkness Roses' David White have launched the John Ystumllyn rose, named after the first well-recorded black Welsh gardener and believed to be the first rose named after an ethnic minority Briton.

Horticulture Week editor Matthew Appleby interviews the pair about the new rose and it's potential impact. Zaidi’s Horticulture Week article in July 2020 on John Ystumllyn created a groundswell of support for a new rose. Horticulture Week advised on finding a rose grower and in helping promote the project.

We Too Built Britain, founded by Zehra Zaidi, has campaigned to tell the stories of under-represented people in Britain with the aim of building social connections and to show what we have in common, to then also understand and value our uniqueness and differences. Previous campaigns include the new 50p ‘Diversity Built Britain’ Royal Mint coins and the ‘Hidden Heroes’ statues campaign. Advolly Richmond, social historian, is also a key campaign supporter.

Zaidi says: "The representation element matters. To our knowledge there has never been a rose named after an ethnic minority Briton."

Ystumllyn was an 18th centiry Welshman of uncertain origin, possibly a victim of the Atlantic slave trade who was taken by the Wynn family to its Ystumllyn estate in Criccieth, where he was christened, and given the Welsh name John Ystumllyn, who became a gardener.

"It came about because of a lack of diversity in gardening," Zaidi says. Concerned the history about minorities in gardening might not be remembered, Zaidi approached HortWeek and the story was shared. People called for a rose: "before we knew it we had a campaign".

Harkness Roses has set aside 5,000 roses for community gardens and will send out roses for free to community garden groups. All groups must do is: write in and tell Harkness Roses “why inclusion and community in gardening matters” and send images of their group planting the rose for the Community Wall on Harkness Roses’ website.

White says: "We think this is a really important story. It's important to give it the quality of rose that matches the interest of the story.

"As a business, we became quite isolated over the last 15 months." Garden centres were closed, there were only Zoom meetings, and lots of people don't have gardens, and struggled with mental health. "This rose took on a bigger significance; we wanted to engage in a community project to get people gardening."

Zaidi says the public impact is the rose is "a symbol of friendship, love and community because that's what John's story represented.. and a homage to the gardening community. I hope this brings people together."

The rose was chosen from 40,000 seedlings and is a  compact floribunda shrub, developed from eight years breeding, with a citrus fragrance, flowering from late May until the first frosts. It is suitable for pots, beds and borders.

White says because the rose will be widely available because it has such a fascinating story. This autumn 2,900 roses will be available for dispatch in mid-November. In summer 2022, roses from cuttings will be at Harkness' exhibit at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and from autumn 2022 there will be 12,000-15,000 available for garden centre sale from autumn 2022-spring 2023. Some 250 independent garden centres are already showing interest.

Liz Saville Roberts, the MP for the area where John Ystumllyn lived, added: "I knew the story locally, but what this does, we suddenly we wake up to how this story that we kept and cherished - that this story is really of national importance."

The Plaid Cymru MP raised the rose in the House of Commons on 21 October, asking if time could be set aside to debate black history stories, including that of John Ystumllyn.

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg replied: "If the Ystumllyn rose could be the rose of friendship across political parties, I think that's something we could plant with pride."

Zaidi concludes: "Horticulture has been joyous, such a welcoming community. This campaign shows we take each other for granted, sometimes you just have to ask and build connections together."

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