Broadcasting from home

16.05 Eden.png

Well. I was very touched, and honoured, to be asked if I would speak at a PlantNetwork event at The Eden Project. I was invited by Rupert Wilson, a  PlantNetwork trustee (and also Principal Data Manager at RHS Wisley). PlantNetwork are a charity helping individuals and organisations with plant collections in the British Isles come together, share knowledge and gain experience.

Rupert also sent me field reports for four of the seven trees at RHS Wisley. The mature tree (top right in the photos below) was recorded in 1995, the other three trees are plants from Martin Gardner, and the material is of known wild origin from Chile. (Martin is now the Co-ordinator of the International Conifer Conservation Programme at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh).

I do have seven trees at Wisley in the catalogue, thanks to Matthew Pottage who also works there, and also to Agent Cinephile for submitting them. Thank you all.

As the PlantNetwork day was in Cornwall I suggested that I do my talk from Liverpool via Skype and this worked out very well. Thanks to Chris Bisson at Eden for making sure that all worked, and for providing everyone with copies of the flyer I produced for the event. (There is a link to that at the end of this post).

This is roughly what I went through on my ‘broadcast from home’:

I didn’t start the Monkey Map project with the idea of it being a positive plant record…. but the personal fascination that is shared here does make it positive because it has got people involved. And I do think that the Monkey Map is now a solid and valid database.

Unlike the people I am talking to at the PlantNetwork group I don’t work in botany or horticulture, although I do have my RHS certificate which I went to night school about ten years ago to do. And I do find sometimes that scientific records are not particularly accessible to those outside the industry – and that can exclude people even if that wasn’t the intention.

My own fascination with the natural world was sparked by my father, Frank Horton. He had a zoology degree but worked as a sociologist. We spent hours at Ness Botanic Gardens, and I particularly remember the times by the pond, he was fascinated by newts and frogs. He had the most amazing knowledge about life cycles of all creatures and their habitats and predators. I didn’t realise I’d miss that so much when he died, he was like an encyclopedia.


Frank Horton, 1976 Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey 

And of course there is a monkey puzzle tree at Ness Botanic Gardens, and that’s ‘CH1’, the first in the CH catalogue. It was ‘my’ first monkey puzzle tree. And I’ve always spotted monkey puzzle trees and seeing one would say, ‘Oh, there’s one!’ It was probably only a matter of time before I started formally observing them.

I’ve always been a very thorough diary and journal writer. I’ve observed all my years as a gardener at Plot 44 Greenbank Lane allotments in very detailed journals. So I was going to do another one, all about monkey puzzle trees.

However, it was my partner Ronnie Hughes who suggested I set  up the ‘monkey puzzle project’ (it didn’t have a name then) as a blog. I’d had experience of blogging from 2010 to 2012, as a breast cancer blogger – my ‘Being Sarah‘ blog is now archived – so it was a familiar tool. Ronnie assured me that people would be fascinated by he monkey puzzles, I wasn’t so sure. I launched Monkey Map in October 2013.

And so it has proved… People do love the Monkey Map and I am proud and complimented that the project is considered eccentric and quirky.

The numbers gathered relatively quickly – by March 2015 (so after just 18 months) I had just over 1,000 trees on the database from a variety of UK locations. Now we are approaching 4,000 trees, with more arriving all the time.

The Agent concept started as a joke, it is a ‘title’ given by me – and me alone – to those that submit monkey puzzle trees for the blog and show consistent and dedicated attention to hunting monkey puzzle trees. It has become a coveted title! I am delighted to be joined in the task of finding monkey puzzle trees by about 30 active agents. I mentioned Agent Millwall MPT, yes a monkey puzzle tree in SE London; Agents Edwin and Hubble, two adorable doglets in Scotland (yes, dogs who use Twitter); Agent Naturanaute who has really got going on the European catalogue; Agent Philip and Agent Lindsey in CH; Agent Simon in SY; and Agent John in Fife. Thank you all. Because without them the Monkey Map wouldn’t be the map that it is.

I explained the structure of the Monkey Map – it’s this blog with posts about monkey puzzle trees and local history and information about them, and related monkey news. The ‘database’ is at the core an Excel spreadsheet, and the trees are catalogued in the UK by their postcode area, and I use the postcode letters and a sequential number to give each tree a unique reference. The tree is then located on a Google map – with eight layers covering different areas of the UK, and one layer for international finds. I had then linked each dot to a photograph of the tree, for ID purposes. IN order to do that I needed to create a further blogging tool, using Blogspot to create a url of the image of the tree (this is only done for the first 2,500 trees in the catalogue). So cataloguing every tree is quite a time consuming process – and it’s only me doing the work.

I personally find it really exciting to observe the world with ‘monkey eyes’, I do find that we look differently in new (and old) places when we are consciously ‘looking’. And that’s exciting, and the Monkey Map captures that sense of excitement, of finding ‘real’ trees. It is for that reason that I recently created a ‘rule’ for the Monkey Map which is that you have to find the tree yourself and photograph it, Google images are not acceptable. Because it’s about fun, and about really looking and finding them.

Faced with increasing numbers of trees, and other demands on my time, not least my work as a funeral celebrant, I am now finding it hard to keep up with the cataloguing. I love the blog, I love the interaction with Agents, I love that people are so interested… so what next?

Do I slow down and let the submissions become an even bigger and bigger ‘to do’ list? Do I enlist help in doing the cataloguing? Do I need a new software solution? I wrote a blog post about the dilemma – Monkey Map seeking help – at the beginning of 2016. I was pleased with the response, and have explored some options, and still am exploring, but haven’t found a solution yet.

I do think though, that if the Monkey Map were to move to an expensive horticultural database (like those used by the RHS) it would be ‘just’ a database. It’s very important to me that there is a very human element to this project, that it retains the sense of fun, and I am also very attached to the postcode element (but perhaps that’s because I used to collect stamps).

I value the contributors who join in the Monkey Map. I love doing it. And I’m pretty confident this is probably the largest database of monkey puzzle trees that has ever been collated. I like the stories, the sense of place and information we share through the connection of monkey puzzle trees. And I do know, from the constant stream of emails I receive, that there are plenty more monkey puzzle trees waiting to be discovered!

So what shall we do? How do we bring enthusiasm together with ‘tree geeks’ but retain the human element?

16.05 Eden2


Thanks to everyone who was at Eden for my broadcast. We had a short questions session after my talk, and discussed various monkey related subjects such as art projects involving monkey puzzle trees, whether we should leave a card when we photograph a monkey puzzle tree outside someone’s house, and if ‘trusted’ Agents might take up the role of supporting the work of the Monkey Map.

I asked if anyone knew why some monkey puzzle trees – like the one at Ness – retain their lower branches, rather than forming the umbrella shape. And I was fascinated to discover – from someone who works at Ness (apologies I didn’t catch your name) – that there are in fact two distinct forms of monkey puzzle tree, one from Argentina and one from Chile and they look very different when young. Please do let me have the photographs and I will feature that here. Thank you.

My thanks to Rupert Wilson of PlantNetwork and Chris Bisson at Eden, and everyone at the event on 12th May 2016 at the Eden Project.

My A4 flyer prepared for the talk is here: MonkeyMap1


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