The man who made lupins his life

David Garner IN 1911, jobbing gardener George Russell stood in his employer's York home gazing at a vase of lupins on a table. It was a moment which changed horticultural history and transformed a previously rather uninspiring bloom into the multi-coloured varieties that are the norm today.

For Mr Russell, who was already 55, decided to improve the flower and for the next two decades he laboured at his tiny allotment in Bishopthorpe Road, York, to reach his goal.

He sowed, selected and tended his beloved plants until a new colour would appear here, a longer spiked bloom there. By the time of his death aged 94 in 1951, Russell lupins were considered to be the plant's finest manifestation.

Now Stillington-born Mr Russell's horticultural legacy is to be marked by with a special exhibition in York. Students from Askham Bryan College are also revamping the special flower bed which honours Russell lupins in the city's Memorial Gardens to coincide with the event in early September.

Mr Russell, who lived in Kensington Street, South Bank, York, first saw a lupin of the original blue-and-white variety at York Gala when he was just 10. But he told the Yorkshire Post in 1949: "I forgot all about them then until when I was gardening at Mrs Micklethwaite's on The Mount at York, I saw a vase of different coloured lupins. I sent for lupin seeds and plants from every corner of the globe and set to work at my allotment.

"For those lupins, I worked 20 hours a day. It was a wholetime job keeping them clear of weed, rooting out the not-so-good, watching over the better plants, keeping the bees off some and letting them into others."

The work was often monotonous but Mr Russell, assisted only by Sonny Herd, the son of a neighbour, carried on until by the 1930s, people travelled from across the country to see the lupins blooming in his

Bishopthorpe Road plot.

But Mr Russell said: "I never sold a plant or seed. I got more pleasure out of growing them and looking at them myself. But he eventually did sell his secret to Baker's Nurseries near Wolverhampton in return for a cottage for himself there and a career for Sonny.

The National Collection of Russell lupins is now in the care of Pat Edwards, whose family bought the nursery at Albrighton, near Wolverhampton, where his creations were first commercially produced.

"It was very dilapidated and rundown when we bought it and the lupins were just about gone. For the last 18 years, we have basically been doing what George Russell did, selecting them to produce the best and strongest plants," she said. "For instance in 1988, we sowed 5,000 plants and kept 20 and that is how George Russell approached it."

The Askham Bryan students researching a project on George Russell and his lupins are helping York Council to organise the event.

Council libraries manager Janet Thompson said: "We are keen to recognise the work of someone who has played a key part in York's history." Mrs Edwards's book, The Russell Lupin Story, can be obtained by sending a cheque for 5.95 to Swallow Hayes, Rectory Lane, Albrighton, WV7 3EP.

As part of the exhibition the council is seeking material, memories or photos of the Russell lupin or George Russell from York residents, who should contact Sue Rigby, local studies librarian, on 01904 552812.