Willows Not Weeping

From Ro FitzGerald

Somerset has many connections with willows. The wetlands of the Levels have supported the genus since prehistory, and they have been used in many areas of life for millennia and are still grown as a crop for various arts and crafts. The iconic pollards frame views of Glastonbury Tor and the wide fields and rhynes of Sedgemoor. Ever since I first knew of him it has seemed to me a perfect turn of history that Desmond Meikle, author of the BSBI Willows and Poplars handbook which so many of us use, should be someone who lived for much of his life in the county, and of course as I’m a VC5 resident it seemed specially good that his home was in Wootton Courtenay on the edge of Exmoor.

Desmond Meikle OBE (18 May 1923 – 8 February 2021). Photo: Jeanne Webb

There are other connections to both Desmond and his beloved willows which bring his life and work even closer to SRPG members. Jeanne and Tim Webb were for 40 years his close friends (and latterly life and business helpers), and he passed on to Jeanne valuable willow knowledge so that we can all now call on her experience with this difficult group. We even have a strong interest in Simon and Vicky Leach’s brilliant cricketer son Jack when he wields bats made of the wood!

Of course the best known aspect of Desmond’s life was his distinguished work as a taxonomist at Kew, and his authorship of the superb Flora of Cyprus, but his Somerset life and the many friends he made here were the key to a delightful event created by Jeanne and Tim to commemorate his death (which came earlier this year). Covid restrictions finally allowing this, a lunch was arranged in Wootton Courtenay village hall on 12th August. Desmond himself always loved a party and had himself helped to plan this before his death! It was quite the best memorial event I’ve experienced. It was attended by neighbours and friends with a scattering of distinguished botanists – two of these spoke movingly, acknowledging Desmond’s help as their careers started (to end at the highest levels in Edinburgh and Kew), and Dr Irina Belyaeva the international willow queen (who Desmond had collaborated with) came from Russia! Jeanne had prepared a wonderful spread of memorabilia – photos, medals, publications – and Jen’s Pantry served an excellent lunch. People brought a flower from their gardens to create a ‘village bunch’ to be taken afterwards to the church, and toasts were drunk in a British sparkling wine.

Good wishes came too from his country of origin, Ireland, and a copy of the Flora of County Fermanagh, to which he contributed importantly, was on show. This felt like a perfect celebration, bringing close all the enjoyment of knowing Desmond, his jokes, his enormous knowledge and his unfailing generosity. It was so far from the gloom of some ‘memorial’ occasions – rather it gave enjoyment and inspiration to keep botanising and treasure one’s friendships. We are lucky in SRPG, not only living in a willow heartland, but sharing it with Jeanne, Tim, and for so many years Desmond himself.