After 26 years of working on top secret and plant saving projects from all over the UK, Cornwall and Devon’s only micropropagator is retiring.
Ros Smith has decided to call it time on her unique and interesting career having saved plants from the brink of extinction and ridding rhododendrons of disease.
Based in a laboratory at Duchy College, Rosewarne, hidden behind something resembling a secret door surrounded by miscanthus grass, Ros is a super hero of the plant world.
The RHS describes micropropagation “as a method of plant propagation using extremely small pieces of plant tissue taken from a carefully chosen and prepared mother plant, and growing these under laboratory conditions to produce new plants.”
With knowledge that is so useful and unique to the plant world, Ros holds an incredible amount of irreplaceable information. In one breath Ros talks about working on saving a 1200 year old oak tree with the Ancient Tree Forum to helping The Lost Gardens of Heligan recover mature species of rhododendrons since ‘Sudden Oak Death’.
“I moved down from the midlands with my family nearly three decades ago after working for six years at the Ministry of Agriculture in the entomology department, working with insects,” Ros, who has a plant science degree from Wye College, explained.
“I saw an advert for a micropropagator in the paper and have not looked back since. Micropropagation has always been in my mind since touching on it at university and would now class it as a hobby because I enjoy what I do so much. The decision to take a step back has been hard.”
Micropropagation takes a lot of patience and passion, where short term projects take a year and others last for years. At any one time Ros can work on up to seven projects at a time, which is a lot for a one-woman lab, but her results are impressive.
With over 100 pots on her laboratory table, Ros is just finalising one project.
“I am just boxing up 900 rhododendron plantlets to send back to the National Trust propagators at a secret location in Exeter,” she explained.
“These will then be grown on at this site and when hardy enough sent to the eight National Trust properties in the UK where they originated from.”
A memorable project for Ros in the last few years has been working on a very rare albino primula that was launched at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2016.
“I worked with a gentleman from the North East who sent me flower heads for me to try and micropropagate as he didn’t want to lose the short-lived variety,” she continued.
“We managed to produce shoots from the heads and grew quite a few to send back to him, he was extremely happy. He named the plant after his daughter in law, Alison Holland. It’s lovely being a part of history and such a unique, personal project.”
Ros plans to reduce her hours to spend time with her family, making sure she can still come in to check the plants in the pots of her unique growth gel. After talking about winding down she is also planning, with colleagues, her next project with National Trust for Scotland to work on important rhododendrons and a Beech tree.
Carol Knight, Head of Campus at Duchy College Rosewarne, said Ros is “an amazing lady and her knowledge and enthusiasm for her industry is unrivalled”.
“Over the 25 years at Duchy College Rosewarne there have been thousands of students who have benefited from Ros’ experience and passion for horticulture, amongst her lab work she also taught on the RHS courses,” she added.
“It’s not just on site that Ros shares her work, she is committed to attending external events and educating fellow horticulturalists about what she does, she’s off to Rosemoor again soon.”
Micropropagation is looked at within modules of propagation in horticulture courses studied at Duchy College Rosewarne and Eden Project Learning. For more information on the range of courses available across The Cornwall College Group visit www.duchy.ac.uk or call 0845 60 50 455.