James Cullen, a tribute

Dr James Cullen, Director of the Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust, died on 11 May 2013. James was instrumental in the foundation of PlantNetwork, encouraging key organisations and people to work together, and always took a keen interest in our progress. As Director of the Trust he was also able to help with financial support by encouraging trustees to support applications for projects submitted by PlantNetwork.

Born in 1936, James read Botany at Liverpool University, where he graduated with first class honours, having completed a study on the taxonomy of Papaver, a genus he was to love for the rest of his life. He completed a PhD on Anthyllis, the vetches, and in 1961 started work with Peter Davis on the seminal Flora of Turkey project, working for the University of Edinburgh, but based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). James, along with Mark Coode, was responsible for establishing the format of the project and for getting it off the ground. In 1966, he went back to Liverpool as Assistant Director of Ness Botanic Gardens. In 1971, he returned to RBGE as Assistant Keeper, effectively Deputy Director, of the Garden.

James was to have a major influence on a number of programmes at Edinburgh. He was instrumental in establishing a major project on the taxonomy of the Ericaceae, from which the much needed revision of Rhododendron was launched. This was very controversial with many rhododendron growers and enthusiasts at the time, but it was needed and James saw it through to its completion, publishing Part I of the revision himself in 1980 and maintaining the momentum in ensuring that others, notably David Chamberlain, completed the remaining parts. James then  became involved in completely redesigning the rhododendron collections in the Garden at RBGE to reflect their new taxonomic arrangement.

James was, above all, noted for being a horticultural taxonomist, used to dealing with plants in collections and requiring a slightly different skill set from those working on plants from a particular country or in a particular group. In 1976, he embarked on the European Garden Flora project, with the Secretariat based in Edinburgh and with an editorial committee chaired by Max Walters in 1977–89 and by James in 1989– 2000. The work eventually comprised six volumes covering 16 000 species, and was compiled by 175 authors. A second, revised, edition followed in 2011, edited mostly by James and Sabina Knees, who had been involved in the early days of the Flora.

Of equal value to the horticultural world was the publication of the Identification of Flowering Plant Families, co-authored initially with Peter Davis. This short, user-friendly guide provided all the information necessary for accurate identification of the flowering plant families found in the wild or cultivated in northern temperate regions. It ran to four editions, the most recent published in 1997, and was used by generations of horticultural students and professionals throughout the world. James taught a two-term plant taxonomy course to horticultural students at RBGE every second year, using this book as a basis for his lectures, which were hugely enjoyed by students, who found them both interesting and practically useful.

But compilation of these two publications was not a stand-alone, isolated activity. The knowledge and expertise in horticultural taxonomy created by the team of staff working on the project spilled out into the Garden and James’s close friendship with Dick Shaw, Curator of the Garden at that time, was to have a profound influence on the Living Collection of plants, an influence that endures to this day. Under James’s guidance, there were regular identification and verification sessions to ensure that all plants in the Garden were correctly identified and labelled, and the Garden started to focus more and more on acquiring wild-origin plant material, as this was more valuable for research, than plants from catalogues or from other collections. These ‘Wednesday idents’, as they were called, were greatly enjoyed by all who attended them. Indeed, the numerous permanent and temporary staff, summer studentships, trainees and volunteers who were associated with the European Garden Flora benefited greatly and are now employed in botanic gardens throughout the world, having gained valuable experience under James’s influence.

The first comprehensive policy for the Living Collection was developed at this time, using criteria that are used to this day. James was responsible for the first computerised plant record system at Edinburgh, started in the early 1970s, and he was responsible for the general widespread use of computers in the Garden. It was a period of very close co-operation between science and horticultural staff, and that was entirely due to James’s influence and encouragement.

James left Edinburgh in 1989 when he took up the post of Director of the Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust, taking over from Sir George Taylor and basing himself at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. The flexibility offered by this appointment gave him the opportunity to continue helping and influencing young people through the provision of grants for travel, publications and the creation of gardens, yet left him time to continue his research, writing and lecturing. He was an efficient and effective Director and greatly enjoyed the interaction with those applying for grants. In addition to the Trust’s work James did a lot for the Garden, was a mentor to many staff and trainee horticulturists and was much liked and respected as a result. He played a large part in developing the Garden’s records, particularly the switch from card index to a database in the late 1980s. He had a great deal of input into the library, selecting new works and generously loaning his own books. He also worked with many staff, helping to verify and identify plants in the collection. Until recently, he ran the identification tests for trainee horticulturists – on his walks round the Garden with the trainees, he made sure they each saw distinguishing features of species for themselves. He also gave introductory lectures on nomenclature, and taught on the Garden’s week-long systematics course.

In the last 10 years or so he worked closely with local artist Georita Harriott on material for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with the result that the Garden has contributed over 50 plant portraits and 3 special part issues. He was Chair of the Friends of Cambridge University Botanic Garden in 1992–96, with Judy Cheney as Friends’ Administrator. In recent years, James was Chairman of the Cambridgeshire Group of Plant Heritage.

For his outstanding work on horticultural taxonomy, and in particular the revision of Rhododendron, the Royal Horticultural Society awarded him the Veitch Memorial Medal 2001.

Many scientists have helped and mentored younger colleagues, and many have written papers or books that have stood the test of time and are still regarded as the standard treatment of a subject, and many have made a lasting impact on an institution to the extent that their policies and procedures are still followed many years later. But there are very few who have done all these things, and have done so with the quiet modesty so typical of James. But he did achieve these things and in so-doing made a positive impact on those who knew him, on plant science and on the world of botanic gardens.

Dr David Rae
Director of Horticulture and Learning, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Hon. President, PlantNetwork