An interview with Rupert Wilson


An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.

Rupert Wilson is Principal Data Manager for Horticultural Information and Advice at the Royal Horticultural Society.

What does the role of Principal Data Manager entail?

Rupert Wilson

It’s quite a mouthful of a title. I refer to myself as the principal hort data wrangler as my role is all about data and managing data. I’ve been doing it for rather a long time – 21 years now at the RHS and I love it as much as I did on day one. I manage a small team of seven very dedicated and lovely staff, and we collectively manage the RHS horticultural database that underpins so much of the work that the RHS does including records for the living collection at all five gardens as well as records for the herbarium, plant trials, Awards of Garden Merits and Plant Breeders Rights. It also underpins all the plant profiles on the RHS website, and is used to produce the annual RHS Plant Finder publication. It is a vast knowledge bank of horticultural information that the society has been carefully collecting and recording for a great many years.

During and since lockdown, we had a major push of the online plant profiles and now have over 32,000, many with lovely images.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I do spend rather a lot of time staring at a screen or multiple screens! I think the joy of the job is the variety of people I work with across the whole organisation and beyond through PlantNetwork. I really love working with people and helping people and that’s what I see my role to be – to enable people to access and use the information in the database. So many people working in IT work in cube farms or windowless offices in the centre of cities but I get to work at Wisley and walk to work in the new Hilltop Building, the home of gardening science, through the garden before it opens to the public and is at its most peaceful. .

Tell us how you got to be a Principal Data Manager.

It wasn’t a planned route. I have always been interested in nature, growing up in Suffolk and sharing this interest with my mother. It wasn’t until high school that I really decided that botany was the direction I wanted to take as I didn’t like animal dissections and was far more interested in dissecting plants and learning about plants. And we had some great field courses as well. I was lucky enough to get a place at Reading University in the School of Plant Sciences. That really was a fantastic opportunity, at one of best places to study plant sciences. I really enjoyed my botany degree and I really enjoyed university life too! After I graduated, an opportunity came up to work at the Herbarium at Reading so I took on the role of herbarium technician and support technician. We were working with the undergraduate classes and also the PhD students, doing things like mounting herbarium specimens, folding moss packets, preparing for plant anatomy students and so on.

I’d always been interested in IT too: I was a child of the 80s so I had a had a Sinclair ZX81 and later a BBC Micro. I’d also studied computer science for A Level so had an IT background. The Herbarium didn’t have a records database at the time so we applied for European grants to change this with one grant allowing us to go to North Africa, principally Morocco, to collect specimens and then document in a database. We used Brahms: I developed the database for the herbarium and got people to use it. Then I was able to link the herbarium database to the University of Reading website and eventually to the RHS website. I think this got me the job at the RHS! In 2001, I moved to Wisley having not really thought about leaving Reading as I was very happy there.

I started in July 2001 with the RHS as the Database Manager and the first thing I was tasked with was to produce Plant Finder using a hand written handout detailing the steps needed to produce the publication. It was quite a baptism of fire! We have always managed to produce a Plant Finder, although during the pandemic it was online only. The 2022 edition is the 35th edition of Plant Finder. So I’m very much in the horticultural world surrounded by wonderful colleagues.

If you could go back or you could talk to your younger self, would you have done anything differently?

I probably wouldn’t. I would encourage my younger self or people that are looking to get into a role that involves working with plants, to talk to as many people in the industry as possible. PlantNetwork was a fantastic introduction for me, right back to my time at the University of Reading. It was a great opportunity to meet with people in the sector and there is no hierarchy – everyone is the same. People are very willing to share their experience and knowledge!

How has the production of Plant Finder changed over the years?

Plant Finder over the years…. ©R Wilson

The process hasn’t changed a lot. We start talking to the nurseries every year in the late summer or early autumn, and we still we start encouraging them to send their lists of the plants that they’re offering for the next growing season. We chase returns later in the autumn so that by or shortly after Christmas (when the final reminders are followed up!), we start checking and sifting the names of the cultivars and varieties we have been sent with the botanists and horticultural taxonomists. We do lots of database checks and integrity checks before we produce a first proof from the database: this is the first time that we see the full list of plants alphabetically arranged. Inevitably there are glitches, things in the wrong place, duplicate names or names that have slipped the initial screening checks. We then spend a happy time proofreading before sending it off to be typeset, after which, we wait patiently for it to be returned for the final round of checks. It is then sent off to the printers towards the end of February with the aim of publishing in April ready for the next gardening season.

While this process hasn’t changed much, the database has changed considerably. When I first arrived, we used BG-Base and all the information was linked to an individual plant name. While this worked, we were pushing the limits to what we could do. Before the pandemic, we’d started the process of looking for a new approach and had decided to move to a new system, Brahms, which was the system I’d used years ago at Reading for botanical records. In Brahms, the information is no longer linked to a single name but is now connected to an entity. An entity can have multiple names which includes a top ranked name (or TRN) determined through a series of rules. We’ve done two Plant Finders with this new system and it works much better.

For the plant growers and suppliers, there has been a change as some of the long standing nurseries have closed as people retire. While there are fewer people coming into the sector, there are still new growers and startups. There will always be nurseries so Plant Finder will continue. One change has been how we interact with nurseries. We’ve gone from lists being sent to us in the post though emailed lists or lists sent on floppy disks or CDs to an online nursery app that allows nurseries to upload quickly and we see the returns immediately. Plant Finder is a great promotion for nurseries and allows RHS website visitors to be sent their way. We do all the checks for them and formatting for publishing – all nurseries need do is send us the information.

Plant Finder was traditionally focused on hardy ornaments but as fashions have changed, we’ve expanded to include other types of plants including grow your own fruit and vegetables and house plants. The constraint for us is the size of the book. The size has varied over the years and while that has largely been due to the type of paper used, it also reflects the entries we’ve received. It can be really difficult to get the right paper and we need to order it as early as possible in the publishing cycle which means to need to estimate how many pages the Plant Finder is likely to have well in advance of sending it off to be published.

While we had an online only version during the pandemic, our surveys indicate that there is still a demand for the printed version of Plant Finder. We’ve heard stories of garden designers with a copy in their glove box so they can visit nurseries as they drive around the country. It is also really useful for checking plant names: it has become a de facto standard for cultivated plant names so useful all around the world and is widely used by nurseries as a reference book.

What does the future hold for you?

It’s been an interesting few years, moving from the old Laboratory to the new Hilltop Building at Wisley, and moving databases. Then there was the pandemic and the changes that resulted from that, including the proliferation of new plant profiles. We’re now entering a period of consolidation to fully establish in our new location and working with the new database. The RHS has also had some major changes in the last few years, from membership reaching 600,000 to the opening of the new Bridgewater Garden so now is the time to get used to these changes before the next big push. The next big thing is probably focused on information and making this available to a wider audience. There is already lots of information in the database that is not yet available to people through the website so it will be exciting to work with this.

Could you tell us more about your garden and gardening interests?

Biscuit – who has contributed to Rupert’s compost heaps over the years ©R Wilson

I’m not an active horticulturist as I’m not out there growing plants. I do love pottering in the garden at home. We’ve been there since the early 2000s and we are incredibly lucky in that we have a very long garden. The garden was what what sold the house to us. It had a pond, fruit trees, veg patch and two glasshouses so  was a great sanctuary for nature. It isn’t the tidiest garden and we do let the grass grow long. We’ve increased the number of ponds to two and have water butts everywhere. Then I have Wisley which is a wonderful office! It is constantly changing and there’s always something new to look at such as the Exotic Garden which shows that we can grow more exotic-looking and/or tender plants outside all year round. Then there are all the new gardens around Hilltop. The wildlife garden in the first year was fantastic.

Does your concern for the environment impact on your gardening?

Yes, it does. We have about nine water butts around the garden so we collect from every roof and then use carefully to water  the plants. We mulch too and I have a wonderful series of compost heaps at the bottom of the garden which I enjoy turning. They are great for wildlife too. I am a bit of a climate activist so have solar panels on the house and during the summer, can drive to Wisley in my electric car on free electrons from the solar panels. I also volunteer for a local hydro project scheme on the River Thames.

Rupert, can you tell us your favourite plant, gardening tool and garden/plant-related book?

Rupert’s book choice! ©R Wilson

I’ve never really developed a particular obsession or a particular passion for a particular plant. I love all plants, some more than others, and do have an interest in South African flora. I’m surrounded by plants all day with Plant Finder listing 70,000 plants and with over 32,000 profiles on the RHS website. I’m constantly being bombarded with plant information and if forced, I’d probably pick one of the last plants I looked up!

My favourite tool has to be my home garden shredder. The garden shredder is such a useful tool and being electric, I can power it from the solar panels. Any waste material in the garden can go straight through the shredder onto the compost heap and it makes wonderful compost.

No surprises but my book has to be the RHS Plant Finder. It’s such a such a useful tool for people starting out in horticulture. And then of course it’s also great for checking your spellings as well.

Find out more

Rupert has a long history with the PlantNetwork Plant Records Group, informing many meetings and often speaking at the meetings too. Catch up with all Plant Records meetings here, including the very latest!