The youngest of four daughters, Stella Exley always enjoyed a close relationship with her paternal grandfather, a bond which came through their shared love of gardening. Her grandfather was a coal miner who grew prize chrysanthemums, and watching these grow was what kickstarted Stella’s passion for all things green. But although she loved gardening, she didn’t get around to studying horticulture properly until later in life.
‘It was always something I was interested in but sadly never got to study at a young age, as I had kids, a mortgage and a previous career in local government,’ Stella explains. ‘But about 20 years ago I began studying horticulture part-time alongside work, and as I’d always grown plants I decided to do it on a more permanent basis.’
Now Stella is lucky enough to be living her dream, having opened Hare Spring Cottage Plants 10 years ago. Originally based north of Sheffield, they relocated three years ago to Alne, North Yorkshire. For the last decade, Stella has been hard at work cultivating her knowledge and varieties of Camassia and Sidalcea, although her love affair with the two plants began much earlier than that.
‘I first saw Camassia in a garden in South Devon, near some woodland, around 28 years ago. It was late April and I saw this hue of blue and I asked the lady who owned the garden what it was. When she told me they were Camassia, well, I’d never heard of them. They rise up like shooting stars, they’re unbelievable. Within days I had my first few pots, and I became obsessed with them,’ she laughs.
Camassia originate from North America and were once an important food source for Native Americans. A hardy bulbous perennial, this plant is extremely versatile and low maintenance. ‘You can use them in a plethora of planting schemes, from mixed herbaceous borders to container planting,’ Stella explains. ‘And unlike many bulbs, Camassia crave moisture, so if you’ve got difficult-to-grow areas with a bit of shade and soggy ground, Camassia are perfect. You just plant the bulb in autumn and then come spring you’ll have a beautiful, sparkling show from mid-April to mid-June.’
As for Sidalcea, although she’s not been collecting them for as long, Stella is just as passionate about them. ‘They’ve got these lofty spires which are really sturdy but sort of waft in the breeze and they come in a range of pinks, from the palest pink to a deep, almost red-pink, and there’s a white variety too,’ she says. ‘The individual blooms look almost like tissue paper, really paper-thin, but they’re tough plants. They actually come from the same North Western US states as Camassia, which I didn’t realise until I started collecting them and doing some research.’
Stella’s dedication to these plants has been officially recognised by the conservation charity Plant Heritage, who have honoured her collections with National Plant Collection status – the only National Collection of Sidalcea in the whole country. This title is not something that’s easily come by, as holders have to cultivate a wide variety of special interest plants, and ‘document, develop and preserve a comprehensive collection of one group of plants in trust for the future.’
Currently Stella has 80 varieties of Camassia and 35 of Sidalcea, all grown at her nursery. While many of us might struggle to tell a clematis from a camellia, Stella has no trouble telling her collections apart. ‘I can tell them apart the minute they flower – sometimes before, from the leaf structure, flower bud structure or colour of the foliage.’
While her nursery is a working nursery, Stella does hold open weekends three times a year when visitors can pop in to learn more about these beautiful plants and even purchase them. ‘They’re all hardy perennials, which means they can withstand winters and will come back year after year,’ she explains. ‘As long as you plant it where it’s supposed to be planted and look after it accordingly, you can enjoy it for years to come, rather than buying annual bedding plants which last a few weeks and then have to be bought again next year.’
But it’s clear that Stella’s true passion lies in protecting these plants for the future. ‘It’s a lot of hard work and dedication, and I’m incredibly proud and feel very privileged to be a National Collection Holder,’ she says. ‘The reason I applied to be a holder for these two plants was because I want to help preserve them for the future, educate people about their worthiness, and play my part in their conservation.’