Plant Heritage honours Sarah Cook

Plant Heritage honours Sarah Cook, saviour of the Benton irises, with prestigious Brickell Award

Plant Heritage has awarded Sarah Cook who holds the historic National Plant Collection of Iris introduced by Sir Cedric Morris, with the prestigious Brickell Award.

On 2 July 2018 at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, founder of Plant Heritage, Chris Brickell VMH, presented the award to Sarah Cook.

The Brickell Award recognises the vital plant conservation work undertaken by Collection Holders to secure plants in cultivation, for example through the rediscovery and propagation of lost taxa, and is awarded to those considered to have demonstrated excellence in this field.

Former Sissinghurst head gardener, Sarah Cook, in collaboration with Howard Nurseries, was awarded gold at the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, for their display which brought the fine vintage irises bred by Sir Cedric Morris back to the show once more after a 60 year absence.

As a keen plantsman, Morris cultivated a great many striking forms of bearded iris, naming 90 varieties which he bred from seed at his home Benton End in Suffolk. Though many of these plants sadly disappeared over subsequent years, Sarah Cook succeeded in tracing 25 of Morris’s vintage ‘Benton’ collection. Since then she has worked with Howard Nurseries to bring these stunning varieties back to the market.

How the story began
During her time at Sissinghurst, Sarah found an Iris with the label ‘Benton Nigel’ which reminded her of her childhood in Suffolk. After retirement she moved back to Suffolk and is once more living close to Benton End where the East Anglian School of Painting had been run by Sir Cedric Morris. She decided to find out more about Cedric Morris and his Irises and look for the lost cultivars. Sarah spent more than a decade tracking down the lost irises, collecting many from a private garden and some from as far afield as America. She spent time researching Morris, his irises and also his paintings which often featured his plants. She found many of the Irises had Benton in their name plus the name of a friend, or of his cats and macaw.

Spreading the word
Sarah has been delighting audiences with her fascinating stories on discovering the lost Benton irises, giving educational talks at the exhibition of his paintings at the Garden Museum in Lambeth Palace Road, London and Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury.

The articles she has written for many journals and her interviews with local and national newspapers, have enabled her to track down more of the missing cultivars, through contact from people who have spotted them in their gardens. She has also worked with other National Collection Holders to do educational displays.

In 2016 she joined forces with Anne Milner, who collects irises introduced by Arthur J. Bliss, to set up a photographic display of British irises at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. The display created a lot of interest in the history and variety of irises. She is now working with the Suffolk group of Plant Heritage to search for some of the remaining and rapidly disappearing, pre 1960 British irises before they are lost for good.Plant Heritage has awarded Sarah Cook who holds the historic National Plant Collection of Iris introduced by Sir Cedric Morris, with the prestigious Brickell Award.