Plant Heritage honours Collection Holder with prestigious Brickell Award

Today Plant Heritage has awarded one of its Collection Holders, Michael McIllmurray who until recently held the Scientific National Plant Collection of Maxillaria in Surrey, with the prestigious Brickell award. The award was presented on Monday 3rd July at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show by Botanist Dr Jamie Compton, in the Plant Heritage zone of the Floral Marquee.

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.

Michael McIllmurray dedicated his life to orchids upon his retirement as a research bacteriologist in 1993. He chose to focus on Maxillaria - native to Central and South America and found mainly in the rainforests of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador - and rapidly established a Collection that brought him the distinction of becoming the National Collection Holder for the genus in 2002. At the time, his Collection comprised 140 specimens plus three hybrids – 23 of which were unnamed. By 2007, the figure had advanced to 350 and Michael had moved his Collection to a new and bigger site.

His mission has been to be a ‘champion’ for the genus and to grow as many of the species as possible and document them in as much detail as possible, while preserving herbarium specimens to provide future botanists with reference materials before the species are lost for ever by habitat destruction. Michael established a purpose-built glasshouse, which has two temperature zones, for his Collection and experimented in finding the best cultural conditions for his Maxillarias.

The depth and quality of Michael’s work helped him to secure Scientific Status for his Collection in 2014, where in his recommendation to the Plant Conservation Committee, Gary Firth, who assessed his Collection, said: “I was particularly impressed by Michael’s record-keeping – by far the best I have seen.” Michael’s meticulous drawings and photographs of flowers and flowering parts are backed by detailed records of measurements and descriptions and he also makes an herbarium specimen of the flower, and a spirit sample.

Michael has regularly exhibited his Maxillarias at RHS and other shows, including Chelsea and Hampton Court. He was awarded a Gold medal by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) for the best display in the Plant Heritage Marquee at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in 2010. One of his plants was awarded first prize ribbon in 2015 at the Malvern International Orchid Show. He has also received a Certificate of Cultural Commendation from the RHS Orchid Committee and one of the plants, Maxillaria kautskyi ‘Carol Anne’ was awarded a Botanical Certificate in 2002.

Michael’s quest for specimens brought him a wide range of contacts across the world from the Maxillaria heartlands of Peru and Colombia to experts in the field in Florida and Paris. When illness meant that Michael could no longer maintain his Collection, the strong links he had forged with Royal Botanic Garden Kew ensured that he was readily able to find a new home for it. The Collection is now happily housed there and the conservation and science will continue.

The naming and identification of specimens has been at the heart of his research and the drive to conserve plants whose habitat is under constant threat. He has published eight papers either jointly or as the sole author and material from his Collection has given rise to nine other scientific publications. He was honoured to have a hybrid named after him by Pascal Sauvêtre: Maxillaria ‘Michael McIllmurray’ (M. striata x M. luteograndiflora).

Plant Heritage Plant Conservation Officer Sophie Leguil said: “I am extremely pleased that the 2017 Brickell Award has been given to Michael McIllmurray. His dedication to orchid growing, combined with a strong desire to contribute to scientific knowledge, is a testimony to the important role that Collection Holders play in preserving plant diversity.”


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