Libby Houston was already well-known as a poet before she moved to Bristol in 1979 and became interested in Botany. She was particularly fascinated by the rare trees and plants which grow in the Avon Gorge, on the edge of the city. Many grow in hard-to-reach places on sheer rock faces and so must be reached by climbing with ropes or abseiling.
Libby has discovered several unusual hybrids of trees called Whitebeams and one variety is named after her: Houston’s Whitebeam. So far, only one specimen of this tree has ever been found; on an inaccessible ledge in the Avon Gorge. In 2015, I contacted her to ask permission to carve lines from one of her poems on a bench that I was making to go on the Clifton Downs but also mentioned my interest in carving a representation of a leaf from this tree onto it, if she had any. Libby asked if she could visit my workshop to drop some over.
When she arrived, Libby had a few of the leaves with her. The Houston’s Whitebeam drops its leaves every autumn, so collecting a small number of them didn’t harm it. We chatted about the genetics of Whitebeams: they are unusual in being able to have fertile hybrid offspring with closely-related species. We also talked about other strange plants that live in the Gorge.
Libby was good company and modest about her impressive achievements. After she had left, I looked at the leaves that she’d given me and realised that there can’t be a rarer tree than one with only a single known specimen. I still have the dried leaves from the rarest tree in the world.