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A Plant Collector's Quest To Create Something Iconic

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It doesn’t matter whether a plant is from the tropics or the desert – if it has an interesting form, shape or story, Lyle Filippe of Roraima Nursery has to have it. This can mean sweet-talking an 80-year-old collector in the hope of an offer of a cutting or a handful of seeds, stalking succulents on eBay, or swerving off the road and knocking on front doors, business card in hand, at the sight of a curious cactus in a front garden. Lyle is obsessed.

In 2001 Lyle and Cheryl bought this 6.5-acre property at Lara and began plotting to create the nursery. The land had previously been used as a plant nursery but ‘it was a mess,’ Lyle says. ‘We shut it down for six months, bulldozed it, and I’ve been building it up ever since.’ This is no understatement. Lyle is a man with a vision (actually, visions), and over the last 18 years, he’s developed not only an extensive retail nursery selling many of the plants from his collection, but also a garden showcasing them. It is, of course, wild and wonderful and slightly mad. The gardens opened a couple of years ago, and their creation was ‘a means of making the nursery more interesting, so it’s not just like a supermarket. There are things to wonder about, to look at. Things you don’t see anymore.’ Lyle is right. A visit to Roraima Nursery and garden is not like a visit to any other. It’s a world of its own. A world conceived in the mind of Lyle, the collector, the gardener.

He was bitten by the bug early. As a 15-year-old he was growing plants on his bedroom windowsill. ‘They were always very unusual things. Not your traditional plants.’ After school he studied resource management, wanting to work in National Parks management, but plants stole his heart. He began working at a nursery, then started propagating his own plants and selling them at markets.

‘I’ve been collecting plants forever – initially it was from other collectors. Wherever I go, if I see something different, I knock on the door, get a cutting, get a piece. Whenever something has been come available in the nursery trade I’ve always bought a couple and stuck them in the ground. There are not many things I don’t know, or haven’t seen before, but I’m always finding new plants.’

I ask him what draws him to certain plants, not others. ‘I’m very interested in shape and texture. With specimen plants, it’s not just about flowers. It’s their form, and how they sit in the landscape. The more unusual a plant is, the more I like it.’ It’s not just about the thrill of the chase for Lyle, it’s also about the way the desired plant might then sit within his larger vision that seems important to him. It’s about gardening. ‘I just like dealing with plants. All of it. Whether it’s propagating, digging holes, planning, ordering plants online, growing. I suppose it’s about the creativity. A garden is essentially an artwork, and it’s always evolving. That’s the beauty of gardens. There’s always something to surprise you.’

Unlike other collectors, Lyle never lets go of a collection. He may stop collecting ‘mainly because there’s nothing else out there – I’ve collected it to death. And then I’ll move on to something else. I collect but keep. I’m a hoarder. I like to think I’m hoarding good stuff though, as any hoarder thinks.’ Lyle is hoarding good stuff. I’ve visited his nursery a few times over the years, and each time I’ve been blindsided by the botanical curiosities he’s gathered together. Things I’ve never seen before or since. I just wish I lived a little closer.

The current nursery and gardens are just the beginning of Lyle’s big green vision. ‘There are some grand ideas I still want to create’, he tells me. ‘I want to build some plant display houses, a small restaurant, more retail expansion and more gardens. There’s a lot of things that have always been in my mind to achieve and I slowly work towards them. It’ll probably be a life-long project, I don’t think it’ll ever be finished.’ A garden never is. Lyle knows this. I have a sense that Lyle has the patience, commitment and vision to keep on growing Roraima into a world that only he can create. ‘If I do the things I have in my mind it’ll double the wow factor of the nursery. I want to make something iconic’.

I have no doubt Lyle Filippe, the gardener, the collector, will get there.

Lyle Filippe, plant collector, nurseryman and gardener at Roraima Nursery. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Roraima Nursery is 4.5 acres of retail nursery and gardens at Lara, just north of Geelong in Victoria. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

‘If an object has a presence or a shape or something about it that stands out, it appeals to me.’ The gardens, then, are filled not only with plants but also with interesting found objects and sculptures that have caught Lyle’s eye. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Silver torch cactus (Cleistocactus strausii). Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Houseleek (Aeonium spp.) Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Roraima Nursery specialises in ‘unusual, exotic, drought-tolerant and architectural plants’. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Lyle Filippe, a man with a grand green vision, at home in his garden at Roraima Nursery. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

After many years of work, Lyle opened the gardens at Roraima to the public around two years ago. They are a wonderland of sculptural and unusual plants and a great way to showcase the potential of many of the plants for sale in the nursery. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

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