"Easy-to-follow advice and information you can trust" is the tagline from the Expert series and the chances of you not ever seeing one of the books from the series is in all honestly pretty slim. They have been around since 1958 and the latest was released in 2013, with 28 titles in 55 years that's a lot of books. However the chances that you've seen the actual author, Dr D. G. Hessayon, is a lot less likely. Keeping well away from the spotlight at all times he prefers for the focus to stay on the books rather than him.
They are the best selling gardening books in history and today still take up proud residence in many a bookcase
David Gerald Hessayon was born in 1928 growing up in Manchester, England, before attending Leeds University where he earned a degree in Botany. He later gained a PhD in soil ecology before starting work at Pan Britannica Industries as a scientist. Later he was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society and an OBE in 2007.
The keeping of plants indoors is a very interesting story in itself (which we cover in a later article), but what is somewhat hard to believe is that until Dr Hessayon started writing in the 1950's there were few quality gardening books out there. The books that were available did not sell particularly well to the masses and publishers were understandably reluctant to involve themselves with this subject area as a result. Therefore without accessible guidance the common layperson just didn't "get" house plants and inevitably they were less popular because people viewed them as difficult.
Whilst working for Pan Britannica, Dr Hessayon formulated his idea to solve this issue by producing a simple plant book which was exactly that. Simple. Every single element of his writing and illustrating style was straight forward and stripped down to the rawest form. While it's true this means some of the history of plants, or interesting facts were lost in the presentation, this style was what was needed. No bells or whistles, just the plants and how to keep them alive and thriving in our homes.
This formula was a rip roaring hit and the fact this 85 year old is still producing Expert books today following the same format from over 50 years ago is testament to that. Collectively the series have sold well over 50 Million copies, became the best selling gardening books in history and today still take up proud residence in many a bookcase.
Pan Britannica were no doubt dubious of their fresh faced employee, Dr Hessayon, when in the late 1950's he pitched his idea for his first "book" (it was more of a booklet at only 16 pages), but in the end it was probably one of the best decisions the company ever made. The books not only made a huge amount of money, but they literally gave a massive boost to house plant culture itself. Throughout the 1960's, 70's, 80's and beyond, Dr Hessayon opened the door for everyone and threw brilliant sunshine (or bright light as the case may be) onto the dark and sometimes mysterious nature of plants. Suddenly they were easy, could look constantly beautiful and were therefore invited into homes on mass.
With all this increasing interest in house plants something else which contributed to Pan Britannica's success was their fertiliser, "Baby Bio", which became one of their most popular products, especially in Britain. The Baby Bio brand followed the Expert books with a colourful and striking appearance, coming in a container shaped like an old fashioned french perfume bottle with a red cap. Although the company itself was eventually sold, the Baby Bio range is still popular today and is sold by Bayer.
Can Dr Hessayon be considered a hero? Maybe. Especially to plants, his advice and guidance must have saved many of their lives over the decades. He is also in part responsible for this very website, without him we may not have been so thoroughly entwined into the exciting and sometimes secret world of growing plants. In any case we'd just like to say, Dr Hessayon - Thank you.
Photo of Dr Hessayon by Martin Pope