Wool gathering whilst gardening

Of the many benefits of gardening- fresh air, exercise (what one RHS course tutor dubbed ‘the outdoor gym’), an outlet for creativity- the opportunity to let your thoughts wander at will is for me one of its principal virtues. The meditative state that can arise, particularly when carrying out a repetitive task such as weeding, can sooth anxieties or, as it did when I was working in a client’s garden a week ago, trigger memories. Whilst we are counselled against ‘looking in the rear view mirror’, remembering the gardens we grew up in or the first gardens we created, is a delightful route along which to allow one’s thoughts to meander.

As I worked my way methodically around the garden, knee pads in situ and weeding fork in hand, I recalled the pleasure I derived from making a tiny ‘garden’ at the first flat I owned. The little studio flat in South Kensington was on the top floor of a five storey white stucco building which had once been a hotel. A property developer had converted it into dozens of studio and one bedroom apartments of which mine was probably one of the smallest. Although its one window was behind the parapet which crowned the handsome building, the room had a very bright east-facing aspect. For fire escape purposes, a small flight of wooden steps led from the window sill to the valley behind the parapet. Having grown up in a suburban house with a generous proportioned garden which I had taken little interest in helping to maintain, I suddenly discovered an enthusiasm for growing plants. I indulged this new passion with baskets suspended on decorative ironwork lavatory brackets (from said childhood home) on either side of the wooden steps. In those days, the early 1980s, there was a small garden centre on a triangular plot immediately above Gloucester Road underground station: now occupied by a branch of Waitrose and a large office building. It was in this unique plant centre and at Rassells on Edwardes Square off Kensington High Street that I bought the geraniums, lobelia and Black-eyed Susans (Thunbergia alata) with which I filled the baskets. I revelled in the gaudy colours of the display which decorated my climb to the parapet valley from which I could survey the London skyline. From left to right: Hyde Park , the roof of the Albert Hall, T E Collcutt’s Queen’s Tower in the heart of Imperial College’s campus and the Natural History Museum. I also had a small collection of houseplants including a highly temperamental shrimp plant whose botanical name I discovered whilst researching this blog post is Justicia brandegeana. 

The shrimp plant gave up the ghost when four years later I loved to a larger but altogether gloomier basement flat in West Kensington. The flat did, however, have the advantage of its own garden, albeit one that could not be seen from the flat since it was on the same level as the raised ground floor flat upstairs. In my six year sojourn there I did battle with a compacted clay soil and rather moth-eaten lawn. The garden was surrounded by high brick walls (which I would be very happy to have surrounding my current garden). It was overhung at the rear with a burgundy leaved tree I believe may have been a purple beech, Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group. In my first autumn in the flat, I remember a trip to a garden centre near Maidenhead with my dear friend Pat, where I bought several shrubs and climbers which I had carefully selected from Dr DG Hessayan’s ‘The Tree & Shrub Expert’. These included Spiraea japonica, Choisya ternata and Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’, the latter chosen more for its Dublin associated name than for its beauty, but which romped away despite the dry shade in which it was expected to grow. I was also given Kerria japonica and a witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis. Another gift was Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’. I moved before it flowered and have often wondered how it fared after I left.


I went to a very inspiring talk by garden designer Dan Pearson at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on Monday evening, ‘Journey of a Plantsman’. As he described his evolution from schoolboy botanist and horticulturist to world renowned designer and plantsman, I was struck by the detail with which he recalled the plants he included in the first flower border he created in his parents’ Hampshire garden 40 years ago. Hardly on the same level, but when during the gardening session last week I allowed my mind to focus on my own 1980s gardens, I found I too could see those gardens and the plants in them as if it were yesterday.

In other news, I spent today at Kew helping, along with many other volunteers,  to prepare orchids and bromeliads for the Orchid Festival which starts in early February. Attaching moss to the plants pots with elastic bands was a fiddly process but very satisfying and the horticultural chat around the table was fascinating. During a break I took a look at the progress with the installation of the exhibits and it’s already looking very impressive. The theme of this year’s festival is Colombia and the fauna of the country is being highlighted alongside its botanical treasures. A sloth, donkey and turtle caught my eye today. More orchid festival impressions to follow in a future post.


‘Blow Gabriel Blow’*

* Cole Porter ‘Anything Goes’ 1934

When, at New Year, I walked into the museum in Prague devoted to the artist Alphonse Mucha, the last thing I expected to find was the inspiration for Weeds Roots & Leaves’ first blog post of 2019. But there it was, amidst the stylised theatrical posters and advertising material, almost always portraying beautiful young women in dreamy poses dressed in flowing gowns with luxuriant hairstyles. In a section devoted to the artist’s drawings I found a couple of botanical studies. One featured the Czech national tree, Tilia cordata, the small leaved lime or linden, the latter somehow more appropriate in central Europe. Its layout and precision reminded me of the remarkably detailed botanical art in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

But the drawing that most attracted me was of Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpets. With fine pencil strokes, Mucha illustrates the elongated trumpet of this tropical tree/shrub’s flower. Subtly, the image transmutes into designs for lampshades and light fittings and what might be a rather lethal looking hair ornament. In turn of the century Prague, as in other European cities, Art Nouveau drew inspiration from nature, most notably in the art and designs of Alphonse Mucha.  Having seen the detail of the study of the Angel’s Trumpets I can appreciate the accuracy of the plant-inspired decorations in Mucha’s work. Further examination of the other images on display revealed that the majority include floral motifs, either entwined in the subject’s hair or as a decorative border to the painting or print. I found sunflowers, irises, scarlet geraniums, poppies: on an overcast late December morning an art gallery turned out to be the best garden in the city!

Finding the Brugmansia study spurred me into delving further into the genus of which I knew very little, other than being able to recognise its large and distinctive trumpet or bell-like flowers. Brugmansia is a member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and like its relatives potatoes and tomatoes, originates in South America. Sadly the seven species in the genus are now known only in cultivation and it is classed as extinct in the wild. In tropical areas Brugmansia can grow into a large shrub or a tree up to 11m high. Its spectacular flowers exude a strong fragrance, usually most intense in the evenings to attract pollinating moths. In southern Colombia the plant has been used as a hallucinogen in spiritual ceremonies. Whilst most parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested, it has been found that some of its properties have medical value, including as an anaesthetic. Numerous cultivars of Brugmansia have been developed including B. ‘Alphonse Mucha’!

The images which follow are of the specimens on display in Kew’s newly restored Temperate House, which I plan to make the subject of a future post.

On the subject of art inspired by natural forms, from this April the works of glass sculptor Dale Chihuly are to be displayed in Kew Gardens for the second time in 14 years. I remember that first exhibition clearly and recall fantastically entwining ‘chandeliers’ comprising numerous hand-blown tendrils in an array of vivid colours and a canoe moored near the Gunnera on the banks of the Palm House Pond brimming with multi-coloured glass gourds. Sinuous blue and clear glass forms resembling some exotic aquatic creature arose amidst the Nymphaea in the pool in the central zone of the Princess of Wales Conservatory. For me the 2005 Chihuly exhibition has been one of the most effective art installations at Kew in recent years. That is not to denigrate more recent events such as the garden-wide exhibition of the works of Henry Moore in Kew’s 250th anniversary year 2009. And Kew proved an ideal setting for David Nash’s sculptures in wood in 2012.

I’d like to think that from April I might find a glass sculpture inspired by the frilly skirted blooms of Brugmansia. If so, I believe that Mucha, master at translating botanical subjects into works of art, would approve.