Winterbourne House and Garden is a favourite destination when I go to Birmingham. Located near Birmingham University’s campus in leafy Edgbaston, Winterbourne is the university’s botanic garden. Beyond the house built in 1903 for John Nettlefold, stands a garden billowing at this time of year with exuberant herbaceous planting.
When I was there ten days ago the star attraction was the bed just beyond the terrace containing the National Collection of Anthemis, a spectacular blend of soft yellow and white cultivars of this dainty member of the daisy (Compositae) family.
We were there to meet Ruth, a friend of Cathie, my hostess. They had been classmates on the RHS Level 2 Diploma course. Ruth now volunteers at the nearby Birmingham Botanical Gardens. One of the many joys of studying and working in horticulture is meeting other gardeners and hearing about their routes into the industry, their current activities and projects, as well as benefiting from their expertise. When I admired a velvety dark burgundy regal Pelargonium, its petals rimmed in a lighter pink, Ruth identified it as P. Lord Bute.
Whilst the plant wasn’t immediately familiar, the name was. I had read about Lord Bute as the courtier who in the mid eighteenth century advised George III’s mother Princess Augusta on the creation of a collection of exotic plants on the site of what evolved into the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Contemporary gossip speculated that their close relationship went beyond the botanical, but whatever the truth, it is known that John Stuart, third earl of Bute (1713-1792) and briefly prime minister in 1762/3, introduced the Old Lion trees to Kew from the Duke of Argyll’s estate in Twickenham. These are among the oldest trees in Kew and include an oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis), a sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) and a maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba). The latter is planted not far from the northern end of the Princess of Wales Conservatory which was named after Princess Augusta and not after Diana, Princess of Wales, which I had understood until I went to work at Kew.
Gardeners are generous souls, and I was very touched when later that day Ruth deposited three perfect rooted cuttings of the plant I admired on the doorstep. The little Lord Butes were carefully protected for transportation in a cut off plastic water bottle, a brilliant recycling hack. With the cuttings were two packets of seeds: the first those of the kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum). Only the day before I had used my phone’s plant identifier app to identify a tall and somewhat unusual shrub growing in a container in Cathie’s garden. Its mauve flowers were recognisable as belonging to the potato family (Solanaceae) but it was the leaves that attracted me. About 10 inches long and deeply lobed, they resemble pin oak leaves. Ruth treats this tender plant as an annual, raising it from seed each year, and she had given Cathie a young plant a few months ago. It struck me that it is rather like the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) in its ability to produce so much vegetative growth in one season, and I wonder if, like that plant, it could be used as a focal point in an exotic border of tender plants such as Dahlias.
The other seeds belong to Hibiscus cameronii which I read is a native of Madagascar with large white and pink flowers with red-purple spots at the base of each petal. This is very tender and will be a challenge to grow, but I shall have a go using the heated propagator. I shall also ask the team at Osterley if they might be interested, perhaps for display in the Garden House, along with the citrus trees and other tender specimens. The David Cameron for whom this plant was named was not our erstwhile prime minister, but the first curator of Birmingham Botanical Garden, whose stewardship ran from 1831-1837.
Although I shall have to wait until next year to see the seeds germinate and mature, I hope to enjoy P Lord Bute later this summer. I shall plant them alongside a container planted with other dark red flowers including some Dianthus which are about to flower, having been raised from seedlings I was given early in 2020 when a colleague and I were pricking out a variety of seedlings one very rainy afternoon just before the first lockdown.
Speaking of plants not named after British prime ministers I have been doing some digging to find out whether the Pelargonium was named for Princess Augusta’s Lord Bute or for one of his descendants. In a 2010 Kew magazine article Kew’s Richard Wilford posited that because the plant was first raised by a plant nursery in Cardiff, Messrs S Treseder & Son, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the name Lord Bute was chosen because of the proximity of the nursery to Cardiff Castle, home to the Bute family from 1766 to 1947. So is it a generic aristocratic Bute being commemorated rather than our friend from the early days of Kew?
I would argue that it’s the latter given his fervent interest in horticulture and botany. Indeed he was a botanical scholar as well as a politician: he produced a limited edition ‘flora’ containing specially commissioned botanical images from artists such as Margaret Meen. And as well as advising Princess Augusta on the introduction of several venerable trees to Kew, he supervised garden alterations and is believed to have commissioned Sir William Chambers to design buildings such as The Orangery and the Pagoda. In order to fulfil his role at Kew, he leased Cambridge Cottage on Kew Green near the main entrance to the Gardens, now known as Elizabeth Gate. Cottage is a misleading description for a really quite grand three storey house. He is understood to have extended the house to accommodate his botanical library. Cambridge Cottage is now a wedding venue with offices on the upper floors. In fact for the first three years I worked at Kew Gardens, the Visitor Information team was located on the first floor of Cambridge Cottage in a room with a view across the Green to the cricket pitch and St Anne’s Church. I’d like to think that more than 250 years ago, Lord Bute might have looked out of the same window!