The last thing I expected when I set off this morning to see the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy was to encounter herds of elephants in two of the Royal Parks. The installation of life-sized Asian elephants in St James’s Park and The Green Park highlights the work of conservation charity Elephant Family and forms part of Co-Existence, an environmental campaign inspired by the way in which the reduction in human activity last year, as a result of the pandemic, had a positive effect on wildlife. The campaign reminds us that we share the planet with animals and must coexist with them rather than removing their natural habitats by our activities. A parallel photographic exhibit showed images from 2020 of, for example, penguins crossing a deserted Cape Town street.
At this stage I imagine you’re thinking what has this to do with gardening, I thought Weeds Roots & Leaves was a blog about gardens, plants etc.? Bear with me: in one of the interpretation panels I read that the Elephant Family charity works with indigenous communities in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu in southern India to remove the plant Lantana camara as well as promoting peaceful human-elephant coexistence. Lantana camara? Isn’t that the rather pretty shrub you see in Spain with the two-tone yellow and red flowers? Indeed it is and to my surprise I have read this evening that it has spread around the globe from its origins in Central and South America to more than 50 countries and is classed as an invasive species.
The L. camara connection doesn’t end there. It is the material used to make the sculptures themselves. The 100 plus strong herds have been made over the last five years by the communities in Tamil Nadu as part of the initiative. On first inspection I thought the wonderful sculptures were made with bamboo but this material is clearly more pliable lending itself to the curves of the elephant’s forms. I can’t describe how uplifting this installation is. You can’t help smiling when you stand in the middle of the herd and sense the beauty and power of these graceful creatures.
One of the images in the photographic exhibition alongside the herd features a mother and very young (fuzzy still) calf walking alongside the road, (in a manner reminiscent of the New Forest ponies). They are on an ‘elephant corridor’ which connects the habitats of the Asian elephant. And Mum has the beginning of a small garden on her back: growing in the soil deposited during a cooling down trunk spray!
Whilst the ‘anthropause’ brought wildlife into unexpected places in 2020, David Hockney was at his home in France creating a series of iPad images documenting the arrival of spring in his corner of Normandy. Occupying three of the main galleries on the first floor of the RA, these vivid images capture the transition from bare branched late winter trees, through the first chartreuse coloured flush of leaves to blossom heavy orchards. And whilst many of the images feature the wider landscape, a few show the area around the timber framed farmhouse, where clipped box doughnuts squat beside gravelled paths and an enormous tree shades a rustic table and chairs. In another a treehouse teeters: a far cry from that made for me by my father in the garden where I grew up, this one has a roof and a ladder! My favourite images are the night scenes, where trees are outlined by smudges of moonlight.
As I walked home from the station I noticed what I think might be a Kiftsgate rose emerging from Wisteria leaves atop a garden wall. A peaceful image to conclude a relaxing and happy summer’s day.
The absence of posts to this blog for a month has been preying on my mind. Other tasks took precedence in the form of gardening work both on site and on the page. On site because it’s mulching season meaning that some gardens in TW9 have been generous covered with a 5cm layer of shredded horse manure from Woodland Horticulture delivered from Somerset. And when not mulching I’ve been pruning wisteria and roses and preparing two gardens for re-planting projects scheduled for completion in the next fortnight. On the page because I was fortunate to be asked to update some pages for a commercial gardening website, the subject matter being garden pests and diseases.
And as if those tasks weren’t enough to fill my time, I’m now at the halfway point in an online course on the history of the English landscape garden through Oxford Continuing Education. This week we’ve been looking at three of the key gardens of the earlier part of the C18, Stowe, Studley Royal and Stourhead. But in fact it was another garden of the period that no longer exists in its 1730s incarnation that I want to share with you, or more specifically three charming paintings of the garden. Hartwell House near Amersham is now a luxury hotel and the current layout of the grounds dates from a later period. The garden was made in the mid 1730s by Sir Thomas Lee. When the garden was complete he commissioned Balthasar Nebot, a little-known Spanish painter, based in Covent Garden, to record his estate and garden. This he did, portraying the estate workers and gardeners in great detail.
How little and yet how much has changed in the work of a gardener. We still collect weeds and grass clippings in a container, my turquoise plastic trug being the equivalent of the C18 gardener’s basket. In non-lockdown winters we still manoeuvre a roller over the vegetable garden beds at Osterley after mulching them with leaf mould. And we still clip yew hedges by hand using shears. 300 years may have passed but these simple tasks and tools connect us to the gardeners who have gone before us.
And during a passionate talk this week by head gardener Ben Preston of York Gate outside Leeds, I learnt that the use of scythes is not confined to 300 year old landscape paintings and Ross Poldark. The meadow at York Gate is cut by hand by Ben and his team. He explained that by cutting it by hand they can identify the areas where the grass grows thickest. The hay is cut into windrows and sent to a local community farm. Apparently Eastern European visitors to the garden comment that the sight of the hay meadow being cut by scythes reminds them of seeing their grandparents working on the land in a similar way.
Another element of the garden at York Gate chimed with the Hartwell paintings where clipped yew is used to such dramatic effect. At York Gate a line of yew ‘sails’ cuts through the garden forming both a focal point and a boundary with one of the many ‘garden rooms’. The garden is owned and run by the gardening charity Perennial and a friend who until a couple of years ago also volunteered at Osterley now volunteers in the York Gate shop. I’ve added this special garden to a growing list of gardens to visit.
I shall leave you here as I have some course reading to finish about the glorious landscape at Stourhead in Wiltshire, a garden I HAVE visited. I went on a beautiful autumn day in November 2019. Stourhead is only a short drive off the A303, my route to and from my niece and her family in Somerset. It was such a glorious day that I made a detour on the drive home and immersed myself in the tranquil atmosphere of Stourhead, where classical temples reflect into the lake and, on the day of my visit, the scene was all the more beautiful because of the leaves changing colour. A classic image of the garden follows.
National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!
My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.
Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.
The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.
Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.
Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.
Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.
Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!
In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.
What links George W Bush’s Vice-President and the proprietor of Acorn Antiques? Answer: Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. According to the guide who related the history of the magnificent Elizabethan manor house when I visited a couple of weeks ago, both Dick Cheney and actor Celia Imrie are related to families who once owned the house.
Used to parking some distance away from the house when visiting a historic property, I was surprised to find myself being directed to the car park through the entrance gates and passing immediately in front of the house and through part of the garden itself. That brief glimpse from the driver’s seat promised I had arrived somewhere special. For here was a square lawn bordered on one side by a redbrick wall beyond which stood the parish church, a very picturesque scene.
Once parked, closer inspection of the border beside the wall revealed a textbook blend of leaf shapes and textures: sword-like Phormium leaves interspersed with cream and yellow variegated shrubs (Euonymus and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’) and the crisply serrated blue/green leaves of the giant honey flower, Melianthus major. The lawn is cornered with yew columns, and in the centre a stone cherub stands amidst a circular bed of burgundy leafed Heucheras and castor oil plants (Ricinus communis).
The redbrick of the Manor House forms an L around two sides of this entrance lawn. Variegated hollies frame the doorway of a grand brick porch, one holly trimmed into a five tiered design, beneath which grow ferns and ladies’ mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lead planters at the door blend shades of yellow and white, with dahlias, nicotianas and hydrangeas. Grouped containers feature elsewhere in the garden. Coincidentally, when reading the September chapter of Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ this week, I noticed she calls such arrangements ‘pot gardens’. The architecture of the house is perfect for tucking terracotta pots of ferns into shady corners or filling a courtyard with a collection of clipped box in pots, the evergreen foliage softened by a blue-flowered Salvia. A metal jardinière houses a collection of tender pelargoniums, amongst which I spotted Pelargonium sidoides, which I’ve grown for the first time this year in my own pot garden.
Dotted around the garden are a number of sculptures, all for sale, including a greyhound-lurcher which, according to Boo McLeod Matthews, the current chatelaine of Chenies Manor, who I chatted to whilst admiring the sculpture, is so lifelike that her two spaniels growled at it when it was first installed. Two angels in conversation and a swooping owl also appealed to me, nestling naturally in the greenery.
The garden consists of several rooms beyond which lies a larger expanse of lawn, clipped yew pyramids drawing your eye towards a pretty metalwork gazebo, a souvenir of the filming onsite of an adaptation of Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’. At the far side of this lawn stands an ancient oak tree, where legend has it Elizabeth I mislaid a piece of jewellery.
Chenies Manor is a popular wedding venue and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you turn are vistas and flowery bowers, a wedding photographer’ dream. Boo explained that with no wedding business this year, she has worked almost-full time in the garden with the rest of a small team of gardeners.
The first room I explored was the Rose Lawn bordered on one side by plantings of frothy annuals, formality imposed by broad based clipped box cones. Purple Heliotrope and Verbena bonariensis flowerheads jostle against Cosmos (in pink and white) and graceful pink Nicotiana and Cleome. The pink and purple theme is continued around the Rose Lawn, pale and deeper pink dahlias interspersed with more Heliotrope amply fill beds trimmed with a foot high hedge.
Dividing that bed from an adjoining lawn, tall lavenders and nicotianas tumble either side of a gravelled path, on which stood a wheelbarrow of deadheaded Dahlia blooms, a clue to the garden’s immaculate presentation. The path continues beyond domed yews to a metal pergola-covered green alley, square slabs set into the gravel at an angle to create a diamond pattern. Luminous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) illuminate the edge of this secret path which divides the next two rooms in the garden, the White Garden and the Sunken Garden.
Entered via an archway in a Wisteria laden wooden trellis screen, the White Garden’s restrained colour palette creates a calm tranquil atmosphere. The lawn snakes around imposing yew drums, embedded between which white dahlias (including the single-flowered ‘Twynings After Eight’) and tall Nicotiana sylvestnis dazzle against the dark green of the yew.
The Sunken Garden comprises a rectangle within a rectangle, a narrow strip of grass separating the planted sections. Repetitions of the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), blue/grey Euphorbias and ribbed-leafed hostas provide an understated backdrop for the stars of the show, dozens of dahlias in warm shades from peach through soft orange to scarlet and crimson. The skilful staking which must surely have been necessary to support the taller and larger flowered decorative dahlias was all but invisible.
Seated at a trestle table near the tearoom was Mary, one of the garden team, who generously shared her expertise in the annual propagation of many hundreds of dahlias, demonstrating the technique for taking cuttings from stored tubers early in the season. Arrayed on the table were several vases each containing a single bloom, in bright and pastel colours and of differing shapes: single, cactus, pompon, waterlily, collarette and the large bloomed decorative. By mid November, ideally after the first frost, the dahlias are dug up and dried off for a week or so. The stalks are cut down to 2 or 3 inches and the tubers are covered with dry compost or shredded newspaper in fruit crates and stored in every conceivable space that can be found, protected from frost, damp and mice. 60% of the dahlias in the garden are grown from cuttings. The rest are last year’s tubers or new varieties. Some are also grown from seed. Cuttings taken in January are started off in heated propagators. The new shoots from the tuber are sliced off with a small piece of tuber attached and dipped into rooting compound before being planted into pots with four other cuttings, watered and covered with a plastic bag.
The varieties Mary showed us included:
‘Karma Prospero’: a longlasting waterlily style decorative dahlia
‘Karma Choc’: a deep chocolatey red, good for flower arranging
‘Spartacus’: a velvety red dinnerplate sized decorative dahlia
‘Belle of Barmera’: terracotta fades to soft pink and buff
‘Café au Lait’: cream blush blooms, a favourite for wedding bouquets
‘Labyrinth’: apricot orange with wavy petals
‘Honka Fragile’: White star shape with red edging
Massed tulip planting takes place before Christmas in preparation for a magnificent display each April. Judging by the impact the dahlias make, I can only imagine the spectacle that awaits visitors to this beautiful garden next spring.
Next time…..I pay a return visit to Chenies Manor. Having concentrated on the central areas of the garden on my first visit, I saw neither the Kitchen Garden nor the Physic Garden and have booked tickets to return with friends later this week. And I plan to take a closer look at the ancient oak tree with its royal connections.
During lockdown I entered a competition run by the Garden Museum in Lambeth. The theme was a memoir based on the garden as ‘Sanctuary’. I chose Kew Gardens for my subject and although I didn’t get shortlisted but would like to share the piece with you.
*Thank you to Elvis Costello for the title to this post. He performed a wonderful acoustic set at Kew the Music in July 2014. To date my favourite concert in this annual six day music event. Sadly cancelled this year.
29 April 2020.
A soothing voice on the meditation App advises me to visualise my ‘happy place’. Without hesitating I imagine myself sitting on a bench in a wood. Blue tits and great tits alight momentarily on feeders hanging from the branches of a tree across the path from where I sit. I can see a nuthatch inching down the trunk, its profile resembling a miniature woodpecker. From far above me I hear the mournful high-pitched call of a peregrine falcon. I am in the Natural Area in Kew Gardens. Less than half a mile away the outside world goes about its business: traffic flows along Kew Road and golfers trundle trolleys over the pristine greens of the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Course. But here is my sanctuary, where I am cocooned from the new normal of Zoom meetings and tense grocery shopping expeditions.
Is a sanctuary a physical place or can it be a mental refuge to be visited when your spirit needs soothing? As I write this, going into the sixth week of lockdown, staying home and staying safe, I believe that it is both. Kew Gardens remains closed but in my imagination I can visit any part of it whenever I wish. In 1968 James Taylor sang ‘In My Mind I’m Gone to Carolina’ and if I concentrate hard enough I’m gone to Kew. I’m gone to green glades lined with rare shrubs and trees from around the world, to the Redwood grove or the native woodland where now, in the last week of April, the understorey is carpeted with bluebells, the blue carpet punctuated here and there with the lime green flowers of Smyrnium perfoliatum. I can go at any time of the day or in any season. I can relive a frosty winter’s morning walking through the Plant Family Beds (now the Evolution Garden) and stopping to admire the frost riming the sculpture of the gardener leaning on his spade, surveying his domain. Or I can enjoy once more a late June picnic beneath the lime trees, their pale yellow flower clusters perfuming the warm still air.
I was in my twenties when I visited Kew for the first time. I lived in central London then and Kew’s spaciousness and sense of calm contrasted with the bustle and fumes of city streets. I returned once a year at first and then more regularly, until in my mid-thirties I was fortunate enough to move to the area.
A walk in the Gardens became a weekly ritual. I would often go late on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for the working week: the crowded Tube, the targets, the deadlines. Entering at the Lion Gate, I would skirt the Great Pagoda, heading towards what was then called the Conservation Area from which I emerged onto the lawn between the Gardens and the Thames towpath at the end of Syon Vista. Across the river, I could see the Northumberland lion standing defiantly atop the ornamental battlements of Syon House and at the other end of the wide double avenue of Holm oaks the rounded glass and metal outline of the central atrium of the Palm House. My route led to the northern shore of the lake, where in April creamy bracts centred with tightly clustered green flowers decorate a large Cornus florida. Skirting the southern end of the Temperate House I would arrive at Lion Gate just before closing time, save for one occasion when I mis-timed it and had to use the yellow emergency phone beside the gate. I was hugely relieved when the kind member of the Kew Constabulary who took the call released the remotely controlled catch on the gate.
That might have remained my weekly routine had not life intervened. By 2008 I had stopped commuting into the city and had been working locally for a couple of years. When the financial crisis hit I was, as the most recent recruit to the firm, made redundant. Roles in my field were hard to come by so as well as attending a typing and computer skills course, I answered a call on the Kew website to volunteer at an exhibition to be staged in the Nash Conservatory about the work of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. I also volunteered in the visitor information team and by early the following year was offered a part-time job. I remember worrying if, by working there, the place I had come to regard as a place of sanctuary would lose that aura for me and become just another workplace. Yes, there were days when the relentless flood of emails and calls threatened to make me forget what a special place Kew is, but a gentle cycle ride home along Holly Walk on a summer’s evening restored a sense of calm and perspective. If time allowed, I took a longer route home, alongside the southern shore of the lake, passing the group of monkey puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana, towards the Natural Area, where I would sit for a few minutes on that bench near the birdfeeders.
A year or so after I started working at Kew my elderly and increasingly frail mother came to live with me. We used to visit the Gardens most weekends, my mother in a wheelchair, reluctantly to begin with but content to do so when she realised how much more of the Gardens we could explore. We always took coffee and a picnic and on colder days, equipped with a hot water bottle under her blanket, she was the warmest member of the party. My mother loved sitting in the sun and one of her favourite places in Kew was the sundial lawn at the foot of the steps leading up to King William’s Temple in the Mediterranean Garden. On the hottest days I fancied we could detect the distinctive scent of the Garrigue, that combination of cistus, broom, lavender and oregano which characterised the hillsides of Provence where she had enjoyed several holidays. My mother’s dementia meant she was often sad and confused but a visit to Kew would raise her spirits, and when as we arrived home she would say ‘I’ve had a lovely day’, mine too. My mother died six years ago.
I no longer work at the Gardens, but once a week I volunteer for a few hours in the plant shop and will continue to do so when the lockdown is lifted. Kew remains a deeply special place to me. It has soothed me when my heart has been broken, when I’ve raged about some now forgotten injustice, worried about a health issue or grieved the loss of a loved one. I know I am not alone in missing Kew Gardens at this challenging time of fear and uncertainty. But by conjuring in my mind’s eye its vistas and paths, stretches of water, ancient trees and the exquisite contents of its glasshouses, Kew offers me a refuge, a sanctuary. Weeds Roots & Leaves 29 April 2020
I can still see them, bound in scarlet leatherette with gold embossed lettering, the three volumes of the Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedic Dictionary, which my father bought when I was about ten years’ old. They were kept in pride of place in the book case in the sitting room. Unlike the flimsy paged dictionaries in the school library, these felt rather luxurious and many entries were accompanied by small black and white line drawings which were perfect for tracing, and I illustrated several school projects with squares of greaseproof paper showing smudgy images of cocoa pods or Elizabethan costumes. But the pages I seemed to return to most often were those showing architectural features. Here I learnt to distinguish a Norman arch from a Gothic arch, a buttress from a gargoyle. And here I first learnt the three basic classical orders of architecture from a drawing of the capitals of antique columns. First the austere Doric style, then the moustachioed Ionic and finally the flamboyant Corinthian.
Outings to country houses and a few archaeological sights, notably the Forum in Rome and Jerash in the north of Jordan, provided examples of the types of capital. But many years passed before I connected the elaborate ‘Acanthus Scroll’ of the Corinthian capital with a plant that grows in British gardens: Acanthus mollis, commonly known as bear’s breeches.
Before spreading a mulch of shredded horse manure on a client’s flower beds last week, I made sure I wasn’t suffocating the crowns of any precious herbaceous perennials emerging from their winter dormancy. Gleaming in some rare sunshine, I found the glossy dark green leaves of A. mollis. There have been few frosts this winter in this area, and this was in a very sheltered town garden, so the leaves have already grown quite large. Late last year I cut back the spent leaves and distinctive flower spires measuring up to one metre in length on which are stacked curved pinkish bracts (resembling the bears’ breeches which give the plant its common name) protecting white two-lipped flowers. This is no modest plant content to blend into the background, but an extrovert of a specimen strong in both design and structure.
It’s easy to see why the ancients chose the architectural form of its leaves to decorate their buildings. But the plant wasn’t just used as architectural inspiration. In Claire Ryley’s ‘Roman Gardens and their Plants’ (ISBN 0-904973-16-6) I read that both A. mollis and A. spinosus were used by the Romans to line paths in formal gardens. The leaves of A. spinosus are more deeply lobed than those of A. mollis and each lobe has a sharply toothed outline. According to Claire Ryley the cooked roots of both species were applied as a poultice to burns and sprains as well as being used to treat gout and prevent hair loss.
Acanthus leaf decoration can be found in the National Trust’s Osterley House, where as regular readers know, I volunteer in the garden each Friday. In the late eighteenth century the house was modernised by Robert Adam. The Tudor building was transformed into a sophisticated grand mansion in the classical style. Adam’s designs reflected the latest discoveries. of the ancient world which he had seen for himself during a tour of Europe from 1754 to 1758. When I went inside the house for the recent ‘Treasures of Osterley’ exhibition I didn’t have to look far to find Acanthus leaves used in elaborate wall and ceiling plasterwork mouldings and on marble fireplace surrounds.
Thanks to those red bound volumes published in the 1970s, I still admire Corinthian columns with their leafy capitals as these photographs taken over the last year or so testify.
The Temple of Love, Versailles
The Palace of Versailles
Rural mosque, Almonaster la Real, Andalusia
Italica, near Seville
I was disappointed this morning when I inspected the A. mollis in my garden to find that the broad shiny leaves seem to be peppered with the first signs of the disease to which the plant is prone, powdery mildew. No doubt the frequent heavy rain of the last several weeks has spread the spores of the mildew from leaf to leaf. My strategy will be to remove the affected leaves, allowing unaffected leaves from beneath to unfurl comfortably. At least two millennia have passed since the Greeks and Romans chose Acanthus leaves to decorate their homes, public buildings and temples, and I am happy to report that with or without powdery mildew, it remains a handsome plant.
Arusha, a small town in northern Tanzania near the border with Kenya, is probably best known as the starting point for expeditions to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or for safari tours of the national parks to the south. For me, in 2001, it was the latter, with the holiday company Exodus, and where we spent our first night in East Africa. It was also where Agapanthus, the African Lily, first came to my attention. The short walk from the hotel to the centre of town took us along a road lined with relatively modern bungalows with lushly planted front gardens. Here were stands of Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpets) and hedges of Poinsettia, which until then I had seen only as a Christmas pot plant, doomed to fade and shrivel shortly after Twelfth Night. But most memorable was the profusion of Agapanthus Africanus, because they were ‘a ridiculous blue’, as David Nicholls describes his heroine’s eyes in his new novel ‘Sweet Sorrow’ read last week on BBC Radio 4.
In the years that followed I planted an Agapanthus in my little south-facing front garden, where it not only succeeded but positively took over for a year or three, self-seeding itself generously. Now confined to three chunky clumps of approximately 6 or 7 stems apiece, they dominate the front elevation of the house throughout July and are this week opening to their full splendour. They have shrugged off their pinkish tissue-like membrane to reveal numerous individual flowers, held on fine stemlets about 4cm long, branching from the apex of a sturdy 1 metre stem rising from a crown of strappy leaves. And they are indeed ‘a ridiculous blue’: not lavender, not navy, not saxe, but resembling the bright skies in mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. The flared six-petalled flowers are very attractive to pollinators.
They will remain in flower now for several weeks, before shucking off the shrivelled petals to reveal pods of slender black seeds which judging by the many plantlets that take root in the slate surface of the front garden, are both viable and vigorous. I root out these fleshy rooted seedlings every autumn and pot them up to give away or fill yet another of the terracotta pots which are threatening to crowd the sunny spot at the back of the rear garden. I feed all the Agapanthus plants monthly during autumn and winter, with a liquid seaweed feed to ensure good flowering the following season. In the summer after I failed to do so, one of the large front garden plants failed to produce a single flower. Elegant and architectural as the mid green leaves are, the absence of flowers was noted by most visitors to the house, even the non-gardening ones.
The narrow beds which surround the Palm House in Kew Gardens are planted with Agapanthus praecox, creating a soft fringe at the base of Decimus Burton’s Victorian iron and glass structure which, along with the Pagoda, symbolises the Gardens.
Another programme on Radio 4 which attracted my attention this week was ‘The Pleasures of Brecht’, which focussed on a deceptively simple poem by the German poet and playwright. Written in 1954, ‘Vergnugungen’ lists life’s pleasures including two of my own, ‘writing, planting’. Of course planting is only one aspect of the greater pleasure which is gardening in general, although I do derive a tremendous satisfaction from the act of choosing where to plant, preparing the ground, firming the plant into the soil (using the thumb and index finger method favoured at Osterley) and watering it in.
A friend who is a German scholar tells me that composing a list of one’s favourite things, in the style of Brecht, was an exercise she was set during her A Level German course. I am trying to compose my own (inevitably horticulturally biassed) list which I might share in a future blog. Meanwhile here is a translation of the original version:
‘First look from morning’s window The rediscovered book Fascinated faces Snow, the change of the seasons The newspaper The dog Dialectics Showering, swimming Old music Comfortable shoes Comprehension New music Writing, planting Traveling Singing Being friendly’
Lest it appear that I spend the entire week listening to Radio 4, I have also been working in both a client’s garden and in my own. Weeding and hedge trimming for the client and and carrying out a major ivy and bindweed clearance in my garden, in an effort to hold back the invasion from the unoccupied property next door. I also took a friend from out of town to see the Dale Chihuly glass exhibits in Kew Gardens and her delighted reaction to the first sight of the white and clear glass ‘petals’ in the pond in the Waterlily House was a highlight of my week. The pink Lotus flowers (Nelumbo nucifera) have grown through the sculptures, creating an exquisite tableau.
On Friday I joined Ed, a colleague from the Friday volunteering team to lead a guided walk in the gardens at Osterley, my first experience of doing so. Starting on the elegant steps at the rear of the house, facing the parkland, he began with a brief history of the garden and as we progressed into the garden we took it in turns to address the group of 16 visitors at pre-arranged places, to point out seasonal highlights and share stories of particular plants. When we paused beside the weeping silver lime, Tilia tomentosa, my explanation of the narcotic effect of the tree’s nectar on bumblebees was somewhat contradicted by a large bee loudly exiting from between the tree’s drooping boughs and ‘buzzing’ the audience.
Earlier in the week the garden team had cleared an area behind the scenes which contained an accumulation of plants which were superfluous to requirements. Gardener Ed (not everyone at Osterley is called Ed, though sometimes it does feel like they are), sent me home with three Iris germanica or Bearded Iris rhizomes. He anticipates the flowers might be white, yellow or blue. I am hoping that late next spring I shall find out if one or more of them is ‘a ridiculous blue’. In the meantime the sight of plump Agapanthus flowerheads as I approach my front door is definitely one of my daily pleasures.
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.
B. x candida ‘Grand Marnier’
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.