Capital embellishment

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.

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.

‘A Ridiculous Blue’

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.

IMG_8563They 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.

IMG_8564

 

 

 

‘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.