Bute is in the Eye of the Beholder

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.

Winterbourne House and Garden

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.

National Collection of Anthemis

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.

Earl of Bute 1773

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!

A cabinet containing a copy of Lord Bute’s botanical tables is held by the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle

In the Dock

Last Friday, after an absence of 127 days, I returned to volunteer in the garden at Osterley House. My last session was in early March when we spent the day in the sunshine clearing brambles from the margin of the Middle Lake.

Bramble clearing on 6 March 2020

In the photographs I took that day I see that the rosemary in the borders at the rear of the house was in full bloom, the grey green foliage complementing the clear blue flowers with their prominent lower petals. In the Cutting Garden I photographed the Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’ against a chrome yellow backdrop of daffodils. Little did I know when I took these images it would be four months until I was in the garden again.

Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’
Rosemary

It felt so good to be back, another step nearer normality in the gradual easing of lockdown. Naturally a new normal has had to be established. Flasks of tea brewed at home replace the lunchtime teapot ritual and the tool handles have to be disinfected when we finish for the day. Two of the five volunteers weeded in the Tudor Walled Garden and planted several new additions in one of the potager style beds. One of these plants was Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare). Thankfully its appearance belies the slightly sinister sounding common name, the spires of rosemary blue flowers being a magnet for bees and other pollinators.

The rest of us trimmed the edges of the four rectangular beds in that area, moving via the Magnolia borders to work our way along the paths in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden, our razor sharp shears guided by the metal edging strips to create that crisp finish which instantly neatens a lawn. Head gardener Andy Eddy was mowing the lawns in ‘Mrs Child’s’ and stopped for a catch up. During lockdown he and his partner maintained the garden, enjoying the temporary lull from fewer planes heading to Heathrow and the vastly reduced traffic on the M4 which borders the parkland surrounding the garden. There was also the novelty of the presence of the neighbouring farmer’s Charollais cattle herd on the field immediately in front of the house.

We sat outside the bothy to eat lunch, the reduced number in the team making social distancing easy to achieve. Afterwards we worked in the cutting garden, keeping the bark topped paths clear of weeds and transplanting stray self-seeders such as geraniums into the relevant sections of the garden. I found that the portion of the border beside the wall where I was working was choked with docks (Rumex obtusifolius) and as I worried away at this patch with first a hand fork and then a border fork I realised that I haven’t had to clear these before and had no idea how difficult they are to tackle. To find out more about what I had hitherto assumed were innocuous weeds with the benefit of calming nettle stung skin, I consulted the RHS website which states ‘They are often difficult to eradicate as their deep tap root can regrow from the top section and they produce large amounts of seed.The tap root can be up to 90cm (3ft) in length.‘ A 3ft tap root: no wonder I struggled!

I did manage to clear a section of roughly a couple of feet square but confess that, with the permission of gardener Graham, I had to cut several of the most persistent plants down to ground level rather than rooting them up. It felt appropriate that almost my first task as a ‘re-opening volunteer’ was the clearance of stubborn weeds, just as that last pre-lockdown session had involved bramble eradication. Despite my emphasis in this post on weeds and weeding, the gardens at Osterley are looking stunning as the following photos attest.

The Cutting Garden 10 July 2020: Echinops and Alliums

Robert Adam’s Garden House
Fuchsia Thalia inside the Garden House
Crocosmia and Honey Spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) in the Tudor Walled Garden