Last week I looked at the discovery of the Monkey Puzzle tree by Europeans and at the very first specimens introduced to Britain by Archibald Menzies, and today I’m going to look at how it was introduced to British gardens on a grand scale.
Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere it doesn’t really have that much to do with William Lobb and the famous Veitch nursery of Exeter despite all their self-publicity.
I’ll also look at where it got its common name from – especially since there are no monkeys in Chile who might be puzzled by it.
If there is one unusual tree most of us will be able to name without much botanical knowledge or any reference books it surely must be the monkey puzzle. They became very popular in the mid-late 19thc and whenever you see a large monkey puzzle tree in Britain you can be pretty sure that’s when it was planted, but how and why did they become such an obvious symbol of Victorian taste? And why on earth are they called monkey puzzles?
Believe it or not it is all supposed to have begun with a banquet given in April 1795 by the wonderfully-named Ambrosio Bernardo O’Higgins, and an unusual dish that he served!
But of course you should never believe everything you’re told…
After a recent post about the creation of the house and gardens at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire today’s is going to look at the garden in its late 17thc heyday.
The Guernsey Lily at Kirby today
The reason we know so much about the garden at Kirby and what it contained is because Charles Hatton was an inveterate correspondent. The British Library holds hundreds of letters from him to his brother Christopher, Lord Hatton, at Kirby – often 2 or 3 a week – which are full of political and family news but often with some mention of plants. Between them the brothers created what a visitor in 1692 called “ye finest garden in England”.
What made it so special?
I’ve been having an occasional week. My partner started it with a joke about an occasional chair, wondering what they were the rest of the time, and then I heard Todd Longstaffe-Gowan give a lecture about 18thc Town Gardens which included a nice anecdote about “an occasional garden” in a short story by Saki. I’d heard of Saki and many years ago must have read some of his stories, because there’s a “complete” edition on the bookshelves but I didn’t remember any occasional garden…
…so what had I missed?
The story of Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire is inextricably linked with the story of the Hatton family who rose to prominence under Elizabeth I, and remained there right through the 17thc. As their fortunes changed after that so did that of the house and garden, until large parts of it decayed or collapsed, before being handed over to the Office of Works in 1930.
Now the consolidated ruins of the mansion are amongst the most beautiful and romantic of all the monuments in Britain, boasting extraordinary late Elizabethan architecture, and since 1997 a re-imagined late 17thc garden.