Despite what you might think, it wasn’t Dame Edna Everage who was first to shout about the glories of the gladi, but a medal-winning vicar from Kent with a dry sense of humour, who rejoiced in the name of Henry Honeywood D’Ombrain… and I bet he’s someone else you haven’t heard of before now.
His 1873 book on the gladiolus opens: “it is impossible to be poetical in writing on the Gladiolus, for it would be as difficult to find a rhyme for it as for porringer. I cannot be sentimental – no lover could call his inamorata, My Gladiolus. To be learned is out of the question; the ancients did not know it, and so I cannot cog a list of quotations from Homer downwards; I have, therefore, only aimed to be practical.”
The Rev. D’Ombrain is going to be the first in a series of occasional posts on gardening clerics… some serious and some just ever so slightly eccentric!
D’Ombrain [sometimes Dombrain]was born in Pimlico in 1818 and came from a long-established Huguenot family. He was ordained in 1841, served as a curate in Dublin and Ramsgate, then a vicar in Deal from before moving in 1868 to be vicar of Westwell near Ashford where he remained until his death in 1905.
He had always been interested in natural history, and after his arrival in Kent he began writing for the horticultural press. His earliest articles “Chronicles of a Small Garden” were published monthly in The Florist, Fruitist and Garden Miscellany. Later he moved on to write for The Journal of Horticulture. Sadly largely unillustrated these columns were written like most of his work under the pseudonym “Deal”. They are discursive, witty [in a very Victorian way] and give a good insight into the rapid changes in horticulture that were happening all around him.He was an active member of the Horticultural Society, serving on their floral committee and judged at shows. His work as a plant breeder across several species was noticed by Darwin, with whom he was clearly in correspondence, and to whom he sent unusual auriculas. Darwin quotes D’Ombrain’s findings several times in The variation of animals and plants under domestication (1863) although D’Ombrain “humbly begged to differ in toto coelo from his conclusions.” (Journal of Horticulture 25 June 1861). D’Ombrain also figures on the International Plants Names Index as responsible for naming at least 30 plants, mainly orchids and other tropical introductions.
This was probably because in 1862 D’Ombrain became the founder-editor of The Floral Magazine , a colourful but cheaper version of the more scientific journals such Curtis’s Botanical Magazine or The Botanical Register. It was devoted “chiefly to the meritorious varieties of such introduced plants only as are of popular character, and likely to become established favourites in the Garden, Hothouse or Conservatory.” Perhaps as a result of this, a fashionable Gloxinia “with crimson lobes and a red throat” was named after him. I suspect it now lost to cultivation, as I cannot find any other references.
He was also honoured with a pansy, that was for a time at least, grown commercially, and later in life with a tall, May-flowering Darwin class tulip, described as “Brilliant vermilion-scarlet. Clear blue to blue- black base ringed with white and associated with a white, six-rayed star on the outside of the flower.” Again I have been unable to discover illustrations of them or to find out whether they are still in cultivation.
But it was his 1873 book The Gladiolus: its History, Cultivation, and Exhibition that initially made his public name and reputation. It is only 56 pages long, with a just few basic illustrations but it is quite a comprehensive account of how to grow and exhibit the plant, and importantly has an account of the flower’s surprisingly short history in cultivation.
“No flower has so rapidly gained for itself a prominent position in the florist’s estimation has as the Gladiolus. While the grower of auriculas can win prizes with flowers that were in growth 70 or 80 years ago… The growth of the Gladiolus as a florists’ flower is a matter of about 20 years;
Despite the best efforts of Dame Edna, and thus perhaps contrary to popular modern belief, gladioli have nothing to do with Australia, but come mainly from sub-saharan Africa, particularly the Cape region. There are also one or two which originate in Mediterranean area and Asia Minor. The name is derived from the Latin word for sword, referring to their sword shaped leaves.
The first South African gladiolus species were brought to Europe in the 1730s and 1740s by Dutch and English ships in the India trade, which called at Cape Town en route for home. These early introductions included G. alatus, blandus, recurvus and tristis. Phillip Miller is known to have had G. tristis in flower at Chelsea Physic Garden in 1745.
It was Chelsea nurseryman, James Colville, who created the first commercially successful hybrid, by crossing G. tristis var. concolor with G. cardinalis to create his Colvillei Hybrids in 1823. At roughly the same time other British, Dutch, French and Belgian nurserymen were experimenting and raising hybrids too. Luckily gladioli are easy to raise from seed so as more species- particularly G. psittacinus – were introduced in the 1820s and 1830s, the gene base was widened and the first strain of what we now consider the main garden type – Gandavensis hybrids – was bred in near Ghent [Gand in French] in 1837.
From then on the field was wide open and through the 1840s many European nurserymen became hybridizers, developing hundreds of varieties, although many were short-lived. As yet more species were introduced from the wild and used in the breeding programmes, so new colours, shapes and forms appeared in garden-suitable varieties. Soon “all the world are raising seedling gladiolus.” [E.S.Rand, Corms, 1866].
Without wishing to ramble on endlessly about the breeding and care of gladioli – there is I’m sure a limit to your interest and patience – its worth pointing out that D’Ombrain was just the first of a wave of people to take an interest in the gladiolus at this time. Extra momentum to “gladi-mania” was also given by artists like Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh.
D’Ombrain is perceptive in recognising that “when new varieties of florists’ flowers are bought out, that there is great sameness, in fact, no improvement whatever” – something I’m sure we all still feel when looking at the ‘new’, ‘improved’, or novelty’ plants introduced today. However, he argued that ‘improvement’ in each year may not be so very remarkable, but it is appreciable, and in the course of three or four years the strides made strike us very forcibly.” He illustrates this with the story of “a friend coming … with a …gardening journal in his hand, and pointing to a figure of a new gladiolus, ‘Don Juan’, which had then just been introduced, asking me if it was possible to imagine anything finer than it – and yet what a poor thing it is now.” So poor in fact that I can’t find an image of it anywhere, and think it too has probably been lost to cultivation.
There were many English breeders who produced dozens of new varieties every year. The largest and best-known was “Mr Kelway, of Langport in Somerset… In his exhibition beds last season he planted 3500 bulbs, and in his store beds 800,000!”
Kelway were to remain the largest producers of gladioli right through the century. Their catalogues listed almost 800 varieties, including ones named “Rev. H. H. Dombrain”, “Mrs Dombrain” and “Edith Dombrain”. At that time Kelway had 8 acres devoted to gladioli: 6 for plants in bloom and 2 for seedlings. By 1880 this had increased to around 50 acres of Gladiolus, and since the bulbs ranged from 6 pence for corms of “a few cheap showy flowers for the border,” to 8 shillings a corm for exhibition standard bulbs” it must have been a profitable business.
Victorian ingenuity came into its own with D’Ombrain’s advice on providing protection for the flower spikes from the elements. After describing how to build general shading structures he recommends “an individual bloom protector” created by “Mr Chapman, the well-known inventor of cases for exhibiting flowers.”
D’Ombrain was a regular exhibitor at flower shows and recalled that the gladi “has gone through as many changes on the exhibition stand as it has done in culture. I can remember when it was shown with fern leaves and foliage of other kinds…. I can remember collections where the spikes were shown in Yucca leaves and stitched into them, and collections where the spikes were falling about in all directions without any support; these have all passed away, a better state of things now prevails and no flowers are more neatly set up than they are… I have myself adopted the some years, and can conscientiously recommend, the stands made by Mr W.F.Chapman of which the following is a sketch…”
There is much more, so if you are interested read the rest of the book for yourself. It ends “I have thus completed the task I undertook, and if I shall have by so doing being the means of inducing anyone to venture on the culture of these beautiful flowers, I shall feel I have not written in vain.”
The full text of The gladiolus, its history, cultivation and exhibition can be found at: https://archive.org/stream/cu31924002806622#page/n3/mode/2up
But it wasn’t just gladis that excited D’Ombrain. In fact he is much more famous for his work with another flower… but news about that will have to wait for another post…. in the meantime I wonder what he would have made of the sight Dame Edna tossing hundreds of gladis into the audience at the end of each of her performances?