The Poppy

Papaver rhoeas, image from Kew Science

The annual red poppy is both fragile and fleeting,  and both robust and  enduring. Its vibrant coloured flowers  have been symbols of remembrance and rebirth throughout history.  So when I was asked if I was going to write a post about poppies for the centenary of the end of the Great War I thought I ought to, despite the fact that every other blog writer about history or  gardens will probably be doing so too and I would be hard pressed for something new to say and that wasn’t heavily overladen with the imagery of Flanders.

Butterflies and Poppies – Van Gogh Museum

And how do you trace the history of a weed? because for all their ubiquitous imagery field poppies [Papaver rhoeas] are actually not that common as garden flowers, with surprisingly few cultivars, and almost none at all until the late 19thc.   They are also easily confused in evidential terms  with opium poppies [Papaver somniferum], which are equally beautiful but with a completely different set of emblematic and symbolic meanings.


And PS this is the 250th post!

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The Art of Perfection…

Prize winning displays at Shrewsbury Flower Show,  DM, 2015

We’re coming to the end of  the season for that most English of events the  autumn flower show. [There’s even been one recently in Ambridge!]  But  have you ever entered any of your fruit, veg, flowers or plants for one?  Or visited a  show and seen the rosettes and certificates awarded and wondered why a  particular exhibit won while others which looked equally good to you were seemingly rejected out of hand?

A Perfect Rose [according to George Glenny at least]

If so read on and find out how and why the rules came about and why they are so rigid – and what they have to do with our old friends John Claudius Loudon and  George Glenny amongst others…

The Dahlia competition , Shrewsbury Flower Show, DM 2015

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I was lecturing in  Suffolk recently and took the opportunity to call in at Ickworth, for the first time in many years. What a revelation that was. Not the grand rotunda of the house, splendid on the outside but  rather dark and dreary inside, despite its magnificent contents. Nor its grand wings, one now a hotel and the other, never properly finished, now the inevitable cafe.

The 1st Earl of Bristol’s summer-house, ©Ashley Dace, 2012 



No: the revelation came outside in the grounds.  The grand sweep of lawn facing the building, and backed by a  woodland with specimen trees, and a splendid herbaceous border backing up against the terrace. The rather un-Italian Italian garden with its encircling terrace overlooking the parkland and its modern stumpery, now being extended through the Victorian shrubbery. And further away across the rolling parkland and woodland, and tucked down towards the lake  the magnificent walled kitchen garden which is slowly, slowly being restored by the garden team.

So it obviously merited a blog post...[photos by me unless otherwise stated]

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On a slow boat from China…

Hibiscus syriacus L. [as Alcea syriaca flore candido] from Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis, vol. 2:  (1613) 

China has one of the richest flora in the world but many of its plants remained unknown in the west until comparatively recently. While we all know about Chinoiserie as a fashion in  decor and in garden architecture particularly in the 18thc I suspect much less is known about the arrival of Chinese plants to complement them.

Tea – Camellia sinensis  [as Thea sinensis]
from Elizabeth Blackwell, Herbarium Blackwellianum, vol. 4: t. 352 (1760)

That’s partly becasue although there was a flourishing trade between China and western Europe from the 17thc onwards – albeit mainly one-way in China’s favour – the Chinese authorities gradually restricted western access to their ports and travel by Europeans around the country.  As a result would be early plant collectors, found it difficult to search and collect specimens.

It was, of course, at least equally hard to get them home.  Travelling was a slow business. Sailing between Britain and China was restricted by the trade and monsoon winds and the journey was at least 6 months, with a six month stay to wait for favourable winds  in the opposite direction and then another six month journey home. Its quite extraordinary that anything at all got back safe and sound. Continue reading

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Making Mountains and Music in Elysium…

frontispiece to the English translation of Abbe de Vallemont, Curiosities of nature and art in husbandry and gardening, London: 1707.

As I hope I showed in a recent post John Evelyn the 17thc diarist and garden writer spent much of his life designing the perfect garden: Elysium Britannicum.  It was to be an Eden encompassing a complete miniaturized version of the world including almost every kind of landscape feature that he could imagine.

But what was a garden owner to do if they didn’t have  natural waterfalls or cascades, mountains or “Groves and Wildernesses” in their back yard?


Quite simple said Evelyn:  “if in the originall disposure of the plott, we find them not already planted by Nature” they must, quite simply, “be contrived”. This insistence creates an artificiality that is the very opposite of the great 18thc cry of “the genius of the place”.  So how does Evelyn propose the gardener should go about it?

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