Thursday, May 27, 2010

In an English Country Garden

From "The Naming of Names" by Anna Pavord
The English are famous for their obsession with gardening, and on days like the last few where the skies have been blue and the weather warm, there is nothing I like more than to sit in the garden an admire the flowers.

 But in truth this is a recent hobby, as in the past a flower garden was a luxury. In the Middle Ages in England most plants were grown as food, or for medical or herbal purposes. Most plant lore was passed literally from hand to mouth, or recorded by monks in monasteries until the advent of printed texts. The gardens planted by Romans in Britain had fallen into disuse, but the monks planted some of the flowers and herbs they had left behind – lavender, rosemary, hyssop, valerian, the lily, the pansy, cherry trees.Unfortunately much of the written material was lost in the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

One of first influential printed books on plants was Gerard's Herball of 1597, and it was followed by Culpeper's Herbal, both of which emphasised flowers as medicine.

For a vey readable account of Culpeper's life I can highly recommend
The Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the Fight for Medical Freedom
by Benjamin Woolley.

By the 1570's tulip bulbs first reached Holland from Turkey, and decorative flowering plants became fashionable. But it was not until the seventeenth century that tulip mania really began to grip Europe. Merchants paid vast fortunes, the price of a mansion in the Hague, for the rarer variegated flowers. This frenzy of gambling on tulip bulbs is beautifully evoked in Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach. It was not until the 1920's though that scientists realised the pretty colours were in fact caused by a bug - a virus transmitted by aphids.

One of the early plant explorers in the seventeenth century was John Tradescant - his exploits both in England and what he called The New World are described in Philippa Gregory's superb books Virgin Earth and Earthly Joys.

The pilgrims in 17th century ships took plants and seeds with them on their long voyage from England to North America. They did not know if the plants they needed would grow where they were bound. All seeds and plants for the voyage were selected for their usefulness, and not for decoration. These were herbs for medicinal purposes, and dyeing, and crops for food.

To ensure the plants would survive the two month journey, the pilgrims made plant transporters out of natural materials. Baskets were made using willow, bramble, rose, ivy and other hedgerow plants.To transport cuttings, they made what appeared to be balls of earth but were in fact clay mixed with honey. Honey is renowned as an antiseptic so it stopped bacteria or mould from the damp conditions killing the plants. Seeds were also transported in dried gourds, and the tuberous plants were stored in ox bladders, to keep the roots damp.

Flowering plants for health included chervil and foxglove for dropsy, comfrey for backstrain and spitting blood(!) lovage for colic, and tansy to preserve the dead and treat fevers, worms, hysteria, flatulence and miscarriages. What a cure-all!
The garden flower most associated with English gardens is the Rose. According to myth it is red because it blushed with pleasure when Eve kissed it in the Garden of Eden. In terms of history it can be dated to between 60 and 25 million years ago -  astonishingly, fossilized stems with prickles and rose-like leaves can be traced back this far.


The Old English poem "Deor", which comes to us from the 10th century or earlier, contains a very early mention of a rose –
The stranger paused. He marvelled
At a heart-rooted pain.
The thorn ran deep, the bud
Spread a crimson stain.
He would not pluck it, for fear

The rose scattered like rain.


But in Britain very few roses were grown before the reign of Elizabeth I. From the 1500's with explorers bringing new plants from abroad, and the advent of better printing techniques to spread the word, rose-growing burgeoned in popularity until by 1729 Chinese roses were being grown in Kew Gardens.

How did people used to tend their precious plots? Before specialised equipment was invented, gourds or clay pots with holes in were used for watering the plants. Spouted pots called "watering cans" were first recorded in 1692, but we had to wait for a lawn sprinkler until 1871, when J.Lessler of Buffalo City, New York patented one.

"Lady's Slipper" orchid
But it is wild flowers that I love, and originally all our cultivated plants grew wild somewhere, and have had to be brought, sometimes at great cost, from the other side of the world.

4 comments:

Lindsay Townsend said...

Informative and entertaining article, Deborah. I enjoy wild flowers, too.
The poem 'Deor' is very poigant - how we all love roses!

MAGGI said...

Interesting blog, Deborah. I adore English gardens and have planted one here in Australia. Roses are a particular favourite, and a carpet of bluebells under the trees, heavenly!

Deborah Swift said...

Hello Lindsay and Maggi. Yes, I liked the poem a lot. Guess each country has its favourite wild flowers.I can see bluebells from my window today!

Anne Whitfield - author said...

Lovely post, Deb. Enjoyed it. I adore flowers and gardens! I always try to feature them in my books.