The Fortune in Your Garden

The garden in winter; not the place where many of us loiter.  Instead we race back to the house for a nice, warming cup of tea.  On the way, we catch the scent from the Mahonia bush that thrives year after year on neglect.  Hinting of lily-of-the-valley, it’s fragrant, primrose yellow sprays of flowers will continue to give pleasure until the spring, as will the white, winter-flowering honeysuckle.  We stop just long enough to pick a few sprigs of jasmine, also pale yellow, to put in a vase.  The list of so many of our favourite plants could go on and on.

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Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum

What do all these plants have in common apart from being easy to grow?  They were all collected by a dour Scotsman in the mid-nineteenth century, Robert Fortune.  Despite being garden favourites and he being heralded as one of the heroes of the Victorians his name today is all but forgotten.  Even more remarkable, his discoveries changed society’s values, values that we now take for granted.  And the cup of tea?   Before Robert Fortune’s expedition to China, tea was an expensive commodity drunk only by the privileged few; soon it was to become the everyday drink of the masses.

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Tea plantation

In 1843, having shown great ability as a plantsman, first in Edinburgh and then at Chiswick, Fortune was sent to China with the instruction to learn about the practice of using bonemeal and to collect “tea of differing qualities.”  Commissioned for twelve months with a salary of £100 plus expenses, he proved so successful that he travelled for almost twenty years.  Upon his arrival, he disliked both China and the Chinese intensely; their dislike of him (and foreigners, in general) was even greater.  They refused to tell him where to find plants.

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Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, another Fortune introduction

Fortune, although rude and unsmiling, was also brave and on numerous occasions had to fend off thieves and pirates.  Confined to his cabin, ill with a fever, his boat was abandoned and he was left to face his forty attackers singlehandedly.  Firing into their midst he survived both the attack and the fever and continued to Shanghai.  There he discovered the ‘Japanese’ Anemone, Anemone japonica, growing in great profusion on disturbed graves.  Now popular in the autumn border, anyone who has tried to eradicate it knows that the brittle root breaks to regrow in even larger numbers.  The graveyard story gave us ample warning of this.

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Japanese Anemone

It is for tea that Robert Fortune really deserves greater recognition.  The gardens of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, were closely guarded by the Chinese.  On a further expedition to China and disguised as a peasant, complete with shaved head and pigtail, he succeeded in sending over 100,000 seeds and seedlings to the East India Company.  It was the foundation of an industry that would create great wealth for both individuals and Britain and reinforced the British belief in Empire.

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Apart from the ‘tea’ camellia, Robert Fortune also introduced a number of ornamental varieties

The winter-flowering Mahonia was also collected at this time.  Believed to have magical properties it was almost unobtainable; in consequence, the entire stock of Mahonia in Europe and the USA descend from just three small plants.  During Fortune’s fourth and final visit to China, Japan in 1859 opened its borders for the first time.  One of the first Europeans to enter the country he collected large numbers of plants then unknown to Europe, including many types of chrysanthemum.

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The purple berries of Mahonia appear after flowering

Robert Fortune’s legacy didn’t stop with the plants he introduced.  The wonder his plants created when exhibited in London established the international reputation of the Horticultural Society as the centre of excellence.  As the plants began to be distributed amongst the big, country estates the gentry started to take an interest in the growing of the plants themselves, something hitherto unknown.  Soon they began to assist and then direct their garden staff, culminating in the revolutionary style of Gertrude Jekyll.  Her approach is still a major influence on garden style and practice today.  This, in turn, led to even greater demand for plants.  To meet these needs, the horticultural industry worldwide is now a multi-billion pound industry.  Amongst the thousands of plant types propagated for sale each year, Robert Fortune’s introductions are amongst the most popular and enduring.

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Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ whose flowers start with a deep pink bud before slowly fading to apricot

recommended reading:

A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, Robert Fortune, 1852

Life in the English Country House, M Girouard, 1979

The Plant Hunters, T Whittle, 1970

The Plant Hunters, C Lyte, 1983

and, of course, Wikipedia

The Russian Curse

Turn and run!  Nothing can stop them.  Around every river and canal their power is growing.
Stamp them out!  We must destroy them. They infiltrate each city with their thick dark warning odour*.

Plant hunters have over the centuries introduced many beautiful plants to our gardens but they have also brought in others that have, as they escaped from its confines, become troublesome weeds.  Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica, creates problems by damaging river banks and pushing up through concrete, even entering houses; Himalayan Balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, is pretty enough with their hooked pink and white flowers but smothers native plants.  Both are difficult and costly to eradicate.  But the one that can cause the most trouble – and is undoubtedly the most impressive – is Giant Hogweed.

Long ago in the Russian hills, a Victorian explorer found the regal hogweed by a marsh … he came home to London and made a present of the hogweed to the Royal Gardens at Kew*.

Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, was introduced to Britain from the Caucasus in  Victorian times and soon became a popular addition to parks and gardens for, although similar in appearance to our native Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, these were giants in every way.  Huge flower heads above equally large leaves reaching way into the sky – up to twenty feet or more in exceptional specimens – were something to marvel at. A hardy perennial, the plants shot up over the course of just one summer adding to its popularity, although it can be a few years before the plant flowers after which it dies.  With  up to 100,000 seeds from each plant, it soon multiplied and before long had found its way back to the marshy land adjacent to rivers and canals as in its homeland.

I wonder how long it took the Victorian gardeners to discover the problems associated with the plant for it not only spreads rapidly, it also is extremely toxic.  Covered in sharp bristles that scratch the skin it is the sap from the plant that can cause major injury.  Skin contact with the sap when exposed to sunlight results in severe dermatitis: itching and redness develop into blisters and dark wheals.  These can last for several years.  Contact with the eyes is even more dangerous for permanent blindness can follow.

So what do you do if you find Giant Hogweed in your garden apart from turn and run?  It can be treated with weed killer and the ideal time to do this is when the plants have a large leaf area but before they flower.  It is essential not to handle the plant at any time – even when it is dead – for every part of it including its roots will injure you.  If you are tempted to carry out control yourself (and it may be wiser to call in a specialist eradication company (please, not me!)) then you must wear a complete coverall and full face and eye protection.  You also need to remember that the clothing will also be contaminated and should be destroyed.

Fortunately, Giant Hogweed is rarely encountered in gardens.  You are more likely to find it growing in waste places in the wild and it may be wise to report its presence to your local environmental agency.  Attitudes toward it vary from country to country for this is not just a British pest – it is found in many other temperate regions of the world including the USA and Canada.

Perhaps at this point, I should remind you all that the majority of garden plants are harmless enough and that gardening and plants give a huge amount of pleasure.  Happy gardening!

* The Return of the Giant Hogweed: lyrics by Genesis, 1971

 

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Ten Plants Too Many

I find it impossible to imagine a life not being addicted to plants and the natural wonders all around us. So I find it quite difficult when I am asked to create a garden that requires no maintenance. After all, for people like me, its the tweaking and pinching out and getting in amongst the greenery that is part of the joy of being alive and certainly the best part of owning a garden.

Even mowing the lawn was a chore for the owners of this small town garden (I’m a bit inclined to agree with them there) and so it had to go. And, as far as they were concerned, ten plants would be ten plants too many. The design I came up with centred on this slate water feature – if there were to be no flowers then at least water would give the garden some ‘life’.

We still needed a path from the house to the garage but to get away from a too solid look, I went for these ‘old but new’ cobbles set in gravel, the zig-zag line developing from the twist of the fountain. The same cobbles were used to create the patio area.

Left with a sea of gravel to the left of the path I decided to break the expanse up with a small ‘lozenge’ using the cobbles again. And much against the wishes of the client I built the timber raised planter along a wall with the promise that I would remove it for free if it became too much like hard work. My ruse worked for, when I returned a few months later, they had added some new pots at the foot of it – they were getting hooked!

I love these raised planters and find it difficult not to put them into every garden I create! They are easy to build and easy to maintain: they do not have a base but just sit on the ground. It’s always the bottoms that rot out first anyway and also, like this, roots can get down deep and there is much less watering to do because of it. Below is another L shaped one I made as a divider between two levels in a different garden. One day I intend to turn one into a water feature in its own right – if you do it first make sure you send me a picture!

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