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  • William Tyler

Gardening Obsessions


During lockdown many people’s thoughts have turned to gardening. Yet only a very tiny minority could be called gardening obsessives.

Some are obsessive about their lawns, seeking bowling green perfection. It is said that the very first lawn in Britain was constructed at Conway castle by Edward I for his wife, as a reminder of their joint participation in The Crusades where they saw Islamic lawns. You may recall that his future Queen sucked out the poison from an arrow wound he received.

Other gardeners obsess about their vegetables, hoping perhaps to win best in show at a local horticultural society event later in the summer. Horticultural Shows, with an emphasis on vegetable growing, was part of the 19th century gentry’s methods of preventing revolution in rural England. We were saved, you could argue, from rural revolution by allotments and The Primitive Methodist Chapels.

David Boyle writing in his opening chapter of ‘On the Eighth Day, God created allotments’, refers us back to a huge rural demonstration and march in Leamington on Good Friday 1872. Rural Labourers were campaigning for small pieces of land on which to grow vegetables. Although initially opposed the gentry finally saw the worth of giving potentially dangerous workers a healthy leisure pursuit. They set up horticultural shows to encourage them. Similarly with the Primitive Methodist Movement, which allowed women preachers and conducted services in the open (they could not afford built chapels). The gentry reasoned that if they were bible studying, singing hymns and praying they posed so much less of a threat to society and many built chapels for their local congregations. The first Radical working class MP was Joseph Arch from Barford in Warwickshire who had established The Farmworkers Union. A great example of how British Socialism was built around the Nonconformist Chapels and not the doctrines of Marx.

Yet, the truly obsessive are those with a flower obsession; not flowers in general but a particular type of flower.

It all started with the so-called tulip mania in The Netherlands in the 17th century, which itself derived from Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s own obsession with the tulip. The tulip first reached Europe from Constantinople via Antwerp around 1550. It took off in Holland when the great botanist, Clusius, became Professor of Botany at Leiden University in 1594. Tulips became valuable resources bought for huge sums of money or bartered for luxury goods.

The whole mania got totally out of hand when bulbs were bought that were still in the ground. This earliest example of a futures market was known rather poignantly at the time as ‘The Wind Trade’. It all collapsed spectacularly in 1637, ruining many. Yet tulip cultivation survived and spread to England with the arrival of Dutch gardens and horticulture with William of Orange and his Stuart wife, and keen gardener, Mary II.

Other English obsessions, especially in the truly obsessive Victorian era included, chrysanthemums, ferns (with the special Wardian case developed for their display), primroses and even seaweed.

Primroses were, thought Queen Victoria, Disraeli’s favourite flower and so sent a bouquet to his death bed. In his memory the Conservative Party Primrose League was set up. However, it is doubtful whether Disraeli ever had a ‘favourite’ flower; this seems as unlikely as him having a favourite sporting hero.

Ferns were perhaps the most Victorian of all obsessions, and no Victorian middle class parlour was complete without one. Of course, if you were very grand then you might have tree ferns growing in your garden. Real Victorian one upmanship. Most ferns were British, and North Devon became almost denuded of them as demand grew.

Ilfracombe was the centre of the trade and it was there that Charlotte Chanter wrote her seminal work on fern collecting, Ferny Combes, in 1856. It is a wonderful book and as I write this I am gazing at the beautiful rich green illustrations in my Victorian copy. In addition to being a book about ferns it is a loving and romantic tribute to the county of Devon, ‘My humble effort is designed to lead the youthful and to cheer the weary spirit, by leading them, with a woman’s hand, to the Ferny Combes and Dells of Devon, where my best reward will be their innocent amusement or their restoration to health’. You have Victorian England caught in miniature in that short passage.

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