My garden boasts a Vulgar Border…not full of plants that swear  but of brightly coloured one – clashing pinks, oranges, purples and yellow which almost make your eyes water. And chief amongst them are dahlias. Dozens and dozens of them. So as it’s in full technicolour flood at the moment I thought I’d write about the history of dahlias.  A straightforward task you might think, and so did I when I started. I thought the most difficult thing to do would be to keep personal feelings [prejudices?] about them under control.  But I was wrong.

I thought knew the outlines of the dahlia story but as it turns out there’s quite a lot of myth even in that basic storyline.   

Worse still the garden dahlia has a tortured taxonomy and complex family history. Despite all the best efforts of botanists the real story is still uncertain and even trying to understand the Wikipedia version left me confused.  But don’t worry I’m not going to even try to explain it, although there are some references in case you suffer from insomnia or like labyrinthine puzzles and want to try and figure it out yourself.


By the way if you hate dahlias the post is worth reading anyway for the stories of the people involved, and if you love  dahlias then read on to discover their convoluted history… Continue reading

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An Orchard in a Box

Detail of a 17thc raised work panel, Bonhams

Nowadays we think nothing of eating exotic fruit shipped in from round the world regardless of season and sold in supermarkets, and few of us grow much of our fruit supply. Apparently we prefer bananas to apples, perhaps not surprisingly since most apples on sale are bland in taste and stored for months on end in inert gases.  But this is a relatively recent, largely post-1945 change and until storage and transport improved to allow the mass importation of exotic fruit most people had to reply on the home-grown crop often grown in their own gardens.

detail of a pear tree from a 17thc raised work panel, Bonhams

I used to wonder why there were so many different varieties of basic fruits such as apples and pears until I realised their importance to the pre-globalised domestic economy not just for eating, but preserves, cordials, liqueures, cider and physic so varieties which stored for long periods, or fruited at different times were crucial.

This importance of fruit  is reflected in early gardening books,  with probably the most famous of all being Ralph Austen’s   A Treatise of Fruit Trees which was published in June 1653, together with his tract on  The Spiritual Use of an Orchard.  It describes the propagation and care of fruit trees,  and the benefits which will accrue to the Commonwealth from keeping them. Its experimental and horticultural discussions are accompanied by extensive spiritual meditations, which may be drawn from trees and from orchards to improve the soul of the husbandman. In other words it was also a deeply political text reflecting Austen’s Parliamentary and religious adherence.

But that’s not what I want to concentrate on this week, although it is the starting point. Instead I was to talk about how and why an orchard was put in a box… Continue reading

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George Glenny grumbles on…

George Glenny – looking slightly less grumpy and beardy than in the earlier post about him
image taken from Brent Elliott’s History of the RHS

Last week’s post left George Glenny bankrupt in 1839. But, horrible though this must have been, in some ways this was the making of him. He had to sell the Gardener’s Gazette and his exhibition hall and turn back to the one thing he knew best – writing.

He found new routes into journalism, although there were plenty of rivals, and started the country’s first weekly gardening column. Combining his skill with words with his passion  for flowers he also began writing gardening books which were aimed at a new market, and spreading the  popularity to gardening to the  working class.  But as you’d expect after last week’s barbs once a hornet always a hornet.




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George Glenny- perhaps the most cantankerous Victorian gardener imaginable

George Glenny: more than just another Victorian beardy?

If you were asked to name a great Victorian garden writer I bet John Claudius Loudon, William Robinson, or Shirley Hibberd would spring  to mind immediately- but what about George Glenny? He was as prolific as the rest of them, started and edited several gardening [and other] magazines, was the first to have a gardening column in a popular newspaper, wrote a large number of gardening books, was connected [albeit rather grumpily!] with the Horticultural Society and even had green fingers himself winning countless cups and medals at horticultural shows.

So why isn’t he better known?

Maybe it’s because he was a man of decidedly strong views who fell out spectacularly with the horticultural establishment, was incapable of being collaborative and developed a razor sharp and often vitriolic tone. So who was this strange mixture?  and is Will Tjaden’s description of him  as  “a horticultural hornet”  deserved?   [W.L. Tjaden,  “George Glenny, The Garden (1986) 111 pp. 318–23].  Read on to find out. Continue reading

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Joseph, Victoria and the amazing leaf

Photo taken in Adelaide Botanic Gardens 1910
State Library of South Australia

Picture the scene. A small group of well dressed people stand around a room with a large pond in the middle watching a serious looking man and a  9 yr old girl. Everyone watches in silence as he lifts her up and swings her out over the edge of the water.  You must have been able to  hear the proverbial pin drop as  he slowly lowers her down onto a plank of wood that was itself sitting on top of a large floating leaf. The hush soon turns into gasps and then a round of applause as the girl, instead of sinking under the surface, takes a hesitant step  and smiles.  The leaf hasn’t buckled even under the 15lb weight of the plank and the 42lb weight of the child. Not a tiny fraction had gone under the water. Her shoes aren’t even wet.  The serious looking man had not just wowed his audience but was about to transform British architecture as well inspired by the strength of that leaf.

Continue reading

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