Saturday 31 December 2011

Sir Jospeh Hooker (1817-1911)

On this, the last day of 2011, I wanted to celebrate the greatest botanist of the 19th century, who died 100 years ago on 10 December 1911.
Sir Joseph Hooker in 1896.  The image is from Hookers own website.
Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was the younger son of Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) the first official Director of Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.  While Joseph succeeded his father to the Directorship at Kew - his most notorious act was probably the ‘botanical piracy’ to obtain seeds of the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis.  Subsequently, natural rubber produced by plantations in British colonies in the Far East destroyed the Brazilian rubber industry - he also led an incredibly full and fascinating life.

There is insufficient space here to recount all Sir Joseph’s achievements - do visit his own website for many more details.  Suffice to say that he traveled with Capt. Ross his Antarctic expedition (1838-42) and in 1844 was the person first Charles Darwin told about the Theory he was working on.  As Darwin’s confident it was Hooker far more than Huxley who fought Darwin’s battles, for example arranging the reading of Darwin’s (and Alfred Russel Wallace’s) paper at the Linnean Society on 01 July 1858.  And a year later Hooker was the first scientist to publicly endorse Origin of Species in Introductory Essay to his Flora Tasmaniae.
The Zemu Valley, Sikkim
From the garden historian’s perspective Hooker is remembered primarily as a plant hunter.  Between 1847 and 1851 he became the first Westerner to explore the then-kingdom of  Sikkim in the eastern Himalaya.  The account of his adventures he published in the best-selling Himalayan Journals (1852).  It remains a fascinating read and may be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg.  
The landscape of Sikkim from Himalayan Journals
It was using this text that I followed in Hooker’s footsteps in what is now a state of India and a buffer military zone with Tibet.  Because of this the landscape Hooker saw remains relatively undamaged.  To the extent that I even found a fireplace of stones beneath a large rock under which he camped in the Zemu valley.
Rhododendron hodgsonii in Sikkim
Hooker’s most significant discovery was over 20 new species of colourful rhododendrons, which upon their introduction became a huge garden fashion - here you can download Hooker’s The rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya (an original copy will set you back between £13,000 and £18,000).  In 1871 the garden writer Shirley Hibberd claimed the same amount of money had been spent on rhododendrons in the past 20 years as was the nation debt.  Then the figure of £738 million,  the equivalent of £51,200 million today!

Friday 30 December 2011

William Kent, The Picturesque Landscape & Rousham

The English Landscape Garden is arguably one of Britain’s greatest contributions to world art.  And while many garden lovers have heard of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’ (1716-83) not so many are familiar with his predecessors such as William Kent (c.1685-1748).

Put simply, Kent designed idealised landscapes with softened edges, sinuous walks, water features, many varied buildings and long prospects where garden and park were indistinguishable.  As Horace Walpole put it, Kent ‘leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.’

Yet the scenes Kent created were not English but took their inspiration from Italy, from the romantic images of classical times.  These landscapes were designed to be a picture, a work of art laden with emotional overtones of tranquillity, gaiety, grandeur and melancholy, all set within a tamed, sculptured Nature. 

The noted garden historian, Professor Tim Mowl offers an insight onto Kent and his work on this video of his 2010 Claremont Garden History Lecture.  Here is part one (of seven):

However, it is not easy to visit a Kentian landscape because his works were overlaid by successive incarnations of the English landscape garden.  Most often by ‘Capability’ Brown.

A most notable exception is Rousham in Oxfordshire.  

Admittedly the landscape has suffered the ravages of time and lack of cash, yet it fully retains both its layout and emotional harmonics - and oftentimes you find you are the sole visitor!

For those who wish to read more, try Simon Pugh’s ‘Rousham and the English landscape garden’.

And for comparison, Blenheim Palace, perhaps the finest example of ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscaping work is a mere 7 km from Rousham.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Earliest written records of plants cultivated in English gardens

The earliest sources are not gardening books per se, rather healing books.  The first, possibly commissioned by Alfred the Great is the Læcboc of Bald, which was written in Winchester in Anglo-Saxon between 925 and 940 by a chap called Bald.

One of several documents comprising British Library MS. Harley 585 is the Lacnunga.  Also a healing book  (the word læc can be translated as ‘remedies’) it contains nearly 200 treatments and dates to the late 10th or early 11th century.  Interestingly it is written in a mix of Old English and Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Old Irish.

A third source from the 10th century but was penned in Latin by Ælfric, the first Abbot of Eynsham in Oxfordshire is his Glossary (c.995).  It is exactly that, but rather than arranged alphabetically the words grouped by topic, one of which is plants.

For lists of plants that appear in the three tomes - together with a whole host of other useful information on early gardens and their plants, visit Wyrtig (the Old English adjective itself means 'garden like, full of plants')

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Flower Gardens of Ancient Crete

Just to follow up on the Minoan plant symbolism - this page on the Flower gardens of ancient Crete on Andras Zeke's fascinating Minoan Language Blog is well worth a look.

Monday 26 December 2011

Minoan Gardens - did they or didn't they?

Now here is a Boxing Day teaser.  Did the Minoans on Crete make ornamental gardens?  Certainly their religious practices contained an element of sacred nature.  

 Mt. Juktas - the peak sanctuary and view down

Archaeological evidence in the form of glyptic art (seals and the such like), frescoes and votive offerings demonstrate a strong plant symbolism, for example crocus, sea daffodil, silphium and opium poppy.  With these plants depicted in possibly sacro-religious natural scenes.

 The Isopata Ring c.1,500 BC

But gardens?  There is some evidence.  Frescoes from the villa at Amnisos (just the the east of Heraklion) are claimed to show a formal garden and there is an rock outcrop with planting holes in the south eastern corner of the east wing of the palace of Phaistos.  This, it is claimed, may be a naturalistic proto-rock garden that would in style be similar to fresco representations of landscape scenes (see Maria C  Shaw ‘The Aegean GardenAmerican Journal of Archaeology, 1993, Vol. 97, No. 4). 

All grist to the mill.  The reason I mention this is that under the aegis of the British School at Athens, Professor Oliver Rackham, author of The Making of the Cretan Landscape (1996) is running a field course entitled ‘The Making of the Cretan Landscape’ between 22 and 28 April next year.

The field course is limited to 10 participants and for more information and an application form please visit here 

Saturday 24 December 2011

Welcome & Hello to Garden History Matters

Welcome and hello to the first post on the first blog of Garden History Matters.  And what matters today are heritage or heirloom fruits and vegetables.  Thankfully the renaissance in ‘growing your own’ has brought to the fore the plight of so many of our older fruit and vegetable cultivars - and the shocking loss of them during the latter part of the 20th century.

Did you know, for example, that Europe has lost perhaps 2,000 fruit and vegetable cultivars since the 1970s, and in America the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation estimates that 96 per cent of the commercial vegetable cultivars available in 1903 are now extinct.

We need to preserve what has survived by growing heritage/heirloom cultivars and supporting those organisations such as Grow Organic and Seed Savers Exchange who do invaluable work in preserving seed.

I mention this apropos of a blatant plug for my next book - Heritage Fruits and Vegetables (available April 2012, pre-order here) which examines the history of our favourite fruits and vegetables.

One of the research challenges was to obtain primary source materials, in particular early books.  Many are rare and therefore not held in many libraries, and far too costly to purchase.  However, before starting I had discovered the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), which to quite their website is a:

  ‘consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize and make accessible the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections and to make that literature available for open access and responsible use as a part of a global “biodiversity commons.”’

What this means for the garden historian is that the BHL holds hundred of monographs and periodicals I`(including the complete run of Gardeners’ Chronicle)  which can be downloaded, free, as a pdf which you can read at home.  The perfect research tool!