When you only have a small front garden, choosing the right tree is important. Make the wrong decision and the people buying your house next will get a surveyors’ report fretting about root damage to the foundations. Before then you’ll find those roots lifting your front path, tripping you up every time you go to open your front door.

A picture of an Amelanchier tree in full bloom.

Amelanchier in full bloom. Copyright Martin Stott

Choose well, though, and research indicates the only thing lifted will be the value of your property. But which tree? A few years ago we planted an amelanchier. We love it. Not everyone does. Writing in Hortus[1], Matt Collins, Head Gardener at the Garden Museum in London, claimed that amelanchiers now represent 90% of trees being planted in ‘stylish’ London front gardens. He told of his quest to find an alternative.

A close-up shot of Amelanchier flowers

Amelanchier bloom. Copyright Martin Stott

It took him some effort because amelanchiers are quite special. They flower profusely in spring – delicate white stars that almost glow when they hit peak power. The leaves on our tree start out lime green with a hint of bronze. They redden in autumn, before they drop. In early summer the tree offers dark purple berries[2] that provide a generous wild harvest for the birds.

I have never tried to eat the berries – the birds snaffle them before they can fully ripen. But in North America, where more varieties are found than anywhere else, they were a source of vitamin C for native Americans and the early settlers. The Cree called the berries mis-sask-qua-too-min, which got shortened to saskatoon – today the name of the capital of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. In Germany and Holland people dried the fruits and used them as currants. They also stewed them or made them into jam.

Common names

In Canada, amelanchiers are often known as shadbushes because their flowers bloom just as the shad fish begin making their way back up river.

The tree has a few other common names – snowy Juneberry, snowy mespilus and serviceberry. It’s said that serviceberry came from the fact that in the Appalachian mountains the tree came into bloom just as the snow was melting. The roads could finally be cleared sufficiently for travelling preachers to reach communities to carry out weddings and funerals – the ground also now soft enough for bodies to be buried after the tough winter.

Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck

Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829)

The North American amelanchiers began being introduced to Britain as early as 1597[3]. But they took a long time to become common. A. canadensis was still one of the most expensive trees listed in the catalogue of York nursery Telfords nearly two centuries later, in 1775[4].

I think our tree is an A. lamarckii. Its origins are bathed in mystery and confusion. Botanists believe it is probably a natural hybrid of A. laevis and either A. arborea or A. canadensis – all from North America. Whether the pairing happened there or in Europe no-one knows.


The French botanist, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, first described this variety in 1783. He had seen it growing in Paris. He called the tree Crataegus racemosa. In the 20th century Fred-Günter Schroeder, a German botanist steeped in too much Latin, argued that racemose wasn’t a suitable botanical term for amelanchiers. To go into the reason would risk inflicting death by boredom on readers, and I don’t have the professional indemnity insurance for that. Suffice to say, he gave Lamarck’s tree what he called a “nomen novum“. And so, in 1968, he rechristened it A. lamarckii.

So, there you go. Not the perfect tree for Matt Collins (who finally chose a Crataegus x viridis ‘Winter King’), but great for me. It offers three seasons of interest, is good for the birds, doesn’t hurt the house, has an interesting story. And on top of that it’s part of the rose family – as are the rest of the trees in the back garden. I clearly can’t help myself.

This doesn’t mean I don’t understand the point Matt was making – I wouldn’t want the whole street lined with them. I think we’re lucky here. We have a rowan, a cherry and a Cornus kousa. They all give me pleasure and, be sure, they’ll all have their own stories to tell.


[1] “No more Amelanchiers please: seeking a rival to the perfect small garden tree” – Hortus no.148, Winter 2023
[2] More accurately they are a small “pome” – a technical term for the kind of fruit you find in apples, pears and hawthorns or pyracanthas. See: The Shadbushes, Richard E. Weaver Jr. Arnoldia vol 34 No 1 Jan/Feb 1974
[3] Sarah Rutherford, An Introduction to hardy plants and plantings for Repton and late Georgian gardens (1780-1820) Garden History Spring 2019.
[4] Early Gardening Catalogues by John Harvey p.54

The primrose

The primrose

Many people know the story of the Wardian case – the sealed terrarium that enabled planthunters to  transport their discoveries from remote and exotic locations around the world with a much greater degree of success.


It was invented by Dr Nathaniel Ward but his first experiment was not to import plants, rather, to send them in the other direction – all the way from Britain to Australia. That was 1833. He must have sent at least one other case to Australia because its impact on the residents was so strong, it was captured in a popular oil painting that entranced Victorian England.

Primrose Some time after that first trip, a Wardian case arrived in Melbourne containing a simple wild primrose. The ship had docked with perfect timing – the plant was just coming into bloom. At this time almost all the non-aboriginal population of Australia had been born somewhere else – mostly Great Britain or continental Europe. Some were former convicts; others immigrants who had sought a better life downunder.

News of the primrose’s arrival passed quickly around the town. When the case was unpacked crowds thronged to see it. The news got back to Ward.

On Friday 17th March 1854 he gave a lecture at the Royal Institution. The room was adorned with palms, ferns and flowering shrubs, which he used to illustrate how closed glass cases worked. The Morning Chronicle reported how: “He mentioned as a striking instance of the successful conveyance of flowering roots to distant countries, that a primrose had been taken to Australia in a covered glass case, and when it arrived there in full bloom, the sensation it excited, as a reminiscence of “fatherland”, was so great that it was necessary to protect it by a guard.”

The story caught the public imagination. Within a few days a mawkish poem was circulating through publications like The Ladies Companion.

“It hath crossed the foaming waters in its fragrance and its bloom;

It hath left its native dwelling-place to seek a distant home
Where, in its silent eloquence, a welcome tale it tells
Of England’s smooth and mossy banks, green lanes, and sheltered dells.”

Let’s skip a few verses! It arrives.

“All love upon the English flower to rest their wearied eyes,
Reading therein a history of dear and severed ties;
Communion with their absent friends in fancy they attain,
And go, refreshed and solaced, on their busy course again.”

Suffice to conclude, the primrose has “cheered an exile band” and “soothed their toil with pleasant thoughts of Home and Native Land!”

Artist Edward Hopley

It is not known whether the English artist Edward Hopley read the poem, but he certainly saw the report of the lecture – he quotes it in the accompanying text for a painting of the scene that he produced for the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1855.

It shows the primrose on a table in what looks like a pub. Three women lean over it, gazing at it – heads bowed. Light seems to shine from the flower, illuminating their faces. At their feet are children, directly behind them an emotional looking gentleman in top hat. In the shadows stand a various array of men looking somewhat less genteel. To the left light pours from an open door, guarded by a bearded giant with a heavy stick and beyond him crowds, pushing to get in.

The painting, which hangs today in the Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia, became so popular it was reproduced as a woodcut.

A primrose from England by Edward Hopley, 1856. Lithographed by J. R. Dicksee

Fourteen years later, Victorians were still talking about it. A botanical book published in 1869, Flora Symbolica or The Language and Sentiment of Flowers, referred to the fuss the primrose created.

“What conflicting emotions must its pallid petals have aroused in the bosoms of many of its beholders! What mingled feelings of pleasure and pain! What thoughts of the bygone youth passed in the far-away natal isle, must have been stirred up under the seeming calmness of those bronzed countenances!”

I endured that poem, so you don’t have to! But I can say it’s made me appreciate my little primroses all the more.

Wardian cases

Wardian cases

Some of the greatest inventions arrive by accident. So it is with the Wardian case. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868) was a doctor in the East End of London who had a fascination for botany and natural history. His hobby of growing ferns was made extremely difficult by the soot, smog and “noxious gasses” outside. Around 1829 he was attempting to raise a sphinx moth from a chrysalis he had placed on damp leaf mould in a sealed bottle when he noticed a fern growing.


Observing closely, he saw that the moisture in the bottle was being constantly recycled through evaporation and condensation, regardless of conditions outside. It had its own microclimate. He had discovered the terrarium.

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, pictured in 1866

This was to be one of the most influential discoveries of all time. To his credit, Ward instantly recognised its importance and spent four years testing and experimenting with various types of case.

He saw it as a way for the urban poor to supplement their diet, enabling them to grow vegetables and healthy salads regardless of the pollution outside. But he also recognised its commercial value.

The challenge

For decades plant hunters had been sending back specimens from as far afield as Brazil, America and China. Often they had to rely on ships’ captains to nurture the plants en-route. Suffice to say, a large proportion arrived home dead. In 1819, for example, John Livingstone, a botanist and surgeon working for the East India Company in Macao, wrote to the Royal Horticultural Society estimating that only one in a thousand plants survived the journey from China to London.

Nurseries experimented, packing plants in dry sand or moss with mixed success. If it was not the temperature that killed them, it was the lack of sunlight or the exposure to sea spray. On long voyages, when drinking water supplies were running low, the captains would, not surprisingly, prioritise sailors over plants. And in violent storms the plants might be washed overboard.

Now all this was to change. With the help of the famous Hoxton nursery, Loddiges, Ward created the first Wardian cases – in essence, miniature sealed greenhouses protected by a wooden frame with carrying handles.

The first trial

In June 1833 two of the cases were taken to St Katharine’s Dock and packed on to the deck of the Persian, a ship carrying emigrants to Australia. The cases were filled with ferns, mosses and grasses. The ship docked in Sydney in November. All but three ferns arrived alive and vigorous. In fact, the grasses were growing so strongly the ship’s captain, Charles Mallard, reported that they were attempting to push the top of the box off. The plants were watered just once during the voyage – a light sprinkling near the equator.

At Sydney the cases were refilled and placed on the deck of the boat. The journey home lasted eight months and took in temperatures of as a low as -7°C rounding Cape Horn, where the decks were covered in a foot of snow. At the equator temperatures peaked at the other extreme, reaching 49°C. The plants were not watered during the whole voyage.

Ward wrote: “On their arrival at the docks they were in the most healthy and vigorous condition, and I shall not readily forget the delight expressed by Mr. G. Loddiges, who accompanied me on board, at the beautiful appearance of the fronds of Gleichenia microphylla, a [fern] plant now for the first time seen alive in this country. Several plants of Callicoma serrata [Black Wattle] had sprung up from seed during the voyage, and were in a very healthy state.”[1]

Within a couple of years George Loddiges had trialled more than 500 of the cases around the world, though he complained that many captains would promise to keep them on deck, but “the moment we are out of sight, they stow them away below”. The Duke of Devonshire was early to recognise their potential, sending one of his gardeners to the East Indies to procure vegetable treasures for his magnificent conservatory at Chatsworth, including the Amherstia nobilis, known as the orchid tree.

Fern illustration from Ward’s 1842 book

Loddiges had more success than Livingstone transporting plants, but still expected only one in 20 plants to survive a long sea voyage before the discovery of the Wardian case. Afterwards it was 19 in 20.

Ward tells us that on his first trip to China in 1843 Robert Fortune sent home 250 specimens in Wardian cases, landing 215 in England in perfect health. On his second visit he exported nearly 20,000 tea plants from Shanghai to the Himalayas.

Espionage and smuggling

That act of horticultural espionage helped set up the tea industry in India and break China’s monopoly of the commodity. It highlights the role of the Wardian case in the expansion of empire. Botanists became fascinated with the economic opportunity to be had from taking cash crops from one country to another.

Wardian cases were used to help export cinchona trees from Bolivia to Java and India, so that the bark, which produced quinine, could be more readily available to produce malaria treatments. Likewise Brazilian rubber trees were sent ultimately to Malaya, and dwarf Cavendish bananas moved to the Samoan islands (via Chatsworth) where they became a significant crop in the region.

In that sense the Wardian case became a symbol of empire. Suffice to say it did not transform the lives of working class Londoners, though terrariums became a popular craze among middle class Victorians, seen planted with ferns in living rooms across the land.

The kind of Wardian case that graced so many living rooms. Taken from the Gardener’s Chronicle

Nor did it enrich Ward himself. He did not patent his invention and was to die in relative poverty.

On Christmas Day, 1866, he wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray, saying: “Thirty-three years have elapsed since my first cases arrived in New Holland… I have never received the slightest acknowledgement or thanks from any public body in this country.”

He complained about the hundreds, even thousands, of letters of enquiry he had received and answered about the cases, and the visits – too often – of “idle and ignorant people who were tired of their lives for want of something to do. But were my time to come over again, I should do precisely as I have done considering that my life, though one of constant labour, has been one of great delight.”[2]

Eventually the transport of plants in Wardian Cases ended when it was realised that too often they were bringing not just the intended plants but also invasive species. Kew Gardens last used one in 1962 to ship ornamental plants from Fiji to the Gardens.

Today fewer than 20 original Wardian cases are known to exist around the world – Kew has eight of them.


[1] “On the growth of plants in closely glazed cases” N B Ward 1842

[2] “The Wardian Case: How a simple gox moved plants and changed the world” Luke Keogh

Read the story of the day a primrose caused crowds to gather in Melbourne – all thanks to the Wardian case.


Dot to Dot

Dot to Dot

I am sitting in the passenger seat of a dusty old Fiat as it climbs through back roads to a rose nursery in the hills near San Feliu de Llobregat on the outskirts of Barcelona. We have just been to the 65th National Rose Festival in the small town, escaping the noisy crowds for a long celebratory lunch.


Struggling with the language differences, we drive in companionable silence. After so much exuberance it is a poignant moment. The tall, elderly man at the wheel is Pedro Dot – the third generation of Spain’s greatest family of rose breeders.

It turns out, he is also the last. I am here to record the end of an era. Pedro, who is 71, is retiring. His son has not followed the family tradition. In the coming months, after a century in business, the Dot nursery is closing.

Martin with Pere Dot at his nursery near San Feliu de Llobregat on the outskirts of Barcelona

My journey to this spot began a few years earlier. I cannot remember what caused me to plant Mme Gregoire Staechelin’ in my garden, but it was a good decision. She is one of the first roses to pop each spring and a favourite.

The buds are shaped like a long pout. Looking at them you want to pucker your lips in imitation. But if the bud is a pout and the bloom a kiss, this is no polite peck on the cheek. It is a flamenco dress of a rose – a large swirl of ruffled petals in myriad shades of pink. Leave it be and in the Autumn the wall will be adorned with huge orange hips.

Rosa ‘Madame Grégoire Staechelin’, taken in my garden.

This is my only Spanish rose – the country is not renowned for being at the forefront of rose- breeding. And the year of its creation – 1927 – places its breeder on the brink of a period of political upheaval that must have made the business incredibly difficult. So, who was he?

Pedro Dot

Pedro Dot – in Catalonia known as Pere Dot i Martínez – was born in 1885 on the estate of the Marqués de Monistrol near San Feliu de Llobregat. His father, Simón, was estate manager and specialised in trees. In 1899 Simón made the bold decision to start his own general nursery.

That same year Pedro left school, aged 14, but rather than join his father he was apprenticed to pioneering, if not hugely successful, Spanish rose breeder Joaquín Aldrufeu. From there Pedro went to Belgium and France to extend his gardening education. In Paris he learned how to hybridise roses and worked at the Bagatelle gardens, under their creator, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier. Here he spent time in the new rose trial beds – the world’s first – seeing the latest varieties and, occasionally, the breeders who had created them.

When the First World War broke out he returned to Spain to work with his father but the two fell out when Pedro said he wanted to breed roses and do so exclusively. His father told him there was no money in roses. Pedro decided to prove him wrong.

The rift may have widened when the Condesa de Sástago – wife of Simón’s old boss, the Marqués de Monistrol – lent Pedro Dot enough to buy a field and begin his adventure.

His first creation, in 1923, was the pink Hybrid Tea, ‘Francisco Corbera’. More roses followed. In 1927 he produced ‘Mme Grégoire Staechelin’ and the hybrid spinosissima, ‘Nevada’.

It is ironic that these two roses – probably the most widely cultivated Dot roses today – are pink and white. As a breeder Pedro Dot was interested in strong colour, perhaps driven by the fact that the brilliant Mediterranean sun can drain life out of subtle colours, making the blooms look insipid. He built on the work of Pernet-Ducher, who bred ‘Soleil d’Or’ – the world’s first repeat-flowering orange-yellow rose. The roses in this series of Hybrid Teas are often called ‘Pernetianas’.

In 1929 Dot introduced the coppery orange ‘Federico Casas’. Soon after followed ‘Condesa de Sástago’, one of the world’s first bi-coloured roses – red one side of the petal and yellow the other. It was named after the patron that helped him get started.

These vivacious Spanish roses had appeal in the US, where the entrepreneurial Pennsylvanian nurseryman, Robert Pyle, scented an opportunity. Knowing they would sell well in similar climatic conditions, Pyle agreed to sell Dot’s roses under licence. Before the introduction in America of the world’s first plant patenting legislation, in 1930, Pyle would pay Pedro Dot royalties for three years. The legislation gave the breeder patent protection for 17 years. The relationship with Pyle was to play a key role in keeping the Dot business afloat.

Civil war

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century there was political turmoil in Spain. In July 1936 civil war broke out when Nationalist generals attempted a military coup to overturn the left-leaning Republican government. Supporters from around the world came to Spain to fight for both sides. Hitler threw his weight – and aircraft – behind the Nationalists. The violence that followed was seen as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War – aerial bombing, the destruction of cities and the deaths and murders of thousands of civilians.

Catalonia was pro-Republic. Dot’s two sons Marino and Simón were conscripted to the Republican army in 1938 and, when the war ended in 1939, were detained in a concentration camp for a year.

Pedro Dot had been a member of a socialist party before the war and his political leanings are not well hidden. In 1931, he produced ‘Catalonia’. That was the year his homeland received its first statute of autonomy from the Republican government, granting it significant powers of self-government. During the war he released roses named after Catalan patriots killed in the fighting, like the poet ‘Ramón Bach’, as well as Republican towns (‘Girona’ and ‘Lleida’) not yet overcome by Franco’s nationalists. These roses may have been commissioned by the Republican government of Barcelona.

He also received valuable support from Pyle who was still able to propagate and market Dot’s roses when the breeder could get them out across the Atlantic. Nurserymen elsewhere, like Harry Wheatcroft in England, and Henri Guillot and Francis Meilland in France, were also keen supporters, though the Second World War brought a pause in their efforts.

After the war, in the 1950s, fellow Catalan breeder Cebrià Camprubí’, dedicated one of his roses to Franco’s wife – ‘Su Excelencia Señora de Franco’. Politically astute and commercially savvy perhaps, but not something Dot ever did.


Pere Dot with a rose of his own creation, ‘Joana Raspall i Juanola’, named after the Catalan writer.
Image: Martin Stott

In 1940 Dot had begun a new stream of experimentation when he created one of the first miniature rose bushes, crossing Correvon’s small rose ‘Rouletii’ with a Hybrid Tea of his own, ‘Eduardo Toda’, to create ‘Estrellita de Oro’ (‘Baby Gold Star’ in the US). Others followed over the next 20 years, like the creamy white ‘Para Ti’ (1946), ‘Rosina’ (1951) and the pretty white rose, ‘Si’ (1957).

After the war his sons joined him in the business. He continued breeding miniatures. They focused mainly on Hybrid Teas, attempting to grow roses with purple and deep blue hues.

At the age of 60, Pedro Dot decided to retire, moving to Majorca from May to October, leaving his sons and then grandsons, Pere, Jordi and Albert to carry on the work. He died in November 1976, aged 91.

End of the line

Today Pere is the last of the Dots left in the business. As we stand in the glasshouses looking at the benches of remaining plants, the old man reflects on a life in roses.

He says: “It has been many years. I started helping in the greenhouses when I was 12 during the school holidays. My father and grandfather worked together and taught me how to graft. We used to propagate 25,000 roses a year, but I’m getting tired. I’m selling down the stock and once it is gone then it’s over.”

His great grandfather once argued there was no money in roses. This Pere Dot agrees. “It has been a lot of work and not much money,” he says with a wry smile. “But I have had a happy life.”

The curious Blackwells

The curious Blackwells

On September 11 2001 I was flying in to Jordan to set off on a trip of a lifetime. The plan was to drive across the desert into Iraq to interview Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and report for Radio 4 on the impact of UN sanctions on the country.


Landing in Amman I received a message from the producer saying that two planes had just flown into the Twin Towers in New York.

I never got to Iraq, but a few weeks later the World Service commissioned me to make four half-hour programmes on religious fundamentalism. It involved trips to Egypt, India and the US.

It was in Washington, on the last leg of that memorable tour, that I met Elizabeth Blackwell. Trying to stay awake and adjust to jet lag, I went for an early-evening stroll and discovered a shop selling old engravings. On a table was a pile of beautiful, hand-coloured botanical pictures, each inscribed at the bottom: “Eliz Blackwell delin sculp et pinx.”

The paper had a linen quality, and carried the indentation of the copper plate on which the original drawings had been engraved – an impression you do not get, I learned later, with more common 19th-century lithograph prints. I did not understand the significance of this tactile detail at the time, but I could sense the history of the pictures and was captivated. I bought three for the equivalent of a day’s pay.

It was only when I returned home that I learned more about the artist. The engravings were nearly 300 years old – they were made between 1735 and 1737. The Latin inscription showed that Blackwell had drawn, engraved and coloured the images herself – unusual at the time, as drawing and engraving at least were deemed roles for separate skilled individuals.

Blackwell’s story, it emerged, was every bit as interesting as many I covered for the BBC. According to accounts online, Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Aberdeen around 1707, the daughter of a stocking merchant [1]. She married her cousin, Alexander Blackwell.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Alexander (b1709) was the son of the Rev Thomas Blackwell, a Church of Scotland minister who records [2] show had a reputation as a great witchfinder in the late 17th century. In 1697 Blackwell Snr was responsible for sending two men and four women to the stake – first hanged, then burnt – to quell the “great rage of Satan in this corner of the land”. He later moved to Aberdeen, where he became the principal of Marischal College – the second university to be founded in Scotland. “Strange to say, shortly after he had gone, the Satanic manifestations against which he had fought so valiantly, began to cease, and the prosecution of witches and the search for them came to an end.” [3] It is perhaps not surprising If his son later appeared to be somewhat lacking in sensitivity towards his wife.

The story commonly told is that Alexander – a bright student who was adept at classical and modern languages – married Elizabeth in secret. They eloped to London, where Alexander began working as a proof corrector for a printer.

He later set up his own print shop in the Strand but failed to undertake the necessary apprenticeship required by the Worshipful Company of Stationers, the guild that governed the print industry. He was sued by another printer and forced to pay damages. In September 1734 he was declared bankrupt and, according to some accounts, thrown into the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea.

Elizabeth, pregnant and destitute, needed to earn some money. She learned of the need for an illustrated modern herbal of medicinal plants. She won the support of Sir Hans Sloane at the Chelsea Physic Garden and notables from the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries after showing them some of her initial drawings. With their encouragement, she set about producing A Curious Herbal – 500 drawings issued four parts a week, leaving the buyers the responsibility of deciding whether and how to bind them.

It was a compendium of pictures of plants that had medicinal value, many grown at the physic garden and others brought to England by Sloane and in his private collection. It included plants common to the United Kingdom and others relatively new, like the tomato, tobacco, coffee and tea plants. Each set of four plates was accompanied by a fifth plate of text outlining uses for the plants, most often abridged notes from Joseph Miller’s Botanicum Officinale of 1722. [4]

Elizabeth’s need for regular income dictated the need to release the work in parts. She could not wait till she had finished the whole herbal to publish it, compiling the drawings in a particular order. She drew the plants as and when they appeared in nature.

Her reliance on Miller’s text underlines the fact that herbals had been written before. Gerard’s Herbal, from 1597, is perhaps the best-known example. However, whereas Gerard’s Herbal is illustrated with monochrome block engravings, A Curious Herbal showed every plant in colour and detail so that pharmacists could identify them correctly when creating concoctions.

Moving to rented accommodation opposite the garden (on what is now Swan Walk), Elizabeth laboured over the work for months. Although today her artistry is considered not to be as fine as many – she was doing too much too quickly for it to be as good as it might be – A Curious Herbal was a success. With the proceeds, Elizabeth was able to secure her husband’s release.

The restless Alexander soon found a new avenue for his energies, studying the reclamation of marshland and drainage – a major economic activity of the time. He wrote a treatise on the subject – A new method of improving Cold, Wet and Clayey Grounds – which earned him an invitation to Sweden. In 1742 he moved to Stockholm, leaving behind Elizabeth, who was pregnant.

Rosa rubra from Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal

The king took dangerously ill soon after Alexander’s arrival at the Swedish court. Alexander was allowed to prescribe a medicine, perhaps drawing on his knowledge of his wife’s book. It worked, and he was appointed one of the royal physicians.

Unfortunately, his star waned. In 1747 he was accused of being part of a plot to overthrow the king and was tortured to extract a confession. After being tried and found guilty, he was sentenced to be broken alive on a wheel – later commuted to being beheaded.

A report that year in the Gentleman’s Magazine [5] suggests that on the day of his execution he put his head on the block the wrong way, then awaited his fate. When told of his mistake, he light-heartedly asked for the crowd’s forgiveness on the grounds that he had never done this before.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, again in dire straits, sold the remaining rights to her publication and is believed to have died in poverty around 1758. Today hers is one of four names on a plaque in Chelsea Old Church dedicated to the memory of women from the parish distinguished by their “learning and piety”.

It is quite a story – but not quite the true story. More recent research by academic Janet Stiles Tyson paints a slightly different – though still compelling – picture of Elizabeth’s origins.

In a copy of A Curious Herbal in the Rubenstein Library at Duke University, North Carolina, Stiles Tyson discovered a preface written by Elizabeth herself.

She was not Scottish. And she was not Alexander’s cousin (or his sister, as one writer has claimed recently [6]). Elizabeth tells us she was the daughter of a London painter, Leonard Simpson, and his wife, Alice. Leonard died when Elizabeth was a child, but she inherited his passion for drawing and painting, often painting the wildflowers she came across on walks.

Stiles Tyson, using baptismal records, puts Elizabeth’s date and place of birth at April 23 1699 in Poultry Street in the City of London. She married Alexander on October 1 1733.

And her husband? He was certainly executed in Sweden, though whether he actually partook in a conspiracy against the crown or was the victim of court jealousies and intrigue is another question. It seems safe to say that he was an irresponsible adventurer whose reckless escapades left his wife and family in dire financial straits. Stiles Tyson tells us that the great botanist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, who knew of his wife’s work, met Alexander in Sweden and in a memoir reported that he was “impressed with neither Alexander’s abilities as an agricultural improver nor his character”. Linnaeus accused Alexander of being unfaithful to Elizabeth.

Stiles Tyson’s essay is one of two – the other is written by well-known New York garden writer Marta McDowell – that serve as an introduction in a new book recently published in the US. It is a beautifully presented reproduction of all 500 plates of A Curious Herbal.

There are quite a number of complete copies of A Curious Herbal in collections around the world. I have seen the volumes in the library at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Others can be found in the British Library and the Royal College of Physicians and at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

I still grieve over the copy that was being sold plate by plate in Washington all those years ago, even if I participated in its destruction by buying and framing these pictures. And I have since bought four more.

They remind me of an exciting time in my life. They offer a physical connection to the woman who, quite literally, created them – although it is unlikely that she hand-coloured the plates herself. Three of my seven pictures are coloured very differently to those in this book and in the volumes at the Royal Society of Medicine.

My prickly sow thistle (plate 30) is a faint cornflower blue – not yellow, as it should be. My common mallow (plate 22) is purple, whereas the Duke University copy is a deeper pink (the actual plant is something between the two). And my pansies (plate 44) are blue and yellow, whereas Duke University’s plate shows them as bright red and yellow (though the accompanying description describes the flowers as “spotted with a light purple, a deep purple and yellow”).

Left, prickly sow thistle from the copy at the Missouri botanical gardens. Centre, my copy. Right, the real thing

Left, mallow from the copy at the Missouri botanical gardens. Right, my copy

Left, pansies from the copy at the Missouri botanical gardens. Right, my copy

One can only assume that Elizabeth’s printer used the services of others – quite possibly women and children, paid by piece rate, illiterate and unable to read the descriptions. This was certainly common in the 18th and 19th centuries, when an assembly line of “artists”, each with a single colour of paint, helped produce coloured illustrations for books at scale.

Still, A Curious Herbal is a remarkable piece of work – and more remarkable not just for the artistry and commercial acumen it demonstrates but for the resilience Elizabeth Blackwell showed in bringing it to the world. She was the first woman to produce a herbal.

You get something of the sense of that achievement when you read “The Lives of eminent men of Aberdeen”, written a century after the publication of her work by James Bruce. In a chapter on Elizabeth Blackwell, Bruce reminds us starkly how even decades later women of rank were expected to demonstrate “those retiring virtues and graces which are the real solid ornaments of the female character”. He describes A Curious Herbal as “a noble and marvellous monument of her enthusiastic and untiring conjugal affection” and proclaims that “there is something offensive in a woman putting out a book except on some such subject as Mrs Blackwell handled; or on dancing, or cooking, or anything of that kind which women ought to know about”.

As McDowell points out, the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians were all-male institutions at the time and would remain so until the early 20th century.

But this was far more than a work produced to redeem her husband. Elizabeth Blackwell was at the birth of the modern pharmaceutical industry, writing on the cusp of an era when, as McDowell tells us, “medical practice was shifting from the traditional view of ailments caused by imbalances in bodily humours – blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile – toward the construct of disease as an outside force, a separate, identifiable entity treatable with specific therapeutics”. Hers may not have been the greatest work of its kind, but it was important in its time.

And it is important as a reference work today. As McDowell says: “A Curious Herbal may be read as a history of Georgian Britain in five hundred plants.”

It is a thrill to now own a complete copy – even if it is a reproduction! A Curious Herbal is published by Abbeville Press

  1. Lives of eminent men of Aberdeen, by Bruce James, 1841.
  2. A History of the County of Renfrew from the Earliest Times, Chapter XX, by William M. Metcalfe, D.D., 1905.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Botanicum Officinale or a compendious herbal: giving an account of all such plants as are now used in the practice of physick, by Joseph Miller, 1722.
  5. Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol XVII, p424.
  6. Alexander the Corrector, by Julia Keay, 2006.

Alexander the Corrector, by Julia Keay, 2006.