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.

Constance Spry – David Austin’s first rose

Constance Spry – David Austin’s first rose

Born in Derby, Constance Spry achieved celebrity for her flower arranging – and quite late in life. It’s hard to imagine, but she really did shock the staid florists – and the public – of the 1950s (and in her 50s) with what she could do with some greenery and a pair of secateurs.

She broke many existing conventions, for instance, setting up large flower arrangements on pedestals and using unusual plants, like hedgerow flowers, decorative kale or leek seed heads in her arrangements. She was daring with colours, favouring smoky pinks and lime greens.

She was also a very successful businesswoman. One of her big breaks was securing  a regular order from Granada Cinemas – yes, flower arrangements in cinemas! At one point she had a shop in Mayfair and employed over 70 staff.

Constance Spry at work

In 1952 she was commissioned to arrange the flowers at Westminster Abbey and along the processional route from Buckingham Palace for the coronation of Elizabeth II.

She died in 1960 at the age of 74 and was honoured by an up and coming rose breeder from the West Midlands, David Austin, a year after her death when he named his first rose after her.

Constance Spry in the garden

Constance is a tough old bird – she survived builders trying to concrete around her and coat her in brick dust in our garden, and still came back as glamorous as ever.

The blooms are big and blousy, there are plenty of them and the scent is strong.

David Austin has gone on to create many beautiful roses since 1961, but his first is still one of the best and remains one of my favourites.

The Buddle bush

The Buddle bush

There is a long history of English clergymen becoming renowned botanists and horticulturists, like Charles Kingsley, Gilbert Scott and the Nottinghamshire rosarian Samuel Reynolds Hole.


These were often highly educated men, living in isolated parishes with grand rectories and plenty of time to seek spiritual inspiration from nature.

The buddleja – or butterfly bush – is named after an Essex rector, Adam Buddle (1662-1715), who in 1708 wrote an Herbarium of British plants.

Our modern system of classifying plants can be traced to the 18th century and the work of Carl von Linné, or Linnaeus, as he is better known. It was he who named Buddleja Globosa – a native of South America – after Buddle on its introduction to Europe in 1774.

The hardier Buddleja Davidii, most commonly grown today, came from China over a century later. It too is named after a naturalist cleric – the French monk, Père Armand David.

David’s life was a little more adventurous than that of most of his English counterparts. In 1860 he was sent to China to open a boy’s school but, such was his passion for nature, he was released from this commitment to allow him to venture into the wilds looking for plants (he introduced the astilbe to Europe, though not the buddleja named after him).

His diaries record some of his adventures, including sharing a tent with his donkey to protect it from ravenous wolves – “its presence is not without inconvenience,” he wrote.


Banner image –, CC BY 2.0