Weigela – plant hunting in China

Weigela – plant hunting in China

Scottish botanist Robert Fortune (1812-1880) was perhaps the most successful of the 19th century plant hunters. In three trips to China between 1843 and 1847 he sent back as many as 200 plants, including weigela.

Robert Fortune – it has been estimated that he smuggled 20,000 plants out of China.

For centuries China was closed to Western travellers. The Opium Wars resulted in it being forced to open several ports to British merchants. In 1842 Fortune was commissioned by the Horticultural Society (the forerunner of the Royal Horticultural Society) to take advantage of this to go and seek exotic plants to send back to Britain.

Even given China’s submission to the gunship diplomacy of the British Empire, this was no easy task. As a Westerner he often attracted large crowds (and tells of having his pockets picked). With Imperial hauteur, he described his technique for escape: “I walked on towards the hills and began to ascend them – a plan which I always adopted when I wanted to get away from the Chinese, as they are generally too lazy to follow far, where much exertion is required.” (Some might say the observation equally applies to the British today, as anyone will testify who has fled the crowds swamping Bakewell on a Bank Holiday by the simple expedient of heading out to the hills and away from the pie shops.)

Often Fortune found himself on the wrong end of more than just curious jostling. At one point he was violently robbed, escaping narrowly with his life. On another, a junk he was travelling on came under fire from pirates. He escaped only by threatening to kill his cowering Chinese crew to force them to make good their flight and then shooting dead a number of the pirates as their boats closed in.

The East India Company iron steam ship Nemesis, with boats from the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne and Starling, destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, 7 January 1841.

Several voyages almost ended in disaster because of incredible storms, and his journeys to the interior had to be done in disguise, with him pretending to be a traditional Chinese man – complete with shaved head and ponytail – as no Westerner was allowed more than a day’s walk from the treaty ports.

His most famous accomplishment was smuggling tea plants out of China to India – and the knowledge of how to process the crop – making possible the Indian tea industry.

Fortune, who also travelled to Japan, was responsible for discovering many plants found in gardens today, including forsythias, lilacs, winter jasmine, skimmia japonica, several varieties of rhododendron, honeysuckle, clematis and paeonies. He also introduced at least half a dozen roses – it will be interesting to see how important they were in the development of our modern varieties.

In 1844 he visited the island of Chusan (between the Chinese mainland and Japan), where he came across weigela in the garden of a Chinese mandarin.

He considered it one of the most beautiful shrubs of Northern China. “It was loaded with its noble rose-coloured flowers, and was the admiration of all who saw it, both English and Chinese.*

More than 170 years later, looking at the two pretty weigela cultivars in my garden – a variegated pink, and a dark crimson – all loaded with flowers, I cannot help feeling admiration too. I have more mixed emotions about Fortune.

Weigela florida ‘variegata’

Arguably racist, by today’s standards, and a horticultural thief and spy on an industrial scale, his fortune was probably the misfortune of many others. However, by destroying the Chinese tea monopoly he created a huge industry in India and encouraged the English passion for the drink that exists today. Our gardens are immeasurably the richer for his efforts too. Hero or villain? Probably both.


*Robert Fortune – Three years’ wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China

Cherry Ingram

Cherry Ingram

It is Golden Week or Ōgon Shūkan in Japan when the Japanese mark four public holidays, including Greenery Day. Originally established as Shōwa Day to mark the birthday of the controversial wartime Emperor Shōwa – or Hirohito, as we know him – the day was rechristened on his death in 1989, ostensibly to acknowledge his love of plants. It is a time to celebrate nature and give thanks for the blessings it brings. It is also a good time to remember the remarkable “Cherry” Ingram.


From left to right: Cherry blossom is a common motif in traditional kimonos, Cherry trees in Japan and Cherry trees next to a stream in Japan
All images © Martin Stott

The Sumida River Embankment in Edo (Tôto Sumida-zutsumi), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fuji sanjûrokkei) by Utagawa Hiroshige I
(Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Japan is said to have over one million cherry trees. At this time of year many will still be in blossom and you will often find families picnicking beneath them. The blossoms are gathered, and sometimes pickled or used as ingredients for sweets, in baking or in tea. They are commonly seen in Japanese art – almost as much as the iconic Mount Fuji. Wander the streets of Kyoto and there is a strong chance you will eventually come across women in traditional kimonos decorated with cherry blossoms.

The country’s relationship with the cherry goes back centuries. Between 1639 and 1853, Japan was closed off from much of the world and governed by regional governors or daimyō. Japanese arts and culture flourished. Daimyō Lords cultivated different varieties, planting them en-masse. Cherry-blossom viewing – or hanami ­– became a popular seasonal event for the whole population. The fragile, short-lived blossom – or Sakura – began to take on deep symbolism.

From ten wild species many different flowering varieties were nurtured – as many as 250 by 1860, perhaps. Their colours varied from white to crimson.

When American Commodore Matthew Perry led his four ships into the harbour at Tokyo Bay in 1853 and pointed his cannons at the shore, it signalled the end of Japan’s isolation. He forced its rulers to sign a series of demoralising treaties and open up the country. As a consequence, plant hunters could now begin exploring Japan’s treasured collection of cherry trees.

Cherry Ingram

Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram in 1905

In 1902 a 21-year-old Englishman, Collingwood Ingram, made his first visit to Japan. As Naoko Abe tells us in her excellent book Cherry’ Ingram, The Englishman who saved Japan’s blossoms, this was to be the start of an astonishing love affair with the country and its trees.

Ingram was the grandson of charismatic Nottingham entrepreneur Herbert Ingram. Ingram had made a killing selling “Parr’s Life Pills” – a quack medicine that promised “to conquer disease and prolong life”. The pills were said to cure everything from bad breath to dysentery and were sold as far afield as New York. With the proceeds Herbert set up the Illustrated London News and grew his fortune further.

So, the young Ingram – on his way to becoming a renowned ornithologist at the time – was a well-heeled tourist. In 15 days he saw enough to become smitten and returned again five years later, on honeymoon. He may have seen more of the birds than his bride.

During the first world war it is perhaps not surprising that Ingram served as a captain in the Royal Flying Corps. By the time it ended he was 38 and looking for a fresh interest.

Weary of war, he had also wearied of ornithology. He wrote: “When the editor of one of the world’s premier ornithological journals deemed it of sufficient interest to publish a paper in which the author recorded the number of times a great tit defecated every 24 hours, I came to the conclusion that it was high time I occupied my thoughts with some other aspect of nature. I chose plants.”

And cherries in particular caught his attention. He began to collect as many varieties for his garden as he could find and to catalogue the different varieties available. This was not an easy task – often the same cherry would have different names in different parts of Japan.

“Only those who have visited Japan during the spring months can realise the fairyland of beauty presented by hundreds of these Cherries in full flower. No pen can do justice to such a sight – its splendour literally takes one’s breath away.”
Collingwood Ingram,1925

By this time, Ingram had built, with the help of friends and correspondents around the world, a collection of nearly 70 varieties in his garden, The Grange, at Benenden in Kent. His favourite was perhaps Sargent’s Cherry. He described it as: “A very fine cherry, and when its delicate rose-pink flowers intermingle with the vivid copper-red of its young foliage, it presents a strikingly beautiful appearance, and, in my opinion, is undoubtedly one of the best of its family. It is almost equally attractive in the autumn, when its leaves change to various hues of orange and crimson before falling. I am entirely in accord with Wilson when he says, ‘if one kind only can be planted, it should be this.’”

Prunus sargentii (Sargent’s Cherry)
Plant Image Library

In 1926 he revisited Japan and was shocked by what he found. The 1923 earthquake had wreaked terrible damage. But so, too, had industrialisation. Ancient gardens were neglected. Few seemed to care about safeguarding the less-easily propagated varieties of cherry. Indeed, the opposite.

One cherry was becoming ubiquitous, it seemed – Somei-yoshino. This was a cloned variety developed in the 1860s. Cherries can be short-lived, and when trees were replaced – if at all – it was often with this variety. In a diverse landscape the cherry blossom season can last many months. With the same tree planted it was a fleeting couple of weeks. Ingram had noted how the cherry was “emblematic of loyalty and patriotism”. Abe describes how politicians now used the shrinking diversity and ever-shortening cherry blossom season to twist this symbolism. The trees blossomed fleetingly together, coming to represent national unity and the fragility of life. The same symbolism was used to encourage young Japanese men to fall together, sacrificing their short lives by becoming kamikaze pilots to defend a lost cause.

Prunus × yedoensis ‘Somei-yoshino’ (Yoshino cherry)
Uberlemur, CC BY-SA 3.0

It was too early for Ingram to detect this poisonous shift. But he certainly noticed the loss of diversity and the deterioration of collections. Forming friendships with a handful of passionate cherry experts, he decided to do what he could to safeguard Japan’s rare cherries. They would send him scions of trees. He would graft and grow them and share them on.


One of the cherries in his own garden was a tree with beautiful white blossoms. He had found it while visiting a friend in Winchelsea. It didn’t have a name so a Japanese tree specialist visiting Ingram in 1925 christened it for him – Taihaku, or the “great white cherry”.

On visiting Japan in 1926, Ingram could find no trace of it. One day a kimono-clad host, sharing paintings with him of various cherry trees, unrolled a scroll showing a cherry plant with immense white blossoms. It had been painted by his grandfather 130 years earlier. It was now extinct, said the old man sadly. Ingram was astonished. It was Taihaku. “This cherry is growing in my garden in Kent” he exclaimed. It was to take Ingram several attempts to return scions of the tree safely back to Japan, but he managed it.


More recently – in 2022 – Oxford Botanic Garden returned five more cherry varieties to Japan that had become extinct there but were surviving in the UK. Three of these – ‘Daikoku’, ‘Asano’ and ‘Okiku-zakura’ – had been introduced to the UK from Japan by Collingwood Ingram in the 1920s and 1930s. They now grow once again in Japan, in Toyama Botanical Garden.

A young Sakura Cherry Tree in the grounds of Rochester Cathedral

A young Sakura Cherry Tree in the grounds of Rochester Cathedral


Meanwhile, between 2019 and 2023, in a reciprocal act of friendship, the Sakura Cherry Tree Project resulted in thousands of cherry trees being planted across the UK, with the financial help of many Japanese and UK companies. They symbolise the deep-rooted friendship between the UK and Japan – a healthy symbolism that Cherry Ingram would have appreciated.


Banner image: The Chidorigafuchi Moat at the Imperial Palace Tokyo (KimonBerlin, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

Who was ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’?

Who was ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’?

Read about ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ online and you usually learn that the famous noisette was named after the wife of Monsieur E. A. Carrière, who for three decades – from 1866 to his death in 1896 – was editor of the French gardening journal Revue Horticole [1].


But that was Élie-Abel Carrière. Not Alfred. So who were Monsieur and Madame Alfred Carrière?

The rose

‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ was bred by Joseph Schwartz – an important figure in France’s rose breeding capital of Lyon. And a rather sad one.

Joseph Schwartz

Schwarz was born in 1846 and apprenticed to the famous rose breeder Jean-Baptiste Guillot, succeeding him when the old man retired in 1870.[2]

Schwarz was only 25 and taking on such a well-known nursery was a big step but he flourished, with the help of his wife, Sophie, who he married in 1872. Both were the children of professional gardeners and had a shared passion for the industry. In 1875 he bred from seed ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’, putting it into commerce in 1879.

The following year Sophie died from typhoid fever, aged 33, leaving him alone with two young children. He remarried in 1881. His new wife Marie-Louise Trievoz also worked alongside him in the nursery and learned the craft of rose breeding.

She soon became pregnant and in 1882 gave birth to her first child, Georges. He did not live long and when the following year she had another son, the couple baptised him Georges, too.

In that same year Schwarz was honoured to be chosen by the growers of Lyon as one of two delegates to be part of an international jury of rose experts at a large exhibition in Saint Petersburg – then the capital of Russia. He set off the following spring but during the trip caught a serious cold. He returned exhausted and thin. He never recovered.

He lived long enough to see his last child, Joseph, born but died in October 1885, aged just 39.

Remarkably, Marie-Louise continued where he left off, growing the reputation of the nursery with roses of her own, including the renowned ‘Mme Ernest Calvat’ (a sport of ‘Mme Isaac Pereire’).

Mme Alfred Carrière?

Signatures from the public register

A number of leads give a clue as to the true identity of the woman after whom ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ is named. In an edition of the Journal des Roses published in 1886, a year after Schwarz’s death, an article on noisettes featuring ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ welcomes the rose as a good addition to the growing list of repeat flowering roses and reveals: “It was dedicated to the wife of a great rose lover from the province of Dauphiné.”

In the 19th century Dauphiné was a province in Southeast France dominated by Grenoble – just over an hour’s drive from Lyon.

The Schwarz’s clearly had connections with the city – Guillot Père grew up there and Mme Ernest Calvat was the wife of a glove maker in Grenoble whose father-in-law had been a respected mayor of the city.

It is here that we find Alfred Carrière – a manufacturer of cement and concrete fountain pipes [3] who had a passion for horticulture. His firm is listed as an exhibitor at the 1862 International Exhibition, a huge trade fair which took place beside the site of the old RHS gardens in South Kensington, London.

If we want further evidence that this is the right Carrière, we learn that he was the President of the Dauphinoise Horticultural Society in the same year (1891) as Ernest Calvat fils won a grand diploma from the society for his roses and chrysanthemums. [4] The Journal Officiel of 25 July 1891 reports that Carrière was awarded the Medal of Agricultural Merit.

And his wife? She was Louise Élisa Marie Périer from Pontcharra, a town 40km north of Grenoble. She was born on 25 August 1836. She married Léon-Antoine Alfred Carrière on 10 December 1862. And that is about as much as we know about her!


‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ was not a universal success on its launch. Henry Ellwanger described it as ‘undesirable’ in his book, The Rose.[5] But in 1902 Gertrude Jekyll described ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ as the best white climbing rose.[6] In 1908 the National Rose Society gave it the same accolade. It received an RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993 and in 2003 was inducted into the World Federation of Roses Hall of Fame.

Mme Alfred Carriere – ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ climbing up the house of Walter and Kay Duncan’s Heritage Rose Garden in Sevenhill, South Australia. Copyright Martin Stott

Neither its creator nor the Carrières lived long enough to see Schwarz’s rose become so well loved. Alfred died on Christmas Eve 1894. Louise Élisa Marie died on New Year’s Day in 1903, both oblivious to the fact that, thanks to this rose, 120 years later people would be asking: “Who was Mme Alfred Carrière?”

I am indebted to my friends, the French garden historian Vincent Derkenne and rose breeder Dominique Massad, whose research has helped uncover the true identity of Mme Alfred Carrière.


  1. The journal of the National Horticultural Society of France, the Revue Horticole, was published across 146 volumes from 1829 to 1974.
  2. Much of the Schwarz biography is taken from Gérard Petit’s article in Roses Anciennes en France Bulletin no 21, 2015.
  3. Official Catalogue of the International Exhibition 1862 Volume 1 p194
  4. L’Actualité daupinoise illustrée 18 Jan 1891
  5. The Rose [New York, 1882] p.246
  6. Roses for English Gardens, G. Jekyll and E. Mawley 1902


Banner image: ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ in the Storyteller garden, Nottingham. Copyright Martin Stott