A fond farewell for Dickson roses

A fond farewell for Dickson roses

One of the great family names of rose-breeding history is “Dickson”. The Dickson rose nursery in Newtownards in Northern Ireland dates back to the first half of the 19th century and the family have been breeding roses since 1879. It makes them the oldest rose breeding family in the world.

But this story is coming to a close. Colin Dickson, the sixth generation of Dickson nurserymen, has hung up his budding knife. He is shutting up the business this December. But his final roses look to be as good as any he has created – a fitting end to a long family history of triumphs. 

Looking at the Dickson history is a bit like reading one of those Old Testament passages with somebody begetting somebody else as we establish the family lineage. So it is only appropriate that we should start with “In the beginning….”.

Alexander Dickson I (1801-1880) established the nursery in 1836. Dickson was a Scot who had moved from Perth and settled in Northern Ireland, first working as a gardener before setting up on his own. Newtownards is just ten miles south east of Belfast – a fast growing city at the time. Dickson found customers plentiful and the business took root. He was not on his own for too long. His sons George (1832-194) and Hugh came into the business (though Hugh later left to set up on his own). George begat four more sons, who all worked for him when he took over. Two of them in particular took to rose breeding – Alexander II (1857-1949) and George II.

Science and competition

In the 1870s the rose-breeding market was dominated by the French. Few would have believed that someone in the Northern Ireland climate could breed blooms to compete. But then came Henry Bennett, a former cattle farmer from Wiltshire who changed the world of rose breeding. Whereas the the French left cross-pollination to the bees, Bennett applied a more scientific approach – the same one he’d used for breeding prize cattle. He began selectively cross pollinating. Bennett was a great marketer, in the Victorian tradition. In 1878 he exhibited his first “Pedigree hybrid of the tea rose”.


Clockwise from top right: ‘Lady Mary Corry’ [Dickson, 1900], ‘Duchess of Wellington’, [Dickson, 1909], Ards Rover’ [Dickson, 1898] and ‘Irish Elegance’ [Dickson, 1905] Images: Charles Quest-Ritson

We’ll learn more about him in another blog. Suffice to say he inspired the Dicksons who set out to breed their own roses the following year. Alexander II took their “First Set of Pedigree Seedlings” to compete in London at the National Rose Society Show in 1886 – a red Hybrid Perpetual, ‘Earl of Dufferin’, ‘Lady Helen Stewart’ (another red), and a pink Tea they called ‘Ethel Brownlow’.


The British were the first in the world to have a national rose show. It was a great way for breeders to advertise their creations and helped raise the bar – Britain now began to dominate the rose breeding industry. Dickson’s first Gold Medal came in 1892 with ‘Mrs W. J. Grant’. More successes followed.

The opening pages of The Rosarian’s Year Book of 1896 show an advert for Alex Dickson & Sons. It boasts that by this point Dicksons was the holder of “SEVEN gold medals by the National Rose Society”. By its centenary in 1936 the company had won so many gold medals the Dicksons had them melted down and formed into golden roses, mounted and presented as a mayoral chain for the Borough of Newtownards.


Left: An advert for Dickson Nurseries from The Rosarian’s Year Book of 1896. Right: ‘Tom Wood’ [Dickson, 1896] Image: Charles Quest-Ritson


Post-war recovery

During the second World War rose production ceased in Britain and the fields were turned over to food production. It took time for breeding to start again. Alexander Dickson III (1893-1975) – known as ‘Sandy’ – began slowly rebuilding his rose breeding department.

In 1958 he produced a fiery orange red Floribunda, ‘Dickson’s Flame’, which won the National Rose Society’s supreme award, as well as a beautiful orange and red Floribunda, ‘Shepherd’s Delight’.

Sandy’s son, Pat Dickson (1926-2012), began breeding in 1957 producing some outstanding roses over his lifetime, including ‘Grandpa Dickson’ (1966) and ‘Red Devil’ (1967). ‘Redgold’ (1967) won an All America Award. ‘Beautiful Britain’ (1983) was voted ‘Rose of the Year’ by professional growers.

Pat Dickson’s son Colin started in 1977. It was one of his best years, resulting in ‘Elina’, ‘Tequila Sunrise’ ‘Disco Dancer’ ‘Lovely Lady’ and ‘Freedom’. He says: “I was just brought up with breeding. I was at boarding school from 13 to 18 and we were allowed out on Sundays to go home. My father would come and pick me up and he was doing the hybridising at the time. He’d say he hadn’t finished and needed some help, so that’s how I got started. It was in my blood!”

Pat and Colin Dickson evaluating the rose field with Sammy the dog, about 2007. Image Dickson Roses

Picking winners

At the height of production, working in greenhouses 110 feet long x 30 feet wide, he was generating 15,000 crosses and quarter of a million seeds a year but found that was too many. He was brutal in weeding out weaklings. He says: “You know what a good rose is – you have to cut the rubbish out quickly. The French breeder, Meilland, would save everything but as soon as I could tell it wasn’t going to make the grade I kicked it out to let the others mature and give them space. I like a rose that stands up and has a good neck so you don’t have to bend yours to look at it.”


Hall of Fame rose ‘Elina’ [Dickson, 1983] Image: Charles Quest-Ritson


His favourite rose is the beautiful pale-yellow Hybrid Tea, ‘Elina’ (1983), which is a Hall of Fame rose. There is a family dispute as to who bred it. Pat believed he had because it was not in Colin’s main breeding house. Colin says he was using the greenhouse as an overspill and that it was he who decided to take pollen from the Kordes rose, ‘Lolita’, and cross it with Pat’s creation, ‘Nana Mouskouri’. Was the dispute ever resolved? “We agreed to disagree,” he laughs.

But this story shows how breeders use each other’s creations. Colin was using roses from the great Kordes family business (which goes back to 1887); his friend Wilhelm Kordes III (1953-2016) was also using Dickson roses. “You will definitely find ‘Elina’ in the genes of many Kordes roses,” says Thomas Proll, the head of breeding at Kordes today.

Caption: Since the inception of the Roses of the Year Competition, Dickson Roses have won ten: 1983 – ‘Beautiful Britain’ (Dicfire), 1987 – ‘Sweet Magic’ (Dicmagic), 1990 – ‘Harvest Fayre’ (Dicnorth), 1991 – ‘Melody Maker’ (Dicqueen), 1986 – ‘Gentle Touch’ (Diclulu), 1993 -‘Dawn Chorus’ (Dicquasar), 1996 – ‘Magic Carpet’ (Jaclover), 2000 – ‘Irish Eyes’ (Dicwitness), 2018 – ‘Lovestruck’ (Dicommatac), 2022 – ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (Dictwix) (pictured above – Dickson Roses).

The last great Dickson roses

If Colin’s rose breeding career got off to an astonishing start, his finish looks to be just as strong. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (Dictwix) was named Rose of the Year in the UK in 2022. This was the tenth time Dickson’s had won the accolade since the competition’s inception. Colin’s last rose was meant to be ‘A Fond Farewell’ (Dicchiffon – pictured at the top of this piece) but then came another ‘Honey, Bee Mine’ (Dicsolar), which won the gold medal at the Rochfords rose trials in 2023. All three look like stunning roses – A fitting end to a rose breeding dynasty.

These roses are now with contract grower Griffins Roses. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is available now. ‘A Fond Farewell’ should be available for garden centres and nurseries to pre-order next year, with ‘Honey, Bee Mine’ available from 2025. You can order directly through The Garden Rose Company and plant a bit of rose history in your garden.   

Dickson roses

Left: ‘Honey, Bee Mine’ (Dicsolar) and ‘Storyteller’, a particular favourite of mine for obvious reasons. Images: Dickson Roses



Banner image: ‘A Fond Farewell’ (Dicchiffon) [Dickson] Image: Dickson Roses

Pirri pirri – How a Scottish royal visit triggered an invasion

Pirri pirri – How a Scottish royal visit triggered an invasion

This is a curious tale of unforeseen consequences – how a royal visit to Scotland in the 19th century led to a plant invasion from Australia that is still being dealt with today.


In August 1822 King George IV made a royal visit to Edinburgh. It was the first by a reigning monarch in nearly two centuries.

Right: George IV in kilt by Sir David Wilkie, 1829. Left: A contemporary caricature of King George IV in kilt during his visit to Scotland in 1822. Image from “The King’s Jaunt” by John Prebble.

The flattering painting to the left (above) by David Wilkie shows him in full Scottish regalia looking in his prime. In reality he was 60 at this point and on his way to weighing 20 stone. He had a 50-inch waist. But look at those lovely bare knees. Yes, well, in reality he actually wore a pair of “pink tights” or “flesh-coloured pantaloons” and stockings to keep him warm.

Short kilt

His kilt may have been lengthened in this painting too. Scots joked about how short it was. One wag commented: “Since he is to be amongst us for so short a time, the more we see of him the better.”

Sir Walter Scott, who had the sense to wear a pair of black and white checked woollen trousers for the Edinburgh visit, organised the welcome. He was intent on promoting Scottish culture. Pipers regaled the king. Around 1200 gentlemen attended a reception, all of them encouraged to wear tartan.

An embroidered picture of Sir Walter Scott at home – in his checked woollen trousers. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Crowds gathered to cheer the king throughout his three-week visit – with as many as one in seven Scots getting to see him.

Fleece fugitives

The visit caught the public imagination on both sides of the border and demand for tartan and tweed cloth soared. The mills couldn’t get enough wool. They already imported fleeces from Germany, but now began ordering from Australia too – as well as the Falklands, the Cape, India, South America and New Zealand.

Hidden among the fleeces were some seed hitchhikers that got carried into the rivers and streams with the effluent from the mills. They took root in the landscape, first around the sites of the mills and then beyond.

Ida Hayward with her dog, Logie, from the archives of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Ida Hayward

A few decades later Ida Hayward began recording the plants near her uncles’ wool mill. Over a ten-year period between 1907 and 1917 she walked along the streams and rivers of Galashiels with her dog, Logie. She gathered samples for her herbarium and recorded her findings eventually in a book[1]. Haywood made some astonishing discoveries. In total she found nearly 350 ‘fleece fugitives’.

“Miss Hayward found at Selkirk Nasella flaccidula, a very rare species of beautiful feather grass only occurring over 13,000 feet up the Bolivian Andes on the mountain slopes near La Paz. Its seeds had managed to fix themselves in the fleece of some adventurous sheep and, despite the shearing, the jolting down the mountain railway to Antofagasta, the long sea voyage round the Horn, across the Line, it finally germinated on the Tweed at less than 400 feet above the sea level. In its new home, too, it grew not as the type but as a variety, new to science, which Professor Hackel named glomerata, not as yet discovered in South America.” – George Druce, The Adventive Flora of Tweedside.

Many of the invaders failed to survive long – they died out when sceptic tanks were built to treat the effluent in around 1919 and the continuous flow of fresh introductions to the landscape stopped.

Right: Nassella flaccidula, 1932 (Naturalis Biodiversity Center, CC0 1.0 Public-domain). Left: The River Tweed in Galashiels (Mary and Angus Hogg, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Pirri pirri

But some were resilient, including the pirri pirri – a native of south-eastern Australia (and nothing to do with hot food, in case you ask – that’s piri piri!) Australians know it also as the biddy-biddy or the biddy-widgee. Funny-sounding names. Not a funny plant.

First reported in the wild in the UK in 1901, its seeds escaped from wool imported into the port at Berwick upon Tweed. Today the pirri pirri covers huge parts of the Northumberland coast, forming dense low-growing mats that smother the life out of UK native species. It is also recorded along the south coast of England.

Its reddish spring flowers ripen into barbed fruit – or “burs” – which catch on to walkers’ socks and any passing dog or sheep. And so it spreads. And all because of a king who wore a kilt that looked a bit like a mini-skirt.

A caution sign for Pirri-Pirri burrs in Lindisfarne grassland (Des Blenkinsopp, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

[1] The Adventive Flora of Tweedside was edited by George Druce. “Adventive” means “alien”.

With thanks to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which staged an outstanding exhibition on invasive species in the summer of 2023 and which holds Ida Hayward’s herbarium and archives relating to her ‘Adventive Flora of the Tweed’.

Banner image: Pirri Pirri (Stuart Meek, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The Empress and the postman

The Empress and the postman

One of the relatively rare roses in my garden is a luscious purple crimson Gallica, ‘La Belle Sultane’, from 1795 (pictured), sometimes attributed to ‘Dupont’.


Though not talked about much today, André Dupont (1742-1817) is an important player in rose history. He is best known as the man who sold roses to the Empress Josephine.

Dupont’s early career was in service to the aristocracy. He was the chief steward at the Palais du Luxembourg, looking after the brother of King Louis XVI. There was an obvious drawback to this profession in the 18th century – your employers got their heads chopped off. But even before the French Revolution in 1789, serving the aristocracy came with major drawbacks. They may have been the richest people in France, but they could take a year to pay their staff.

Palais du Luxembourg, Paris

Dupont was a smart man. In 1780 he took on a side hustle, working with the post office. He soon won promotion to a senior position that came with a useful perk – free postage. You might think the man would not have the time for an allotment, but in 1785 he leased a plot of land close to the Palace to nurse a fledgling passion for gardening. During the revolution he kept his head down and, more usefully, on, and developed a special interest in roses.

In 1796 Dupont decided to build an école of roses – a collection of all the known specimens. He began making the most of that free postage, swapping roses with fellow collectors and nurserymen in the Netherlands, England and Italy. ‘La Belle Sultane’ may have originated from the Netherlands and been introduced and popularised by him at this period.

But he also began growing roses from seeds – breeding his own creations. These seeds were cross pollinated by the wind and insects.

Early rose breeding

Nehemiah Grew

Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) is known as the “Father of Plant Anatomy”

Sexual reproduction in plants had been recognised since the end of the 17th century. The English physician, Nehemiah Grew, first proposed a sexual theory of plant reproduction in 1684. Thomas Fairchild’s experiments crossing sweet William and carnation are known to have been made as early as 1717, and Philip Miller described insect pollination by observations on tulips before 1721[1]. But even as late as 1870, when the English rose breeder Henry Bennett began visiting rose breeders in France, he could see little evidence that they were doing anything other than relying on the wind and insects to cross pollinate[2].

A number of authors in the 20th century have claimed Dupont was an early exponent of art of selective pollination of roses by hand[3]. His recent biographer, Vincent Derkenne[4], hesitates to go so far.

He says: “At the time botanists were only interested in natural varieties – the species roses. For them flowers were an object of study and scientific classification. For Dupont they were also an object of aesthetic delight. He was a pioneer who applied a scientific approach to breeding roses intentionally for the pleasure of garden owners.

“We do not know if he hand-pollinated but what we can say with certainty is that Dupont sowed rose seeds and showed a particular interest in mutations and abnormalities, fixing some of these through grafting onto dog-rose roots and then disseminating them. He earned the respect of fellow naturalists from the Enlightenment period.”

Empress Josephine

By the end of the 18th century, André Dupont and his collection of roses has become well known. So, in 1799, when Napoleon and the Empress Josephine moved into the Luxembourg Palace for three months, she undoubtedly went to visit him. And so began a very special relationship.

Later that year, while her husband was attempting to conquer Egypt, she went house hunting and bought a chateau on the outskirts of Paris, called Malmaison. Josephine spent a fortune on the place (to Napoleon’s annoyance) and another doing it up and building her plant collection.

Portrait of Empress Josephine by François Gérard (1801)

Chateau de Malmaison (by Pedro Faber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, was once asked whether Josephine had intelligence. He is said to have replied: “No-one ever managed as brilliantly without it.” Cruel and unfair. Her passion for botany and the plant collection she built at Malmaison bears better witness to her intellect.

She had impressive glasshouses at Malmaison and took pleasure in taking her poor ladies in waiting and courtiers around them, introducing them – or reintroducing them ad infinitum – to the rarities it held.

“When the weather was fine, the green-houses were inspected; the same walk was taken every day; on the way to that spot the same subjects were talked over; the conversation generally turned on botany… her wonderful memory, which enabled her to name every plant; in short, the same phrases were generally repeated over and over again, and other circumstances were, at the same time, well calculated to render those promenades exceedingly tedious and fatiguing.”  – Georgette Ducrest, Memoirs of the Empress Josephine 1829

Josephine’s roses

Josephine’s interest in plants was wide-ranging, but she is best known for her roses. Born Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, until her marriage to Napoleon she was generally known as “Rose”.  Dupont became an important supplier for her. Vincent estimates that she bought as many as 1500 from him for the Malmaison estate (though accounts show that – guess what? – she would take at least a year to pay). She may have not had the most comprehensive rose collection in France, but it was still significant[5].

Dupont was not her only supplier. Famously, during the Napoleonic wars the Royal Navy blockaded French ports, but ships were allowed through to deliver rose bushes and other plants from the Lee & Kennedy nursery in London to the Empress for Malmaison. Suffice to say she failed to pay all her bills.

In 1803 Josephine engaged a talented Belgian artist to come and paint her plants. His name was Pierre Joseph Redouté. He started work painting the roses at Malmaison in 1813. The following year Josephine died of pneumonia. Redouté carried on painting and produced three volumes of hand-coloured engravings between 1817 and 1824 – more than 250 roses, including Rosa Gallica Pontiana, more widely known as ‘Manteau Pourpre’. 

Rosa x dupontii Déségl. Photo copyright of Vincent Derkenne

Hard times

The year Josephine died was a difficult one for Dupont in other ways. Aged 72, he was forced to retire from the post office. He exchanged one set of his école of 537 different roses for a small state pension. Each rose was on its own roots and doubled with a specimen grafted on to dog-rose roots. Planted at the Palais du Luxembourg, under the care of its director Julien-Alexandre Hardy (husband of Mme Hardy, after whom the famous rose is named), it became the foundation of what was then Europe’s largest collection of roses. It is believed that a second école was later sold to Louis Claude Noisette for his own extensive collection of roses.

Rosa Gallica Pontiana, by Redouté in Les Roses – photo by Vincent Derkenne © Coriallo-Ville de Cherbourg-en-Cotentin. Today the rose is known as ‘Manteau Pourpre’. Photo by Vincent Derkenne.

Three years later Dupont died. Vincent sums up his life. He says: “André Dupont was the great precursor to the important period of rose breeding that followed in France. He was an experimental gardener and a pioneer; he collected and distributed roses, he propagated them by seed, and helped popularise roses as ornamental garden plants, inspiring and helping fellow breeders and enthusiasts across Europe.”

In keeping with his scientific approach to studying the genus Rosa, Dupont kept a rose herbarium – a collection of preserved plant specimens, pressed, dried and mounted. Little is published about this herbarium, so it surprised Vincent when, in the spring of 2013, while studying the National Archives, he found the minutes of a meeting of the Professors’ Assembly of the National Museum of Natural History.

Dated February 16, 1814, they note: “M. Dupont, owner of a collection of roses, offers a herbarium of rose varieties and a plant of the Rosa monophyla[6]. M. Desfontaines is invited to thank M. Dupont on behalf of the administration.”

Top left: Page from A.L. de Jussieu ‘s Herbal in Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle – the flower comes from Dupont’s garden. Right: Rosa bifera variegata & Rosa monophila in Dupont’s Herbal. All photos by Vincent Derkenne.

The Dupont herbarium

Vincent was astonished. He says: “I felt certain that these plates of dry specimens were still present somewhere within these venerable buildings. Nothing is lost in a museum. All we had to do was look for them. Fortunately, at the time there was a campaign to digitise the collections of the National Herbarium, which made it possible to bring together folders that were sometimes scattered in cupboards within different departments. It took some time but eventually the staff became enthused by the thought of the vieil herbier de roses du Muséum.”

On April 9, 2015, Derkenne was invited to the museum. He says: “Staff brought out three boxes of herbarium plates, all dedicated to roses, dated from the beginning of the 19th century. We looked at the plates, especially some with long handwritten notes. I could not hold back my emotion. It was the handwriting of our old friend André Dupont. There was no doubt about it. It was his collection.”

Vincent Derkenne’s book, “André Dupont 1742-1817 – Un palais des Roses” is available through amazon.fr  ISBN: 978-2-322-23774-6 and also an abridged paperback summary in English.

[1] Discovery of Sexuality in Plants. Nature 131, 392 (1933). https://doi.org/10.1038/131392b0

[2] The makers of heavenly roses, by Jack Harkness p.23 1985

[3] The first of these was Mrs Frederick Love Keays in Old Roses, published 1935.

[4] Interview with Vincent Derkenne, author of “André Dupont 1742-1817 – Un palais des Roses”

[5] The respected French scholar François Joyaux says that all her roses were grown in pots. Some were displayed around the grounds when in bloom, but there was never a rose garden.

[6] Rosa monophyla is a synonym of Rosa persica

The man who invented the steam-powered lawnmower

The man who invented the steam-powered lawnmower

In 1893 the horticultural world experienced a major breakthrough with the launch of the first systematic, automatic… steam-powered lawnmower.

What a feat of engineering! And I like to think some distant members of my family played a role in its development.

Early lawnmower history

Until the arrival of the lawnmower grass had to be cut by scythe. This was a skilled job that could take several workers many hours. The alternative was to graze it. On large estates the sheep would be cleared off the lawn when guests were due, and the poor gardeners would then clear up behind them. Literally, a crap job.

Edwin Beard Budding

Edwin Beard Budding

Then in 1830, Edwin Budding, an engineer from Stroud in Gloucestershire, invented the lawnmower. Budding had seen how wool manufacturers would use a long spiral cutter over a roller to smooth the cloth’s nap, creating a more even surface and giving it a better finish. He recognised how the technology could be applied to the lawn.

Budding’s lawnmower was a heavy piece of kit made of cast iron. It required two gardeners to operate – one pulling from the front, the other pushing at the back.

The first attempt to apply some horsepower to the job was in the mid 19th century when Alexander Shanks & Co. of Arbroath in Scotland produced the horse-drawn mower. This proved popular on golf courses and sports grounds, though the horses’ feet left large indents in the grass. To deal with this lawn boots would be fitted over the hooves of the horse to help spread the weight.

Steam-powered lawnmower

And then came the steam-powered lawnmower. It was designed by James Sumner, manufactured by the Lancashire steam Co., and distributed by the Stott Fertilizer & Insecticide Company of Manchester.

James Sumner's motorcycleJames Sumner (1860-1924) had had a long-held interest in steam power. He was the son of a blacksmith in Leyland, Lancashire. In 1886 he built a steam wagon capable of carrying four tons. And five years later he fitted a popular tricycle (the “Salvo sociable”) with a small twin-cylinder, oil-fired boiler. He took it for a spin and ended up being fined for speeding – he was travelling at a racy eight miles per hour.

Sumner invented his paraffin-fuelled, steam-powered lawnmower in about 1893. It won the silver medal (the highest award) at the Royal Lancashire Agricultural Society’s Show in 1894. And another top prize at the Manchester Royal Botanical Society Show at Old Trafford the following year.

The Stott company that acted as distribution agent for Sumner was best known at the time for its insecticide and fertilisers. These were marketed under an ingenious family of names: “Kill-M-Right”, “Feed-M-Right” and “Smoke-M-Right”. Trawling through gardening paper ads, it would seem that “Kill-M-Right” was their most popular product.

They claimed it was a “certain cure for Blight, and all Insect Pests, without injury to plants”. Given the Victorian’s love of nasty chemicals, it is perhaps best not to enquire too deeply about the effect on the gardeners using it!

Sales challenges

But back to the lawnmower. Despite its awards, Sumner’s machine was a tough sell. It weighed a tonne and took several hours to get up a head of steam. Production numbers were low as it was hand-built. The Stotts took out large, expensive adverts in the Gardeners Chronicle and exhibited it. On 20th May 1896 an advert in the Derby Mercury proclaimed, for instance, that a two-day exhibition would be held of Sumner’s patent steam lawn mower on Derby County Cricket Club. “All interested are particularly requested to attend. All communications to be addressed to ‘The Stott Fertilizer & Insecticide Co at Barton House, Manchester’.”

It is amazing to compare photographs of Sumner’s mower and the powered mowers being sold only 20 years later and pictured in the 1925 edition of The Gardener’s Assistant.

Perhaps it was the costs of trying to market the steam-powered lawnmower that did it for the Stott Fertilizer & Insecticide Company. That same year it went into liquidation. Sumner had already moved on to greater things. In 1895 he had built a crude steam car, powered by one of his lawnmower engines.

He has been out with it several times this year (having managed to escape prosecution this time), and can run at ten miles an hour on fairly level roads with four persons aboard.” Autocar magazine, April 18th 1896

Sumner moved into manufacturing steam-power wagons at a works in Leyland in 1895. And, yes, that’s the origin of British Leyland.

Sumner went on to build steam-powered wagons like this vehicle and his company eventually became part of British Leyland.

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

Are dandelions weeds?

Are dandelions weeds?

I have waged a battle against dandelions in my garden for years, but now I’ve called a truce. We may one day even become friends.


The turning point was when I gave up trying to maintain a traditional lawn. Part of me would still like one – especially as I’d invested in a great electric scarifier not long before I was forced into retreat.

I don’t use herbicides or pesticides anywhere else in the garden and I was getting grief for wanting to use them on the lawn. I knew that if I wanted an elegant lawn to set off the beds I would have no choice but to get on my knees and spend hours weeding. In a strop, I refused. I decided to let the weeds just come.

Oxeye daisies

Oxeye daisies ©storyteller garden

They did. And the effect took me by surprise. By the apple tree my lawn grew a pretty mat of blue speedwell. I had a little island of oxeye daisies – at one point, when the first flush of roses was over, they and the smaller daisies in the lawn were just about the only colour in the garden. The moss meant my lawn was green even during the driest patches.

And then there were the dandelions. In the 18th century, Philip Miller, the former chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden, seemed to get crosser about them over time. In 1754 he seemed reasonably tolerant.

“There are also some People very fond of it blanch’d in the Spring, like Endive; but whoever has a mind to have it for either Use, may be abundantly supplied in the Fields.” Philip Miller, Gardener’s Dictionary 1754

Seventeen years later he was taking a much tougher line.

“They are very bad weeds both in gardens and fields, so should be rooted out before their seeds are ripe, otherwise they will spread to a great distance.” Philip Miller, Gardener’s Dictionary 1771.

Today our attitudes are softening again. In 2022 I organised a series of garden writers to give talks at Bromley House Library in Nottingham, where I am a trustee.  Gareth Richards, author of: “RHS Weeds – the beauty and uses of 50 vagabond plants”, was one of our guests.

He explained how the top five nectar producing plants and two of the top 10 pollen producers are native British weed species, and among them is the dandelion. So, if we want to support nature, we need to leave some of these weeds be.

Each yellow dandelion head is actually about a hundred individual flowers. These are a veritable pantry of pollen and nectar for bees. Pollen offers the bees protein; nectar the carbs that give them energy. While they need a more diverse diet to be healthy, in early spring the dandelions can offer a vital source of sustenance when little else is in flower.

Dandelion weeds into food

Meanwhile, the dandelion is good for us humans too. Richards recommends the buds for pickling – “they make a useful homegrown caper substitute”. He says the flowers can also be deep fried in batter for a tasty snack. Just wash them, dip them wet in flour and sauté them for a few minutes.

Dandelion flowers

Dandelion flowers

The leaves can be used raw in salads as a substitute for radicchio (with a sweet honey salad dressing). In France and Germany dandelions are grown as an edible crop. Plants are blanched like rhubarb, by excluding the light, to make the leaves less bitter. Richards says they are rich in vitamins A, B, C, D and minerals.

The dandelion root, used (allegedly) in the “dandelion and burdock” pop we used to drink as kids, is said to be good for the liver and to aid digestion.


I am a little hesitant about using dandelions as a food source. There’s a reason one of the old English names for it is “pissabed” – in France, “pis-en-lit”. It’s a diuretic. Or, at least, its leaves are.

“It wonderfully openeth the uritorie parts, causing abundance of urine. Not onely in chidren whose meseraicall veines are not sufficiently strong to containe the quantitie of urine drawne in the night, but that then without restraint or keeping it backe they water their beds, but in those of old age also upon the stopping of yielding small quantitie of urine.” John Parkinson (1567-1650), Herbalist to King Charles I, author of Theatrum Botanicum (published 1640)

However, this year I plan to try harvesting my dandelion flowers and leaves – an organic addition to salads.

No longer a weed?

Dandelion seed head

Dandelion seed head ©Storyteller garden

Seeing the dandelion in this fresh light I am now beginning to really enjoy spotting it on roadside verges near my house and in the countryside. Put aside your prejudices and look carefully at a fresh dandelion bloom. It’s an explosion of joyful yellow. And those delicate seed heads that parachute its offspring to neighbouring flower beds are a thing of utter beauty.

So yes, the dandelion can now make itself at home in my lawn with all its other “weed” friends. I mow a central sweep of the bed throughout the year, but leave little oases of “no mow” abandon during May. That’s where it can find a home. But it’s not having my rose beds!