How Reynolds Hole fell in love with roses

How Reynolds Hole fell in love with roses

Rose competitions take place across the world each year – the World Federation of Rose Societies has 39 member countries. It may be tenuous to suggest they all owe their existence to an event that happened above a small pub in Nottingham over 150 years ago, but it is a good story, so forgive a little exaggeration.

 

Samuel Reynolds Hole was the vicar of Caunton, a small parish near Newark in Nottinghamshire in the 1850s. One day in early April he received a note from a mechanic in Nottingham, inviting him to assist in judging an Easter Monday rose exhibition by local working men.

Samuel Reynolds Hole, later Dean of Rochester, pictured in his book of memoirs, 1892.

Though he had a large garden, Hole did not own a single rose and knew little about them. His first assumption was that he was the victim of an April’s Fool hoax. He wrote back somewhat sarcastically asking what roses bloomed in April in Nottingham and no-where else. “By return of post, I was informed, with much more courtesy than I had any claim to, that the Roses in question were grown under glass – where and how, the growers would be delighted to show me, if I would oblige them by my company.”

On a “raw and gusty day” he stepped on to the train to Nottingham, wrapped in a rug and nursing a foot-warmer against the cold. At the station he jumped into a hansom cab and asked to be taken to the General Cathcart Inn – a street corner pub in St Ann’s (one of about 50 demolished during the slum clearances of the 1960s and 1970s) – where he was warmly welcomed by the landlord, who was wearing a glowing red Senateur Vaisse rose pinned to his coat. Others similarly clamoured round to extend greetings. He was told the roses were ready and invited upstairs to judge – while the exhibitors waited downstairs anxiously.

What followed was to be a road to Damascus experience for Hole.

“I mounted and entered one of those long narrow rooms in which market-ordinaries are wont to be held, wherein the Odd-Fellows, the Foresters and the Druids meet in mysterious conclave, and where during the race-week and the pleasure-fair there is a sound of the viol and the mazy dance. What a contrast now! The chamber, whose normal purpose was clamour and chorus from crowded men, we found empty, hushed and still; the air on other public occasions hot with cooked meats and steaming tumblers, heavy with the smoke and smell of tobacco, was cool and perfumed; and the table – you could not see its homely surface of plain deal … for it was covered from end to end with beautiful and fragrant Roses! … A prettier sight, a more complete surprise of beauty, could not have presented itself on that cold and cloudy morning.”

Hole describes his first encounter in “A book about Roses”, first published in 1869. This is an 1877 revised sixth edition.

He recounted how despite many years spent subsequently judging and exhibiting roses, including launching the first National Rose Show, he never saw better specimens of some roses than were exhibited that morning by these workmen, many of them impoverished framework knitters.

Hole always had a mischievous sense of humour and later became a hugely popular writer. His prose still has the power to amuse today and it is worth looking out for a copy of his Book about Roses.

Even in his state of euphoria he noted wryly that some exhibits did not quite match their illustrious company. “I cannot forget a small and sickly exposition of Paul Ricaut, who, by some happy coincidence, which warmed my whole body with laughter, was appropriately placed in a large medicine-bottle, with a label, requesting that the wretched invalid might be well rubbed every night and morning. Poor Paul! a gentle touch would have sent him to pot-pourri!”

The Reynolds Hole rose – rare to find today.

Afterwards, when the judging was over and the men had rushed to see who had won, several invited him back to their gardens. Many of them had allotments on the edge of town and were growing roses in greenhouses to sell in Manchester and Liverpool. But the rest of the story can wait till another day.

Suffice to say that he was sent home clutching a bouquet. Within a week he had placed his first order of a dozen roses and before long … well, let’s leave it to Hole himself to tell us:

“Year by year my enthusiasm increased. … my Roses multiplied from a dozen to a score, from a score to a hundred from a hundred to a thousand, from one to five thousand trees. They came into my garden a very small band of settlers, and speedily, after the example of other colonists, they civilised all the former inhabitants from off the face of the earth… They routed the rhubarb, they carried the asparagus with resistless force, they cut down the raspberries to a cane. They annexed that vegetable kingdom, and they retain it still.”

 

Banner image – Hungerhill Gardens, St Ann’s Nottingham, c 1860’s – Nottingham City Council (photo credit Picture the past)

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

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.

Taihaku

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.

Taihaku
SLIMHANNYA, CC BY-SA 4.0

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

Sakura

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.