We British as a nation have always liked to think of ourselves as excelling at freethinking, and breaking new ground. We hold a kind of rose-tinted affection for characters like ‘Alfred Russel Wallace… a public figure in England during the second half of the 19th century, known for his courageous views on scientific, social, and spiritualist subjects… His formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection… predated Charles Darwin’s published contributions‘.
Detail from Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Arcihpelago field study, 1854-1862 (Dutch East Indies)
Wallace, like Darwin and many others during the Victorian age, revelled in pioneering, swashbuckling tales of audacity and derring-do. In a similar mould, David Douglas, (of Douglas Fir fame) boldly went plant hunting:
‘Look, there’s the humble flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, whose rosy-red racemes mark the beginning of spring. This was introduced by David Douglas, as were lupins, California poppies and many of the conifers that are now staples of our arboretums and suburban gardens… Douglas paid for his discoveries with his life: he was killed in Hawaii at the age of 35 in a pit dug to trap wild bullocks.’ (Plant Hunters, Victoria Summerley, The Independent 2012)
Perhaps this independent, fighting spirit goes some way to explaining the British intractability and dislike of being ‘told what to do’, and our often obstinate refusal to have our national character ‘compromised’ in any way. On our travels through and past the Victorian age, we have taken the liberty of passing where, when and how we like, but remain sceptical of the rights of others to enjoy the same privileges in return.
Perhaps we believe that our role in developing significant scientific theories, ‘taking charge’ in the name of civilised society, and (when not meeting dramatic and bitter ends on our intrepid adventures) generally patronising the world at large and providing a kind of template for what an aspirational, civically-minded modern citizen should look like, are good enough reasons to continue.
In the C18, Like the British, the Dutch, the French and the Spanish were also busily building empires with the human wealth of regiments and commandeering small countries in honour of their sovereign rulers. Eminent plant hunters Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (accompanied by talented early botanical artists like Claude Aubriet) were expanding the plant palettes of their respective countries and creating incredible botanical art for the record.
So it seems that this outward looking, exploratory tendency has brought a world of diversity to our doorstep. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have been enough to sate our voracious appetites for novelty. George Shull (an American, no less) discovered something known as ‘hybrid vigour’ – the process of selecting desirable qualities through the mixing of material with distinct/diverse genetic differences to create a strong, uniform hybrid:
‘For over a century animal and plant biologists have known that mixing two diverse strains of a plant or animal can result in more vigorous and healthy offspring. This “hybrid vigour” was first shown by American Plant Scientist George Shull at the Station for Experimental Evolution, Cold Spring Harbor, in 1908 when he crossed two different corn strains resulting in a more vigorous hybrid…’
‘Hybrid offspring are called the first filial or “F1” generation, hence the term gardeners are familiar with when buying seed; ‘F1 hybrid’. To produce F1 hybrids, the farmer crosses two pure-bred parent strains. Often, these parent stocks are relatively small populations and hence are genetically rather uniform. For this reason, the hybrid offspring tend… to be more vigorous than their parents…’ The Difference: A Modern Genetic Perspective, channel 4, 2000
That said, it is difficult to quantify good and bad qualities, which in reality, are as far from binary as it is possible to get – is uniformity really a good quality, and is unattractiveness really a bad one if we are only going to eat something? Talking of bad qualities – we Europeans (for our sins) also spawned the Drumpft, who is allegedly descended from Scottish and German stock. Happily exported, and thoroughly naturalised abroad.
Genetic diversity (and indeed diversity in general) is also partly why we need open pollination and heirloom varieties too.
‘…we slowly came to realise that most modern varieties have been bred for the needs of large-scale chemical farming, where all aspects of the environment are controlled with fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.
After all, supermarkets demand shiny fruit, that are tough to survive shipping and display, and so these are what are being bred. But these commercial varieties give poor results when grown on a home scale without all their chemicals. And whatever has happened to qualities such as flavour and tenderness?’ Real Seeds
Even British natives, (now frequently hybridised beyond recognition) like Dianthus gratianopolitanus, were accidentally introduced along with early Norman stonework imported from northern France for the construction of castles and fortresses after the invasion of England by Norman Vikings in 1066.
So some of our most famous ‘natives’ were, in fact, secret stowaways, introduced by accident. No one ever seems to agree on the precise origins of a plant and the same often applies to people. Indeed in many cases, it does not appear possible to make a definitive case.
Convallaria majalis is often considered to be native to the UK, however: ‘It is often difficult to separate native and alien plants and the map must be regarded as an approximation’ (Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora)
Species seem to creep across continents and as climates change, they adapt. So what is a ‘true’ native – how can it be defined? Does it have inherent genetic weakness from millennia of breeding with only the true and ‘proper’ form, or does it enable noble and ‘pure’ lineage? Is a hybrid culture or material stronger because of its hybrid status? I have found investigation of this topic generates considerably more questions than it answers.
Jolly Old QE2, looking lovely. She’s a tiny bit German, you know.
Where exactly does the cutoff point lie, and is it ever possible to identify it? I am ‘White British’. But I am descended from Scotland, Ireland, Norfolk, (maybe some Dutch) Newcastle (maybe some Viking or Northern European), and Lancashire. And those are just the parts of my lineage I know about – should I decide to research my ancestry further, I’m sure I’d find a few surprises.
It’s complicated. Like me and my fellow inhabitants of the British Isles, many plant species are now completely naturalised and are not only valuable in terms of interest but now fully adapted to the climactic meteorological fripperies and caprices of the UK, of which there are multitudes (just in case you hadn’t noticed.)
Time, ‘What Science Says About Race and Genetics’, Nicholas Wade, 2014
Channel 4 ‘The Difference’, 2000
The Independent ‘The Plant Hunters’ Victoria Summerley, 2012
Real Seeds Online
Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora
The Origin of Plants, by Maggie Campbell-Culver
The Douglas Archives
Nelumbo nucifera, or the lotus, is an aquatic plant known for its ability to grow from brackish, muddy swampland – and perhaps a little-known emblem for peace and purity in some regions of the world. It’s completely unrealistic, but the sentiment here is irresistible: ‘…According to Hindu philosophy, human beings ought to live like a lotus flower in this wily, unscrupulous world, completely detached and pure hearted, untouched by evil forces.’
Lotus Flowers with A Landscape Painting in the Background. c. 1885-1900. Martin Johnson Heade, North Carolina Museum of Art
In many Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, the lotus is used repeatedly to represent inner peace and purity in much spiritual illustration. The idea that filth and pollution can be transcended and separated from earthly degeneration by meditating upon the lotus flower is seductive, although we all know purity and cleanliness are more likely to be achieved with graft and chemical karma: rivers of elbow grease, a giant lakesworth of Mr. Muscle (other cleaning products are available) and several reservoirs of bleach. The chemical angle doesn’t work for the mind, unfortunately. In Buddhism, the lotus is said to represent total purity of body, mind and speech: duck-like, its repellent qualities see water droplets slide from the smooth surface of the petals like mercury.
The Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding & standing on a lotus, Raja Ravi Varma ‘Lotus (he 荷, lian 莲) The lotus is the flower of the sixth month and summer. It is a symbol of purity because it rises out of the mud to bloom. Lotus blossoms are often depicted as a throne for the Buddha, and the lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism (ba jixiang 八吉祥).’
Jiezi Yuan Huazhuan, Lotus Flowers (Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual)
‘Legend has it that the 14th day of June in the Chinese lunar calendar is the lotus’s birthday, commonly known as the Lotus Festival. This custom originated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279)’
There is an annual lotus festival in Guangzhou, China: ‘Guangzhou’s Fanyu District is the ideal location for this picturesque outdoor event, with its many waterways, ponds and lakes… The Lotus Flower Festival showcases over 280 different varieties of lotuses, with a total of around 15,000 individual flowers on display.’
The lotus is not just vital to Indian and Chinese depictions of inner peace and purity, but was also central to ancient Egyptian culture and symbolism. Because the flower closes at night and reopens at dawn, it was used repeatedly in the applied arts to symbolise rebirth and regeneration – an archetypal Egyptian preoccupation.
Egyptian Lotus Chalice, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA
Probably a more universally recognised symbol of peace, the olive branch, inhabits the collective consciousness as a traditional peace offering.
Olea europaea, Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen 229, by Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen
‘Early Christian art often depicts a dove flying and holding an olive branch in its beak. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and it brings the olive branch (a symbol of peace) down to the people on Earth. Christian tradition also adds a dove carrying an olive branch to the story of Noah and his ark, a sign for Noah and his family that the flood and storm had finally ended after 40 days and 40 nights.’
Olive Trees, Vincent Willem van Gogh
One of the oldest living olive specimens can be seen at the Garden of Gethsemane. Ironically, plumb in the middle of a religious conflict which has been going on for as long as I can remember.
One of the oldest olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, by Bogdan Kosar
Pablo Picasso, Colombe de L’Avenir 1962, featuring a dove carrying an olive branch.
Picasso was an active member of the communist party from 1944 until his death in 1973 and a dedicated advocate for peace:
‘In 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Picasso joined the Communist Party and became an active participant of the Peace Movement. In 1949, the Paris World Peace Conference adopted a dove created by Picasso as the official symbol of the various peace movements. The USSR awarded Picasso the International Stalin Peace Prize twice…’ Therein lies yet more irony.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
The Lotus Temple or Bahai House of Worship, New Delhi, designed by Fariborz Sahba
Imagine, by John Lennon
Organisations for Plants and Peace
‘Plant for Peace is an initiative designed specifically to assist rural communities and smallholder farmers in conflict and post conflict territories around the world to achieve food security and sustainable economic development thereby contributing to stability by empowering communities to become self sufficient through sustainable agriculture and trade.’
Julia Ward Howe
Two Bobs – Dylan and Marley
The Dalai Lama
John Lennon & Yoko Ono
St. Francis of Assissi
All images Wikimedia Commons, with the exception of ‘Peace Signed Official’ Headline from the Pall Mall Gazette, below (Imperial War Museum Archive)
Pace Paix Pax say Peace in every language
Placard for the Pall Mall Gazette. Refers to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
Imperial War Museum, London Art.IWM PST 12972
Notes: The Nobel Peace Prize, first awarded in 1901, is an invaluable resource for finding out more about individuals and organisations widely considered to have made outstanding contributions to world peace.
Officially it has now been British Summertime for some weeks. However I’m still reclining on the sofa in a cold-weather slump, wearing a zebra-print onesie and day-glo green legwarmers, wishing I hadn’t thrown away my worn out winter friendly yeti-slippers. I should be sashaying langourously in my resplendent garden dripping with lush fertile beauty, while being fanned by an unwaveringly devoted team of eunuch puckawallahs, anointed with platinum and gold-leaf paint, kohled to within an inch of my life, massaged, depilated, scrubbed, and generally worshipped in a fanatical and obsessive fashion. Needless to say I’m a notorious daydreamer and this is hardly likely to happen, even with the most benevolent of summers and the very best of future outcomes.
The nearest I can get is to run a steaming hot bath in my tiny bathroom overlooking the garden, open the window and apply as many exotic and fanciful unguents to my body and hair as I possibly can, preferably containing copious quantities of argan oil, cocoa butter, coconut oil, orange oil, and other similarly beautifying and olfactory delights.
Should I suddenly transmogrify into a modern-day Cleopatra (for some reason I am channelling Kim Kardashian here) – and I could have a garden anywhere in the world, it would probably be in the one of the most fecund riverside regions imaginable, with a dreamy climate and the finest alluvial soil known to humanity. I wouldn’t marry Kanye though, just for the record.
Somewhere a bit like ancient Egypt, perhaps? Mesapotamian Babylonia? Or maybe the Hanging Gardens of Basingstoke are a little more realistic – if quite a lot less glamorous. Glamorous they may not be, but interesting they most certainly are. The gardens are at Mountbatten House, Basingstoke and were built between 1974 and 1976. They have recently been added to English Heritage’s stable of postwar architecturally notable buildings and landscaped areas.
‘Director of designation at English Heritage Roger Bowdler said: “…These offices show how architecture has adapted to recent radical changes in how we work, they show how the open-plan working space for computer-led work came about, and how architects responded to the need for lettable, attractive spaces with ingenuity and a deep understanding of human needs.”‘ (HortWeek, Jan 28 2015)
Enough of Basingstoke. Onwards to my palace. No self-respecting Egyptian (or Basingstoke) Queen could go without a fig or two (Ficus carica) and I would have to have figs that looks as good as they taste, so I would have a whole palace wall full of Ficus carica ‘Panache’.
I would alternate ‘Panache’ with a dark purple, brunette bruise of a fig like Ficus ‘Violette De Solliès’ as a brooding counterpoint to the blonde elegance of Panache. I would only want impeccably pruned fruit from trees inspired by other royal palaces, though, and I would be far too busy pampering myself for gardening. So I’d employ a team of gardeners to do a West Dean Gardens job in the walled garden (in this case, the pruning was inspired by a visit to the Potager de Roi at Versailles). But I might have to interfere from time to time in a regal manner.
As Queen, you have many responsibilities, so it would obviously be impossible to survive without getting elegantly wasted from time to time. Or at least wasted. For this you would need a vineyard, full of the choicest grape varieties known to man. It simply wouldn’t be seemly to go without impossibly huge dripping bunches of grapes with dewy-fresh bloom to decorate your solid gold table receptacles. And, of course, for your minions to feed to you in front of the company.
The next royal plant would have to be the pomegranate (Punica granatum, literally meaning many-seeded apple, or pome) -only matched in beauty by its immense mythological and symbolic reputation. I would have a grove of these. Preferably on a gentle slope, so I could enjoy the jewel-like ornamentation of the fruits, dripping down the hillside. I’d have rare Iranian black pomegranates interspersed here and there for a little variety. Legend has it that monks in medieval Yorkshire managed to grow black pomegranates in walled courtyard gardens before the Reformation and inspired some of the beverages associated with the Temperance Movement, including Hebden Bridge ‘Black Pome Mead’*
Pomegranates not only look incredible in flower and in fruit, but they are also a superfood stuffed to the brim with antioxidants, essential for detox. I might even be impelled to wallpaper my dressing room with Morris lemon and pomegranate print in reverence.
Before the detox, I would get my personal mixologist to work on my cocktails – using real grenadine for my Tequila Sunrise, of course. All you need to know about pomegranates can be found here. (I could elucidate, but that’s another post).
After all that booze, a girl needs a bit of body maintenance the morning after the night before. So I would ask my mixologist for a Shirley Temple, then I’d send my Moroccan beauty guru out to the Argania spinosa grove, which would be within a stone’s throw of the palace so my minions could whip up a few artisan argan oil hair products to make my tumbling locks shinier and silkier than the surface of the Nile at twilight.
I would also have to have citrus groves. You cannot have cocktails without citrus fruits – so a grove of oranges, lemons and limes would be de rigeur. These would be perfect for vitamin C after all that overindulgence, not to mention indispensible for making a myriad of cleansing balms and lotions. My grounds would not be complete without a brace of Prunus dulcis and persica, to provide me with almond milk and peach kernel oil for my delicate complexion; not to mention some more very tasty fruit and nuts.
When my primping and preening was complete for the day, I may consider turning my attentions to affairs of the heart. Then I would send one of my messengers on a love quest with paper made from Cyperus papyrus; love letters for only the most privileged of my devoted admirers. Cyperus would look beautiful submerged in a rill in my interior courtyard, too.
Neither could I forego Phoenix dactylifera. I would have as many dates as possible, to furnish my palace with stately and imposing palms and to keep a girl at leisure properly occupied and entertained in the manner befitting. Just call me HRH.
A few more regal plants I could not be without:
Indigofera, for fabric dye.
Alliums, for ornamentation, dye, flavourings and for medicinal preparations.
Coffea arabica. Enough said.
Theobroma cacao. Ditto.
Lilium sp, for cut flowers.
Piper nigrum, for spicing things up.
Vanilla planifolia, for perfume and flavouring sweet dishes.
Cocos nucifera, for beauty products and flavouring.
Olea europea, for oil, olives and beauty products.
Salix alba, for aspirin – after all those goblets of wine and grenadine cocktails.
*This is complete balderdash, unfortunately. I wish it were true. NB The actual ‘Temperance Movement’ – not to be confused with one of these new-fangled bands, as the equally new-fangled Google and YouTube might suggest. Kids today *tuts*
Track of the Month
Book of the Month
Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare.
As an ‘evegalist’, I should really be extolling the invernal virtues of curly kale and brussels sprouts, but my heat and light longings induce visions of Carribean promise, and the sweetest of all bromeliads, the pineapple.
The pineapple is an unlikely symbol of the British will to succeed in growing something entirely inappropriate against all the odds. For me, it is synonymous with ostentatious carved Victorian gateposts and finials, carnival, glamorous cocktails, the tropics, Barry Manilow – and by loose tropical-themed association, Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ and Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’. I’m sure I recall pineapple motifs in the 1980’s, too, but I may have just made that up*. I certainly remember plenty of school discos serving cheese and pineapple hedgehogs and doing a ridiculous dance to Black Lace’s classic ‘Agadoo’, which seemed to involve a great deal of inexplicable pineapple-pushing.
The pineapple (Ananas comosus) is a fascinating plant, which lends itself naturally to design, (even harbouring the famously harmonious Fibonacci sequence, manifest in the ovules). The sequence is visible as raised, diamond shaped segments on the husk, which connected, form diagonal spirals around the entire fruit.
‘The Paraná-Paraguay river drainage basin is thought to be the region where the pineapple originated. It was also the home of the Tupi-Guaraní Indian tribe. . . ‘Ananas’ comes from the Tupi word nanas, meaning ‘excellent fruit’, as recorded by André Thevet in 1555. . . ‘comosus’ means tufted, and refers to the stem of the fruit. . . (it) is a perennial monocotyledonous plant with terminal inflorescence and fruit.’¹
Christopher Columbus, on his epic and impossible-seeming sea voyage, was the first European to taste a pineapple in Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1843 – but people didn’t figure out how to grow them until 1719, when the first greenhouse fruits were cultivated.
Fruit and vegetable growing went on to become a competitive sport amongst the Victorians, who strove to grow all the most elusive and exotic hothouse fruit and flowers in order to impress their eminent houseguests. ‘Rare, exotic and hard to grow, Pineapples were a symbol of great status and wealth in Victorian times. ‘A pineapple on your dining table meant you were a person of discernment, style and affluence’².
If money were no object, and I could buy any house, anywhere, my money would have to be on the Dunmore Pineapple, Falkirk. Not only is it an immensely eccentric piece of British architecture, it presides over a huge walled garden, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) used to house numerous pineapple pits and glasshouses. And you can actually stay here, in the gardener’s annexes flanking the pineapple. Heaven.
‘The Pineapple is an elaborate summerhouse of two storeys, built for the 4th Earl of Dunmore. Though classical and orthodox at ground level, it grows slowly into something entirely vegetable; conventional architraves put out shoots and end as prickly leaves of stone. It is an eccentric work, of undoubted genius, built of the very finest masonry. To house the gardeners, stone bothies were built on either side of The Pineapple and it is in these that you stay. . .
It probably began as a pavilion of one storey, dated 1761, and only grew its fruity dome after 1777, when Lord Dunmore was brought back, forcibly, from serving as Governor of Virginia. There, sailors would put a pineapple on the gatepost to announce their return home. Lord Dunmore, who was fond of a joke, announced his return more prominently’³
When I think of some of the achievements of the Victorian age – the incredible, labyrinthine and still-functioning drains under London, numerous engineering conundrums in the form of improbable bridges, huge, towering iron behemoths and multiple industry-fuelling engines of mammoth proportions – growing a pineapple seems small beer. Horticulturally, however, it is no mean feat. Dedication and constant cossetting is mandatory for pineapple maintenance. I have seen it done with great success at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, where they have what they believe to be the United Kingdom’s ‘…only pineapple pit, the only working, manure-heated pineapple pit in Britain today. It was unearthed in 1991 and architectural and horticultural historians spent many months researching the history of its construction and technology. The first structure here was probably built in the eighteenth century’†.
From this incredibly labour intensive and high maintenance Victorian affectation, the pineapple grew to symbolise wealth and fecundity, which (in a highly ironic about turn) in the modern world is more likely to be seen as emblematic of an excessive consumer thirst for exotic curiosity, and comes at a price: the ubiquity of intensive farming, monoculture, environmentally and socially damaging growing practices and unsustainable air-miles. Maybe I will have a kale and sprout superfood powershake instead of a piña colada after all.
Track of the Month
Wham! ‘Club Tropicana‘ Party staple of my school discos in the 1980’s, and featuring George Michael, object of my (sadly misdirected) pre-adolescent desires.
Book of the Month
‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life’, an inspiring book by one of my favourite authors of all time, Barbara Kingsolver. A highly political slow-food rollercoaster about the Kingsolver family’s decision to take a militant pro-local food stance and give the twos-up to massive agribusiness, intensive farming, chemical-peddling, gene-manipulating multinational corporations. An illuminating book to inspire and educate fledgling heirloom gardeners and smallholders to continue with their struggle to grow diverse, locally produced food selected for flavour, and perhaps even adapted to local conditions. (The Seed Savers exchange is well worth a look if crop diversity and heritage cultivars are your bag).
*I did a quick poll on social media about this, and found that my memory was not as bad as had I feared.
The National Trust for Scotland
¹Natural History Museum
²†Lost Gardens of Heligan
³The Landmark Trust
Anton Seder Prints, Images courtesy Panteek, Wikimedia Commons
All other photos: Wikimedia Commons
A tree turning leaf from verdant green to fiery vibrancy is like nature’s lightbulb moment – a flash of brilliance before winter sets in. The riotous conclusion, hidden since budbreak, appears from almost nowhere. Mother nature throws up her showgirl-skirt ruffles with abandon; flashes us her rainbow knickerbockers and chucks on her gaudiest baubles.
This sudden flash of brilliance soon gives way to the sedate evergreens and minimal silhouettes of winter. November is a month when glow, hue and luminescence are at the forefront of the imagination; the absence of summer colours and sunny brightness gives way to the brazen blaze of senescent fire you find in autumn colours, the reds, oranges, yellows and pinks which light up the grey skies like an open fire in a windowless boxroom.
Lux, lx, illuminance. Lumen, lm, luminous flux. Watt, W, power, radiant flux. These are scientific terms used to describe and measure the levels and power of light. One of the eminent founders (or ‘Lunarticks’) of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, James Watt – was responsible for coining the term ‘horsepower’ and was named for the measurement of radiant flux, or ‘watts’. The Lunar society were a group of industrialists and philosophers at the forefront of the ‘Birmingham Enlightenment’, who met monthly on the Sunday falling nearest to the full moon, between 1765 and 1813. They remain esteemed as one of Britain’s most significant and influential groups of active pre-industrialists, the original ‘ideas’ men.
One of my own early ‘lightbulb’ moments during my misspent youth in Yorkshire involved badgering my parents to take me and my friends across the perilous border into Lancashire to see a ridiculous amount of lightbulbs all in one place and make ourselves frightfully sick on the big dipper. Yes, the multiple highlights of Blackpool seemed to me to be the height of fun in the 1980’s. It certainly beats sitting in a wet field watching my dad turn the headlights of our Ford Cortina on and off on the Widdop Road c.1985. Incidentally, Strictly Come Dancing hailed from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom on Saturday 15 November (where if you went back in time, you could also see an eight year-old me dancing to the famous Wurlitzer organ). Lightbulb overload.
For an alternative route to illumination, you could swing east to Parcevall Hall Gardens and religious retreat for an almost impossibly contrasting experience. Enveloped in the undulating Wharfedale-towards-Nidderdale hillscape of North Yorkshire, Parcevall Hall was created in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s by one of the founding members of RHS Harlow Carr – W.P Milner. Parcevall Hall is now owned by the Diocese of Bradford and is still used as a religious and spiritual retreat today.
Milner was a devout man with a penchant for rare Chinese and Tibetan plants. He laid out his garden in the late 1920’s utilising natural outcrops of rock for his famous rockeries, and copious quantities of gritstone from the hall’s dedicated quarry were hauled down to shore up the immense buttresses he used to contain his ambitious cruciform terracing.
The result is a dramatic (and slightly gothic) combination of intriguing eastern planting, (much of which is characterised by vivid autumn foliage or berries) framed by immaculate, imposing stonework and structural, geometric hedgework.
Many old and heritage apple cultivars can be found here, and the bright palette reminds me that the traditional garlanding and decoration we see at winter festivals are all about bringing light and colour to the oppressive seasonal darkness and are undoubtedly inspired by the natural ornamentation we see on our native trees and in the hedgerows: Ilex aquifolium, Euonymus europaeus, Taxus baccata, and Malus species, fruits and berries beading the boughs well into winter.
Two works of art about light in the darkness, ideas as illumination – literally and metaphorically – sparks, inspiration and transformation.
Track of the Month
High Voltage, by Electric Six. Coincidentally, also from Detroit, Michigan – where Nocturne In Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket currently resides. Currently? See what I did there – I’m on (electrical) fire. Somebody pass the fire extinguisher.
Book of the Month
The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810, by Jenny Uglow
Plant of the Month
Rosa moyesii ‘Sealing Wax’, a species rose collected by all-things-eastern enthusiast W.P Milner in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
All images my own, with the exception of the landscape photograph of Blackpool Tower and the Illuminations and the botanical drawing featured at the end of the post, which are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Since we discovered how to transform plants into articles of clothing, as an inherently creative species, we have probably also pondered how we can beautify and enhance an unnecessarily dull piece of garb and elevate it in order to make a more decorative and interesting garment. Perhaps rather like the lady in this wonderful Mexican-inspired assemblage. Creative.
Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of dyeing comes from Mohenjo-daro, or ‘The Mound of the Dead’ in the Sindh province in Pakistan.
Textile (cotton) artefacts have been recovered from the archaeological site, which was a huge settlement and one of the first notable early ‘cities’ in the modern sense of the word. The artefacts recovered from Sindh have included pieces of cotton dyed with a madder-based (Rubia tinctorum) vegetable dye, and Indigo, (Indigofera tinctoria) from an ancient dyeworks:
‘One of the greatest accomplishments of the subcontinent was the development of the technology of dyeing and patterning of fabric. This is evident from the discovery of a dyer’s workshop at Mohenjodaro. . Indigofera tinctoria, source of the most fabled dye, grew in abundance on the banks of the River Indus. Over time various embroidery techniques were developed in the quest to further embellish the fabrics’ (Article from The Free Library, Bilgrami, Noorjehan, 2008)
Common madder (Rubia tinctorum) produces anthraquinone pigments in its roots, one of them being alizarin (1,2 dihydroxy anthraquinone) which has been used for dyeing textiles since 2000 B.C.’
The incredibly long, thick roots of the common madder (Rubia tinctorum) are a source of red dyes generally known as ‘rose madder’ and ‘turkey red‘, the intensity of the final colour depending on the type and amount of mordant (dye fixing agent) used.
A celebration of colour in India, the spring festival of Holi (translated as ‘burning’) sees the fury and vibrancy of reds and oranges, cadmiums, and siennas, moody blues and verdant greens thrown every which way over the human body.
Primarily, Holi is a celebration of the beginning of the new season. There is also evidence in Indian literature that it has been a celebration of agriculture, good spring harvests and fertility – (which has latterly been transposed onto married women). In the Hindu faith, it is commonly seen as a time to enjoy the new proliferation of spring colours.
Some participants in Holi still prepare plant-based pigments derived from Butea monosperma, a beautiful tree with flaming blossoms indigenous to tropical and sub-tropical Asia. The flowers are crushed to yield a bright yellow dye.
The festival ushers in the dominance of good over evil and the arrival of spring. Traditionally it is a day of forgiveness and an opportunity to socialise, heal rifts in relationships, and generally have a darn good hoot. Holi is celebrated at the approach of vernal equinox, and is closely linked with the full moon falling closest to it.
As a colour steeped in mystery and royal mythology, purple is an interesting colour case history. ‘Royal Purple’ or Tyrian Purple, was the colour of choice for the gods and kings of the ancient Greeks (and more latterly of diminutive purple pop-professor Prince – legend has it he still insists of Tyrean methods to embellish his raiments. (Not actually true).
The purple dye known as Tyrean or Royal Purple was extracted from the mucous glands of Mediterranean Murex brandaris (a species of mollusc) by the Canaanites and Phoenicians. It was initially extremely costly and time consuming to extract – four million molluscs for one pound of dye (hence the preserve of the regal).
The pauper’s version of Royal Purple could be simulated using a lichen, Roccella tinctoria. Unfortunately it was just as stinky and unpleasant as the Phoenician city of Tyre (famed for Tyrean Purple) and its overwhelming stench of rotting shellfish, because it requires weeks of steeping in ammonia (or piss, to you and me) for the colour to bind.
While Royal Purple is not derived from plants, composite purple dyes can be made by mixing blue dye extracted from Isatis tinctoria (woad) and Indigofera tinctoria (Indigo) with Rubia tinctorum, (common madder).
Other plants capable of producing purple shades are Morus nigra (Mulberry), Bryonia dioica (white bryony) and Caesalpinia echinata (Brazilwood) using sulphuric acid (or vitriol) as a mordant. I often employ vitriol myself on people I don’t like. Not the acid version – that would be GBH. Just the less harmful ‘ascerbic tongue’, which runs in the family. And I usually keep it to myself, (where possible).
‘Mauveine’, ‘Perkin’s Mauve’, or ‘Aniline Purple’ was the first synthetic chemical dye to be invented. It was discovered by William Henry Perkin by accident in 1856, in a failed attempt to sythesize quinine.
Usually I include a Hebden Bridge quip but I can’t find many reasons to joke this week. Before the height of the Industrial Revolution in West Yorkshire, I’ve heard anecdotes that the river Calder was hopping with salmon. From 1850 onwards, there were no fish stocks left, largely as a result of the chemical runoff industrial dyeworks discharged along the banks.
As a child growing up in Hebden Bridge, I still saw what appeared to be similar practices happening from time to time well into the 1980’s. Apparently fish are now beginning to reappear.
Track of the Week
‘Purple Rain’, by Prince
Also highly recommended viewing: ‘A History of Art in Three Colours’ a triptych of programmes with Dr. James Fox commissioned by BBC4 in 2012.
Book of the Week
‘The Colour Purple’, by Alice Walker
More Blogs on Plant Dyes and the Iconography of Colour
I have used what appear to be reliable sources, you can find further information on these by clicking on the links. Where I have quoted directly I have provided further information.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, attributions stated where necessary
Have you ever heard of Extreme Makeover? In a nutshell, it is about aesthetically-challenging people who have had a gutfull of being ‘social outcasts’ because of their unfortunate, or at best plain, countenances.
The fairy godmother of plastic surgery visits her scalpel of sparkly benevolence upon these poor poky-folks and hey presto! Flappyjowells bignose is miraculously transformed into a perfectly-primped identikit pageant princess (or male equivalent).
Plants undergo similar feats of transmogrification, but unlike Extreme Makeover the finished product usually ends as a more useful manifestation. Although I love him, I’m not sure this applies to infamous plastic surgery survivor Pete Burns (pictured below)
Crazy Pete has reminded me that rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) , for example, constitutes a rich and interesting seam of black plant magic.
Rubber is native to Native to the Amazon region; Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia and is cultivated in large plantations. The sap is tapped from strips on the bark of the tree (clearly visible as diagonal stripes on the tree trunks).
‘Tapping begins when trees are 5–8 years old . . . and increases every year until a maximum at about 20 years, then yield sustained for 40–50 years or more. Tapping consists of removal by excision of a thin cut of bark about 1 mm deep at regular intervals, thus opening the latex vessels in the bark. . . arranged in concentric cylinders and run in counter-clockwise spirals up the trunk. Usually the cuts run half-way around the trunk, but may encircle the tree’ (Purdue University)
‘. . .latex coagulates with the aid of acetic acid, formic acid, and alum. . Seeds are source of Para Rubber seed oil, recommended for manufacture of soap. Although poisonous, seeds can be eaten as a famine food after processing. Boiling removes the poison and releases the oil which can be utilized for illumination.’ (Purdue University)
Rubber is of course infinitely malleable, and so the product range is indeterminately gargantuan.
Modern pneumatic tyres are generally a mixture of materials, including synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, as well as carbon black and other chemical compounds. Carbon black is almost pure elemental carbon in ‘colloidal particle form’, made by charring organic material.
Of course there are the obvious everyday rubber items we take for granted – rubber wellington boots, buttons on electronic devices, and rubber bands – to name but a few. Then there are the distinctly non-traditional uses. Look away now if you’re squeamish, (you can’t unsee this once you’ve looked).
What I really love about this picture is the ‘Calamari’ sign – calamari infamous for being. . . well, rubbery. These enterprising chaps have mixed leather and latex with applomb. Congratulations, boys.
Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is another amazing plant, used in the modern textile industry as the core material for natural fibre clothing all over the world. It is a beautiful plant belonging to the illustrious genus Malvacae, which includes floral stunners Hibiscus and Abutilon.
Unfortunately the cotton industry is and has been notoriously bloody, as well as being demanding to grow and subsequently environmentally unsustainable as a crop: ‘More chemicals are sprayed on cotton than on any other crop. Today cotton takes up less than 3% of the world’s farmed land but uses a quarter of the world’s pesticides!’
‘The cotton trade was a driving force in the Industrial Revolution and helped to finance the British Empire. It was the mainstay of the slave trade and contributed to the American civil war’ (Eden Project)
Here comes the Hebden Bridge joke. Hebdeners: we even have the cotton industry to blame for the addition of Todmorden as a stop on the Leeds-Manchester railway line. One of the Fielden Bros, a Todmorden based worsted and textile company – John Fielden – was on the railway’s board of directors and used his influence to ensure that Todmorden had a station.
John was an interesting chap, too, and was ‘a radical reformer, a supporter of universal manhood suffrage, promoter of the 10 Hours Act of 1847, and opponent of the 1834 New Poor Law Act’ (The National Archives). Human rights and conservaton issues are not something you see modern companies campaigning for enough, with the exception of a handful of forward thinkers like Katherine Hamnett, Vivienne Westwood and creative director of Eco Age Livia Firth.
Another bloody trade, diamonds. Diamonds consist of highly compressed carbon molecules, and only form at extremely high temperatures in the Earth’s mantle at least 100 miles below the surface. Some organic carbon is made from ancient microorganisms (plants and animals), which reappears hundreds of millions of years later as eclogitic diamonds. Other types of carbon come from stardust and meteorites. Poetic.
Album of the Week
An album instead of the usual track: Rubber Soul, by The Beatles
Many of Eva Hesse ‘s works were made using latex. Here you can watch one of SFMOMA’s curators talking about her use of the material, and read about her extremely interesting but short life in this Telegraph article from 2009.
Book of the Week
An account of the psychological fallout of the slave trade, ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison
Kew, Purdue University (Rubber)
The Eden Project , The National Archives (Cotton)
Geology.com, About.com, photius.com (Diamonds)
Images Wikimedia Commons
Eva Hesse (SFMOMA)