Home > cultural commentary > Plants and egos, a Victorian legacy

Plants and egos, a Victorian legacy

Not your average English garden; cycads at Lost Gardens of Heligan

I found myself having to make an unplanned, unexpected trip to Cornwall about 10 days ago. The details aren’t important, though in the course of the trip I ended up visiting the Lost Gardens of Heligan – and that’s what prompted this post.

The Lost Gardens aren’t ‘lost’ in any literal sense, though perhaps until recently they were in a metaphysical one. They’re quite close to Mevagissey and St Austell and cover over 200 acres. They just got somewhat untended and overgrown after the First World War, when the owner of the estate, Jack Tremayne, went to live in Italy. By ‘somewhat overgrown’, what I mean is that it’s taken a huge team of volunteers around 20 years to hack it back and make it look somewhat like the old estate plans show it would have been in the 1800s.

And that’s really what this post is about: the huge egos that went into creating the gardens in the first place.

What, for example, would you make of a squire who decides to wants oatmast variety apple trees in his orchard and, discovering they’re almost extinct, sets about saving the variety because that specific type of apple is particularly good for stuffing pheasant? Somehow I don’t think he was saying that in a joking way either.

The late 1800s were a period in which the landed gentry treated their gardens and estates as status symbols, in much the same way as the rich today regard their cars, yachts and penthouses. The Tremaynes commissioned plant-hunters to find them new varieties of rhododendron from Asia, and after rumours emerged of a hitherto unknown species of tree in China (Davidia involucrata – a French missionary, Father David, discovered an example and had it sent to Paris) they arranged for a British plant-hunter to find one and bring it back.

Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) at Heligan

The plant-hunters are another example of this Victorian attitude, swashbuckling types who travelled the world collecting seeds and plants, often undertaking trips of several years at a time, and often in conflict with the authorities in the places they went to. They were in deadly competition with others – sometimes in a literal sense – and it wasn’t unknown for a collector, having discovered some new specimen, to try to destroy others in the area to prevent other collectors from acquiring them.

And all this was done from motives of social status, overinflated egos, hard cash and greed. The people who did the collecting were often little better than bandits and the landowners little better than tyrants (look at the gardeners’ quarters at Heligan for visual proof!).

But here’s the rub: many rare species ended up in country house estates, or in national botanical houses in Western countries, where they were tended and cared for. The people who did all these bad things, ironically, ended up making seed banks that have come to be increasingly important scientifically and environmentally as many native habitats have come under threat.

  1. September 13, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    as I was reading this, that’s what I was thinking – because of their arrogance (the use of the word in my mind is too impolite to use!) we now have these species.
    we have an apple tree that in our yard that’s quite ancient imported from England. I am completely unfamiliar with it as it bears deep mahogany almost purplish apples…very bizarre and i have not bit into one. I would like to have it identified.

  2. September 13, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Arrogance is a good word for their attitude, I think.

    I’m not any kind of plant expert but you can check out pictures and descriptions of apples at http://www.pickyourown.org/apples.htm (which lists when they ripen and what kind of cooking they’re good for) or a larger list at http://www.allaboutapples.com/varieties/.

  3. September 15, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    my goodness! I had no idea there were so many apple varieties!
    thanks for the links – that was fun, but I don’t I’ll be able to recognize my own tree. I’ll have someone come look one of these days.

  4. September 16, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    I’m still surprised by the varieties of all sorts of plants – the mail order catalogues we get for seeds will list 20-30 varieties of many flowers, representing I guess a couple of centuries of horticulturalists trying to give nature a helping hand in order to get the particular shade of red they want to match some other planting, or change the time at which the flowers come, or improve the ability to grow in certain soil conditions, or whatever.

    Arrogance and money have played their part across the whole of the plant world, though there are also plenty of attempts now to go back to older varieties and preserve them. Apparently this is a big thing with roses at the moment, and there are clear differences between many of the current tightly-packed petals of recent varieties and the blowsy look of older ones. I’m not remotely an expert but it’s an interesting area, and one with intrigues that have occasionally spawned stories and novels – Dumas’ ‘The Black Tulip’ is an obvious example.

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