'The case for gardening with plants of historic interest, persuasively argued, as in David Stuart's Gardening with Antique Plants, necessarily encompasses a broad history of trends in domestic cultivation. Such historical background establishes the pedigree of plants the author recommends, the stages by which forms or types of garden evolved and the relationship between the two. Gardening with Antique Plants is written in a style that is informedly anecdotal - we learn, for example, that the double yellow wallflower Cheiranthus 'Harpur Crewe', named after the Victorian clergyman who 'discovered' it was probably known as early as 1580 - but the chief point is a serious one: antique plants have 'a character modern varieties cannot equal', and are often hardier than their modern descendants. Extensive plant lists include satisfyingly full individual entries and suppliers' details.'
I ARRIVED in the village
of @@@@, near Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border, with the
sweet whiff of revenge in my nostrils. Some years ago, David Stuart
wrote a nasty review of one of my books in the Scotsman. Now I heard
he had a book out himself.
I knocked on the door of his cottage on the village green and waited for its nitpicking occupant to answer. Disconcertingly, it was flung open by a plump, bearded man, radiating smiles and bonhomie. "Now, have you eaten? Can I cook you some lunch?" he asked. We were getting off to a bad start.
'Gardening with Antique Plants' is the title of his latest book, so I kicked off by asking: "What on earth is an antique plant?" "Anything that has been around for more than 100 years." And what is the point of knowing a plant is "antique"? So that we can all make "antique" gardens? "If you want," he said. "But really I am more interested in simply alerting people to the fact that plants have a history, that they have a resonance - and, if you are aware of it, your gardening is all the richer."
He gestured to a 3ft stand of Japanese anemones 'Honorine Jobert', with pure white saucers of flower (and which no gardener wanting trouble-free, late-season interest should overlook), growing in a shady corner of his garden. "Now, isn't it fun to know that this, or rather its almost identical wild form, was first collected by the plant-hunter Robert Fortune - a Berwickshire man - in 1844, from tombs built on the ramparts of Shanghai, and that he got it back to Britain only after escaping from pirates on the South China Sea?" asked Stuart. "And these tiger lilies." Tongues of flame-orange Turk's cap flowers from Lilium tigrinum were leaping into the air from a large pot. A stunning end-of-summer feature, I noted, and particularly good against a grey wall. "Did you know they are an ancient oriental food? The big yellow bulbs are steamed, as are those of the white Madonna lily, Lilium candidum." Had he tried any? Stuart chuckled. "No, I don't care for mucilaginous food, do you?" He reminded me that, in fact, many of our favourite bulbs, and other garden plants with fleshy under ground parts, had originally a been introduced as foodstuffs. When wild tulips first arrived from Turkey in 1562, the burghers of Antwerp set about eating them. They found the taste disgusting. It was only after they had chucked the surplus bulbs out side on a midden, where they subsequently flowered, that they realised what they had got. The winter-flowering hardy cyclamen C. coum was first cultivated - probably in Roman times - as a medicinal food for pigs. Dahlias were eaten by the Aztecs and first introduced into Europe as a vegetable.
It was hopeless. I liked Stuart's theme and I liked the man. He told me his interest in plants went way back. In fact, he has a doctorate in botany. "For a while I was a world authority on grape hyacinths (muscari), would you believe?" Does he have a big collection? " I can't bear to look at them any more." Understandable.
Until four years ago, he rana nursery in Belhaven, East Lothian, with James Sutherland. "We made this marvellous parterre in a 17th-century walled garden and the idea was to finance everything from plant sales. But we were just too remote. I was shattered having to sell up and couldn't think of gardening again for ages. We're only just starting again. "
His fascination with garden history was fuelled first by the period atmosphere of his Georgian house in Edinburgh and then of the garden at Belhaven. The nursery specialised in plants grown in Scotland before 1700. "I was rather purist then - I'm not any more - about people sticking to the right historic plants to match their house and setting." He wrote two books, Georgian Gardens and The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, the second of which I have often recommended, through clenched teeth, as an especially entertaining read and well worth hunting down in the library.
As for Gardening with Antique Plants, well, it is more or less a distillation of another of his earlier books, Plants from the Past, and, as is the way with modern gardening books, the emphasis here turns more on glamorous photos than meaty text. Nevertheless, enough of Stuart's message shines through to kindle new chains of thought back home. We all enjoy plants with personal associations - the rose from Aunt Agatha, the bamboo stolen from Chester Zoo (since given me my comeuppance by becoming the most invasive and ineradicable pest in the garden), the geranium smuggled back in the wash bag. Stuart points out the deeper vein of history and anecdote. Did you know, for instance that spinach was once used for fireworks? Paper soaked in its juice acts as touch paper. That the juices of purple monkshood (aconitum) were used to poison the tips of arrows? That strawberries used to be worn as decoration on ladies' bodices? That the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) was used as a cure for madness and melancholy, as well as arrow poison? That Chinese gardeners were selecting good forms of tree peony as far back as 700 AD? What a mine of little snippets I am going to be.
'Gardening with Antique Plants' (published by Conran Octopus) by David Stuart is available from Telegraph Books Direct for £25 plus £3 50 p&p. To order your copy, send a cheque for £28 50 to Telegraph Books Direct 24 Seward Street, London ECI V 3GB, or call 0541 557222. Please quote reference PA053.
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