A dream

March 10, 2018

A few of the pre-Victoriam camellias at Chiswick House

Here’s my fantasy. A hackney cab picks up a nurseryman from his Brompton Road nursery. They call at a house in Park Lane to collect an important customer who is a fanatical collector of new plants from China. Together they rattle on, down to the Strand to take a wherry to the new docks at Blackwall, just opened in 1806 for the biggest merchant ships of all, the 1000-ton East Indiamen. The Cumberland, Captain Euen Campbell, has been signalled from Gravesend, where she had stopped to lighten her cargo. Her huge four-deck bulk is being handled through the dock gates into the Import Dock. Our plantsmen go aboard to collect their prize from the captain’s hands; two new camellias never seen before in Britain.

Some of the camellias flowering in the Conservatory at Chiswick House this month are the plants brought over in the Company’s ships. Looking at the towering bush of Rubra Plena, one of the first to arrive, you can see what the excitement was about: a shiny-leaved evergreen bearing countless double bright red flowers. Moreover camellias are marvellously genetically unstable. You never knew what their seed might produce in the way of colours. You could pay £5000 for a plant with brightly blotchy red and white flowers; its offspring could be indifferent pink. The plant named as Variegata produced a seedling that is now called Alba Simplex – the name describes it perfectly. Not variegated at all.

The Duke of Devonshire finished his beautiful 300 foot long conservatory in the 1820s, a few years after my fantasy starts. Some of the camellias flowering in it today are originals; have seen the Southern Ocean. Most are their offspring, or at least descendants. Some have names referring to their importers, or the captains or the ships that carried them, like the ancient madeiras, another precious cargo, still to be seen in Savannah, Georgia. Others lost their identity along the way. Some now have trunks six feet round.

Fifteen years ago they were on their last legs. The conservatory was falling to bits; they were starving and infested with scale. Then the Camellia Society rode to the rescue. Today they are worth travelling to see. Are they the only camellias with this kind of pedigree? This month the Camellia Society is coming to Holland Park to see the dozen veteran plants along the wall of the Victorian orangery. It would be good to know their history, too.

Curtains for olives?

March 2, 2018

This will be the test of what we smug Londoners call ‘hardy’. I was young (and hardier myself) when I last saw streets and gardens full of snow like this, or felt this sort of cold.

Luckily the snow had already started to lie before the temperature dropped to minus 5; there will be an element of insulation for what’s in the ground. Our fears are for what is exposed, and specially for our fruitful Meyer’s lemon tree; now 30 years in its pot, having spent the past five deprived of any sun on our north-facing veranda (but carrying a promising crop of juvenile lemons).

We shall see how this, an oleander and a four-foot rosebud pelargonium stand up to it. We have wrapped the lemon up these past two nights in a shroud of fleece – which won’t of course, improve the temperature; it will simply moderate the wind-chill.

There’s nothing I can do to protect our precious blue Potato Bush, Solanum rantonettii, waving its many stems high above the wall and the greenhouse. All its leaves have gone now, some into the goldfish tank (where I hope they won’t prove solanaceously toxic). My other worry is for Iochroma (or Acnistus) australe, come to think if it another potatoid plant. There is a well-established bush in the Chelsea Physic Garden that flowers all summer, but down by the Thames these things are famously favoured. There was a big olive tree there long before they became common decorations. What, I wonder, will happen to all the dinky olives in pots on doorsteps? Our iochroma has been many years in a 10 inch pot, trained as a little standard, lovely when hung with its long blue bells. Frozen roots are not a good idea.

In due course we shall see the butcher’s bill. This looks like a costly winter for gardeners, and possibly a prosperous spring for the nurseries.



Sweet and singular

February 23, 2018

Edgeworthia chrysantha and Daphne bohlua

There are winter scents that can stop you in your tracks. Sarcococca is perhaps the most frequent these days; it seems to have matriculated from confidential to common in the past few years. Mahonia japonica has its sweet lily of the valley smell; daphnes are indispensable, viburnums almost universal. Winter honeysuckle becomes effusive indoors. Which insects deserve this outlay of perfume I’m not sure; the garden is certainly not buzzing with them. I would add Edgeworthia to this pantheon. It should, in the time-honoured phrase, be planted more often.

I have one particular plant in mind; one that shares a narrow north-facing London front garden with a champion Daphne bohlua. The edgeworthia measures nine feet across and six or seven high, a nest of twenty pliable, rather bare stems, yellowish in colour, each terminated by a white and bright yellow knob, covered  all over with silky white hairs, containing fifty or so little tubular flowers. Scents are notoriously hard to describe; this is sweet and singular, with a hint of lilac, and in combination with the daphne, crosses the roadway to arrest you.

Edgeworthia chrysantha is the one you will see most (but not very) often. There is a bright orange scarlet (presumably Welsh) form called Red Dragon, but I found that hard to grow. Who was Edgeworth? An Anglo-Irish adventurer who ended up as a police chief in British India, He found his plant (and many others) in the Himalayan foothills. He sounds an unusual policeman, corresponding with Darwin and Hooker and the Linnean Society. His sister Maria, meanwhile, (there were 24 Edgeworth children in all), wrote novels about Irish life (Castle Rackrent among them) that rivalled Jane Austen’s.

Thai night

February 16, 2018

A simple vase

Orchids, especially the white Phalaenopsis that supermarkets sell for next to nothing, have become such a decorator’s cliché that no one cares whether they are real or fake. I admit we have one against a mirror beside the bath that I hardly notice. Once a year or so I give the whole thing a bath; it comes out one shade whiter. Oddly enough, when I do focus on it I think it’s extremely elegant.

But this is Orchid time at Kew. Every year in February the Princess of Wales Conservatory becomes an exotic jewel-house. The Director of the gardens hosts an evening party for gardening’s Great and Good (and Trad sneaks in). You turn out into a cold and rainy night, walk the lighted path from Kew Green to the conservatory, and find yourself in (this year) a Tribute to Thailand.

There are apparently 1,100 species of orchid native to what was once called Siam. Kew didn’t say how many of them were on display; I suspect not a vast range; artistry, rather than botany, is the main point – in floral arches, tall pillars woven with cascading blooms, classic vases, a model royal palace in a moat, a flower boat, a golden gong and a wonderfully evocative rice paddy where miniature orchids among the rice plants presumably represented weeds, and a stuffed water buffalo stood looking patient but puzzled, with a basket of orchids on his back.

Kew, the director told us, has a very busy year ahead. The opening of the Temperate House after its costly 4-year restoration is the great event in May. It is an awesome sight already as its wraps gradually come off.

Next comes the pagoda, its scores of golden dragons, unseen since the 18th century, back in place the summer and the staircase opened to the top. Can you see Windsor Castle from up there? Later comes a new children’s garden near the Brentford Gate. And of course the Great Borders, in their third season, will vaut le voyage.


February 10, 2018

My forest walks – walks anywhere in fact – are always overlaid with visions of what could, or might, replace, and in my opinion improve, what I see around me. I expect Lancelot Brown felt just the same.  In town I imagine scruffy jumbles of nondescript buildings replaced with well-proportioned terraces or gleaming towers. From the train I envisage rivers and woods and rolling pastures full of calm cattle. From our favourite bench in deepest France, with a huge view of undulating bocage, I used to imagine a snow-capped mountain range on the horizon.

There is a little valley in our Welsh woods where two lively streams converge. Two more little streams glide down through culverts to make a meeting of four waters. All this hydro-activity was hidden under dark smothering spruces until a gale last summer felled a great tangle of trunks and branches, and toppled two in a line of tall Western hemlocks. The hemlock is not a tree foresters respect or sawmills want to buy, but in my view the most handsome of the potentially giant conifers we have from West Coast America.

Clearing up the resulting chaos revealed the potential beauty of this corner of the forest. The main stream comes crashing out of dense woodland higher on the hill and springs from a gap in a mossy old sheep-wall into the new clearing, to bounce and splash down the black rocks, below five majestic grass-green hemlocks aligned like a guard of honour. Fifty yards on it dives under the track to emerge again furiously into a much wider arena where we have felled an acre of dark conifers. The three other streams meet it here, converging to form acute angles of rushing water in the mossy forest floor.

At the moment it is a picture of stumps and snags and the debris of logging. In my mind’s eye it is something else: a mossy, ferny hollow under the beeches I will plant this year, where bluebells will rejoice in spring and in summer we will picnic in their dappled shade.

Don’t delay

February 6, 2018

The first week of February is the time to catch two of the loveliest sights of winter in the Alpine House at Kew. The Chilean Blue Crocus, Techophillea cyanocrocus, is not a crocus (it has its own genus), and struggles to survive in the Andes at about the 1000 metre mark, on dry sheltered slopes. It is not easy in cultivation, but amply justifies a visit to Kew. The first pale pool of Tommie crocuses is opening under the trees at the same time.

Even lovelier, to my eye, and certainly rarer, is the Madeiran Squill, Scilla maderensis. Its red-purple bulb, sitting half out of the compost in a substantial pot, produces a tossing swirl of lush green leaves, crowned with several spikes of amethyst-blue flowers in an open bottle-brush formation that holds and freezes the light. It is the brilliant opening of the new floral year.

Worth travelling to see

Stuart Swagger

January 30, 2018

I am a sucker for those time-line charts that bring unrelated events together. What were the Chinese, or the Mughuls, up to when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne? Were the Aztecs building pyramids at the same time as the Egyptians? (No).

The current brilliant exhibition of King Charles I’s collection at the Royal Academy made me realize how my own patrons, John Tradescant père et fils, witnessed, and were part of, the most thrilling moment in the history of English taste, when the Renaissance arrived in England.

There was nothing colourless about the Tudors; they revelled in bright colours. In gardens painted figures, posts and fences must have produced a sort of fairground feel, where today even in winter we scrabble around for any plant in flower or with coloured leaves; paint would somehow be an admission of failure.

But the Stuarts, when they came to the throne, brought richer, more saturated colours, style, lustre, elegance, brilliance, confidence and swagger to the court. Shakespeare wrote his greatest plays. Inigo Jones, designer of Royal masques, went to Florence to see how the Medicis did it. I find it hard to believe Shakespeare didn’t go to Italy too. Charles I invited Rubens to London. Van Dyck came and went and finally stayed. We have the landmarks of the Queen’s House at Greenwich and the Banqueting House. What do we have in the way of gardens?

Hatfield House is the obvious place to look, and Mollie, the late marchioness, managed to invoke their great gardener in her marvellous knots and parterres. I always think of Ham House in Richmond for the feel of the Stuart court, although in reality it was given its present rich patina after the Restoration – and by the National Trust. The truth is we don’t have a Tradescant garden design, but Trad père would surely have been more Tudor than Stuart, and Trad Junior more in the renaissance spirit.

Many thanks

January 24, 2018

Hartwell House, near Aylesbury, in January

Historic House Hotels is a group of three distinguished country houses converted into hotels and given to the National Trust by a philantrophist who deserves our applause, Richard Broyd. It was his idea to buy them, restore and  adapt them, his skill that made then both convincing and authentic as both country houses and hotels, and his generosity that paid the bills.  Hotel profits all go to the Trust; it is a remarkable gift.

We had stayed before at Middlethorpe Hall in York, a handsome Queen Anne house with a lovely garden, once the home of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, beside York racecourse. We know Bodysgallen Hall, in ‘our’ part of North Wales, very well, particularly its seemingly original 17th century garden. Hartwell House, the nearest to home, we had never visited, despite its intriguing story (see Trad’s Diary, July 7, 2015) as the residence for five napoleonic years of the exiled King of France, Louis XVIII, the fattest of his line, who made maximum use of the kitchen garden.

None of the three hotels is huge; no Chatsworth or Woburn; rather the big manor, manageable today at a long stretch, and with dedication, by a family. Not intimidating, therefore, as a place to celebrate and stay. Richard Broyd and the National Trust have perfect pitch for the appropriate tone,  standard of decoration and furniture, pictures and upkeep that feel true to life in a country house on this scale.

Hartwell sits on the edge of the Vale of Aylesbury, in a park that shows signs of being enjoyed, and added to, in each of the past three centuries. The house, long, low and perhaps just sub-stately, is Jacobean at the front and Georgian at the back, entirely harmonised by the medium of buff-grey stone. If you want to see high horticulture Hartwell is not the place. Cross the Vale of Aylesbury to Waddesdon or Ascott to see garden perfection Rothschild-style; every bud predestined, every twig told what to do.

Hartwell is about prospects and produce – and perambulation. The walled garden is for supplying the excellent restaurant (as it once supplied the French king) and the park for amiable strolling after lunch. It belongs to the time when an arch here, a bridge there, a temple on that mound, a statue in that alley, an ice-house by the lake, broad prospects and teasing glimpses were the owner’s orders and the designer’s delight. The owners, in this case, the Lee family; the designer Richard Woods. The fact that today there seems to have been harmonious continuity, and that we can enjoy it, we owe to exceptional altruism.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

Hugh’s Wine Books

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

Flower of the Week

Rosa ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’

Friends of Trad

The International Dendrology Society (IDS)