My name is Jonathan and I live with my husband Rob in Camberwell, south London, where we grow plants from over 140 different families in our garden. This blog aims to document the development of our mini backyard botanic garden, the stories behind some of the plants that grow here, the occasional visit to other gardens, as well as general musings on gardening and botany.
A surprisingly hardy plant from southeast Asia.
Aeschynanthus: tropical ‘lipstick plants’
A number of years ago I worked in the Southeast Asia section at Kew Gardens, and took part in several field trips to Borneo.
In 1848, the Victorian colonial administrator and naturalist Hugh Low said of the flowers of Borneo “the woods abound in shrubs and flowers, which delight the eye and attract curiosity by their rich and gaudy colours, or their delicate and beautiful forms”. One particular climbing plant he said, “yields to none in beauty”. That plant was Aeschynanthus, and having seen it myself growing in Borneo, it soon became one of my favourite southeast Asian plants, and high on my wish-list of plants to grow at home.
Aeschynanthus tricolor growing in a forest clearing in Sabah, Borneo, 2006.
The genus, which contains around 160 species, is distributed throughout Indochina and Southeast Asia. All species are epiphytic, that is they roots not in the ground but up in the trees, their stems trailing along mossy branches, rooting and branching at nodes, or arching and trailing from tree limbs. They bear large bright red flowers in clusters near the tips of stems.
For me, their bright, showy flowers, neatly arranged glossy leaves and pendulous habit epitomise the beauty of tropical flowers.
Low (after whom the summit of Mt Kinabalu in Borneo would later be named) first visited Borneo in 1845 to 1847, collecting plants for his father’s London plant nursery. One of the plants he returned with was Aeschynanthus speciosus, which makes a spectacular house plant, although Aeschynanthus pulcher and various hybrids and cultivars are more commonly seen for sale.
They are also known as lipstick plants, due to the scarlet flowers and the way the bud emerges from the cup-shaped calyx in some species, like an opening lipstick.
Aeschynanthus is a member of the mainly tropical Gesneriaceae family, which also provides some other popular flowering houseplants, such as Saintpaulia (African violets) and Streptocarpus (Cape primroses). Dibley’s plant nursery specialises in house plants of this genus.
Aeschynanthus speciosus. Photo: C T Johansson (Wikimedia Commons, CC by 3.0).
A hardy species of Aeschynanthus?
I had assumed therefore that Aeschynanthus could only be grown as houseplants in the UK, to be taken outside over the summer months perhaps, but certainly nowhere near hardy enough to be permanently planted outside. That is, until I read about a vertical garden installation in Paris by the botanist and horticulturalist Patrick Blanc, famous for his living walls which can be found all over the world. As well as being spectacular pieces of urban horticultural, Patrick’s knowledge of plants means that his living walls are often full of very interesting and surprising species.
I was amazed to read that Patrick’s 2013 permanent outdoor installation at L’Oasis d’Aboukir in Paris contained a species of Aeschynanthus thought to be hardy to at least -3°C. The plant in question was Aeschynanthus buxifolius.
An article in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine revealed that the species was described in 1903, and has so far been collected in southern China and northern Vietnam. Some mountainous areas in the region, such as the Hoang Lien mountains in northern Vietnam, can experience sub-zero temperatures and have produced some surprisingly hardy plants in recent years. Excitingly, the article stated that a plant collected by Keith Rushford at an altitude of more than 2,000m in northern Vietnam in 2003 had subsequently proved able to withstand some frost, surviving -6°C in a sheltered position in 2008/2009.
Flowers of Aeschynanthus buxifolius. The calyx is green faintly flushed red, with linear or narrowly triangular lobes to 8mm x 1.8mm. The corolla tube is bright red externally, with cream and dark markings on the lower three lobes. Stamens are long and exerted, fused in two pairs.
Leaves are small, opposite, rounded and slightly fleshy.
I obtained several plants in 2016, and planted them outside, some in a raised bed in a shaded and sheltered position near the house, and some in a more open, sunny position out in the garden. The name buxifolius means “box-leaved”, on account of the rounded, glossy leaves looking like boxwood, so I thought it would be fun to try using some plants to plug some gaps in the box hedging. I can report that all our plants have sailed through the past two winters, including the Beast from the East (minimum temperature -6°C), without any protection, remaining evergreen throughout and flowering reliably the following autumn.
Aeschynanthus buxifolius growing in our garden in moist but free-draining soil in a shady raised bed near the house.
Planted in a gap in the hedging, Aeschynanthus buxifolius makes a surprisingly good flowering substitute for dwarf box.
I am very excited to have found this plant, which brings memories of the southeast Asian rainforest to our garden, and look forward to discovering more hardy “tropical” plants in the future.
Join me for a tour of the private London garden of botanist Maarten Christenhusz
What is it about some gardens that makes them particularly special and memorable? A sophisticated or original colour combination? A masterly display of contrasting shapes and textures? A clever design, leading you on a journey which hints at unexplored delights hidden around the next corner? Or perhaps a garden which conjures up feelings of tranquillity and wellbeing? For me, all these elements are important. But what really gets my pulse racing are the plants: gardens crammed full of rare, unusual, spectacular or unexpected plants, thriving under the care of a skilled gardener.
My own passion for plants developed while working as a botanical curator at Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum. Unlike those with an interest in marine mammals, say, or birds or butterflies, botanists have the advantage that they can keep the objects of their interest alive at home, for study and for the pleasure and challenge of growing them and arranging them into a pleasing display.
Botanists know that with around 400,000 species of vascular plants in the world there are much more interesting plants to try growing than the usual suspects for sale at the local garden centre.
From above, Maarten’s garden appears as a lush and densely-planted oasis, in stark contrast to the garden next door. The Catalpa ovata tree is visible in the bottom left, with the Tapiscia sinensis beyond.
So what do botanists’ gardens look like? I’ve known a number of botanists over the years, and some have no interest in growing plants. They are happiest when plants are dead, pressed and filed in a herbarium where the world’s flora can be studied without the need to venture outside. Others use their gardens as a laboratory, filling them with countless specimens of very similar species of whatever group they are expert in, without necessarily a view to aesthetic considerations.
But for many botanists, a passion for studying plants and creating beautiful gardens go hand in hand, and so I decided to visit the private gardens of some gardener-botanists in the hope that they would turn out to be special and memorable gardens that I would enjoy visiting. My first such visit did not disappoint.
The front garden has a milder microclimate and the planting includes a flowering Musa basjoo and a Dicksonia antarctica tree fern.
Maarten Christenhusz, Mike Fay and Mark Chase
My first trip took me to Kingston-upon-Thames, just down the road from Kew Gardens in southwest London, to meet freelance botanist Maarten Christenhusz in the private garden that he shares with fellow botanists (both senior researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) Mike Fay and Mark Chase. The three have recently co-authored the lavishly illustrated book Plants of the World, an essential reference for botanists, horticulturalists and plant lovers. I already knew that a number of the photographs for the book were taken in their garden, so I was excited to see it and had high hopes that I would encounter some interesting species. But can a plant-lover’s garden also be a beautiful garden?
Their garden proves that a collection of interesting plants can also be artfully arranged and beautiful to look at.
Colourful flowers in the garden, clockwise from top left: Penstemon campanulatus (Plantaginaceae), Tulipa ‘Royal Standard’ (Liliaceae), Pontederia cordata (Pontederiaceae) and Nymphaea sp. (Nymphaeaceae) in pond, Kniphofia rooperi (Asphodelaceae), Prostanthera cuneata (Lamiaceae) and Hibbertia hirsuta (Dilleniaceae). Photographs all by M. Christenhusz.
The garden is entered from a raised terrace (full of plants of course), from where my first impression was was how colourful it was. Maarten explained that he loves colour, which he tries to maintain throughout the year by mixing the botanical curiosities with many herbaceous perennials, roses and unashamedly vibrant bedding plants such as begonias and petunias. He comes from the Netherlands, so it was no surprise to hear that Maarten also loves tulips, which put on a spectacular display in the spring (in particular triumph tulips which he finds are reliably perennial even in his clay soil).
The three botanists have all published extensively on orchids (Mike Fay is chairman of the IUCN Orchid Specialist Group), so it was also no surprise to find a beautiful Vanda orchid in full flower on the terrace, as well as numerous hardy orchids planted around the garden.
Vanda orchid (left) and the hardy orchid Cypripedium ‘Lady Dorine’ (right, photograph by M. Christenhusz).
On one side of the entrance to the garden is a fine specimen of Sophora ‘Sun King’ (a member the pea family, Fabaceae) an evergreen shrub which, despite its exotic appearance, is hardy through most of the UK. Attached to the Sophora is an air plant Tillandsia duratii (Bromeliaceae), which adds to the exotic effect (the Tillandsia is not hardy and is brought into the conservatory over winter). On the other side of the entrance is Eucryphia × nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ (Cunoniaceae), a vigorous shrub or small tee with an upright, columnar habit (handy for small gardens) which is smothered in large white flowers with numerous stamens in late summer and autumn.
Sophora ‘Sun King’ (Fabaceae). Inset: flowers (photograph by M. Christenhusz).
Beyond the terrace, other than a path leading to the bottom of the garden, the garden is given over entirely to plants, with a generously-sized pond providing a pleasing focal point, as well as home to many aquatic plants, including Penthorum sedoides and Anemopsis californica.
The boundaries of the garden are hidden by shrubs and climbers and height is provided by two trees. The first is a fine specimen of Catalpa ovata (Bignoniaceae), a small tree originating from China with a spreading canopy which bears showy white flowers in summer, followed by long, thin seed pods. Maarten grew it from seed in 2006 but it blew over in a storm not long after he planted it out in the garden. Remarkably though, a side shoot grew up to almost match the tree’s original height in just a single season, and now it forms such an elegantly shaped small tree you would never guess its troubled past.
Flowering shrubs, left to right: Eucryphia × nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ (Cunoniaceae), Azara serrata (Salicaceae) and Drimys winteri (Winteraceae). Photographs by M. Christenhusz.
The other tree is also one of the rarest plants in the garden: Tapiscia sinensis (Tapisciaceae). Also a small, deciduous tree from China, it has pinnate leaves and bears panicles of white, honey-scented flowers. It was introduced to horticulture in 1908 by Ernest Wilson, who collected it for the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, USA, but the species remains very rarely grown in the UK.
Tapiscia sinensis (Tapisciaceae) provides dappled shade for a seating area at the bottom of the garden.
Two climbers which caught my eye were Aristolochia sempervirens (Aristolochiaceae), an evergreen woody climber from southern Europe with glossy leaves and unusual curved, tubular flowers (hardy through most of the UK) and Bauhinia yunnanensis, with its distinctive camel’s foot-shaped leaves. Bauhinia is a genus of more than 500 species of tropical trees, shrubs and climbers known as orchid trees due to their showy flowers. B. yunnanensis is exciting as it is perhaps the only species which can tolerate frost, and has proved hardy in London gardens. My own seed-grown plants have survived outdoors for several years, but have yet to flower.
Bauhinia yunnanensis (Fabaceae). Inset: flowers (photograph by M. Christenhusz).
Like all gardeners, Maarten has a particular soft spot for certain groups of plants, and in his case this includes members of the plant families Araceae and Winteraceae (of which he grows 5 species, including a beautiful specimen of Drimys winteri).
Arisaema amurense (left) and A. sikokiana (right), both in the Araceae family. Photographs by M.Christenhusz.
The garden path leads to a small rockery, with a fine clump of the borderline-hardy pineapple-relative Ochagavia carnea (Bromeliaceae) from Chile and several Proboscidea louisianica (Martyniaceae). This annual herb from the southwestern United States and Mexico has beautiful flowers and is known as the devil’s claw plant due to the unusual fruit which has a bizarre alien-like appearance when dried. The plant is thought to be protocarnivorous: it produces short, glandular hairs over most of its surface, coated in a sticky resin which traps insects. It does not have digestive enzymes to absorb nutrients directly from insects as true carnivorous plants do, but instead relies on the natural breakdown of the insects by microbial activity to provide additional nutrients. Maarten kindly gave me some seeds, and I’ll definitely be growing it next year.
From left to right: Phyllocladus trichomanoides var. alpinus, Cestrum sp. and Ochagavia carnea.
A marginal pond plant from North America, with pretty red fruits and autumn foliage.
Penthorum sedoides is a perennial herb native to the eastern United States where it grows in wet soils or shallow water on river banks, marshes, ditches and the margins of pools. Plants from this part of the world were some of the first non-European plants to be grown in UK gardens, as seeds and specimens were sent to keen English gardeners and botanists such as Peter Collinson from their counterparts in the eastern American colonies such as John Clayton and Mark Catesby in Virginia and John Bartram in Pennsylvania.
Linnaeus named the species in 1753 based on specimens sent by Clayton, and by 1768 it was growing at the Chelsea Physic Garden where the head gardener Philip Miller was a little sniffy about it in his Gardener’s Dictionary:
“As this plant makes a mean appearance, so it is rarely cultivated, except in botanic gardens for the sake of variety”.
It is true that the species is of botanical interest. Although morphologically it seemed to bear some affinity with sedums, botanists disagreed as to how it should be classified right up until very recently, when molecular evidence confirmed that it should be placed in its own family, named Penthoraceae, along with only one other species (found in China) P. chinensis. The family is now considered to be sister to Haloragaceae in the Saxifragales order.
Each flower has 10 stamens and 5 carpels (the female reproductive organ, each comprising an ovary tipped with a short style and a stubby stigma). There are 5 sepals, but petals are usually absent.
I think Miller was wrong, however, to describe the appearance as “mean”. The flowers are certainly nondescript, though the slight spiral-curl to the tips of the flower spikes is charming. The dull flowers are more than made up for though by the distinctive star-shaped fruits, which turn bright red when ripe, as do the leaves in autumn. In our garden, we grow it in a pot on the edge of our tiny pond, along with fellow North American aquatic Anemopsis californica.
The start-shaped fruits ripen to an attractive pinkish-red colour.
Growing in a submerged pot on the edge of our tiny pond.
This is an undemanding plant which deserves a place on the edge of any garden pond, perhaps as a foil to its flashier cousins.
A hardy, tropical climber from South America
Plant collecting in Rio
On the 14th November 1768, 79 days after the Endeavour set sail from Plymouth on Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world (the story of which is told in a previous blog post – 250 years of Endeavour), the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander arrived at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It was their first encounter with the tropical forest, full of tantalising plants then largely unknown to science. Unfortunately, the Portugese governor was suspicious of the motives of the English ship and wouldn’t allow them to land, much to the frustration of the botanists on board.
So desperate were they to examine the exciting vegetation they could only glimpse through the ship’s telescopes that they resorted to underhand means to collect specimens. First, they sent servants to bring back specimens for them, but the temptation grew too great and in the end they took to creeping out of the ship at night, and embarking on illicit nocturnal excursions. The 300 specimens they gathered included Bomarea edulis, and the specimen and the beautiful watercolour painting of it by the ship’s artist Sydney Parkinson, still survive at the Natural History Museum in London.
Bomarea is a genus of climbing or scrambling plants closely related to Alstroemeria, in the Alstroemeriaceae family. They can be distinguished from Alstroemeria by their climbing habit and their drooping, radially symmetrical flowers (Alstroemeria flowers are held upright and have bilateral, or mirror-image symmetry). The genus is distributed from Mexico in the north to Argentina and Chile in the south, following and restricted to the highlands of the Andes mountain range along the western edge of South America.
So how did Banks and Solander come to collect a specimen of Bomarea edulis in Rio, thousands of miles to the east of the Andes? The clue is in the name: the species name “edulis” meaning “edible”. All Bomarea have tuberous roots, but those of B. edulis are particularly large and starchy, and can be eaten roasted or boiled like potatoes or Jerusalem artichokes. A mature plant can bear up to 20 root tubers, each up to 5cm in diameter. It is thought that in pre-Colombian times it was cultivated throughout South America as a food source by pre-hispanic cultures, and that this could be the reason for the much wider distribution of this species than any other in the genus (occurring for instance in the Antilles, Guyanas and Brazil).
It certainly seems well-suited to cultivation: of several species of Bomarea we grow, B. edulis is by far the most vigorous and so far is the only one to flower, which it does prettily and prolifically from July to autumn. It grows best in partial shade in a humus-rich, well-draining soil that’s kept moist, and looks fantastic climbing up through shrubs and small trees, as it would do in its native habitat. It dies down to the ground each winter, but the roots survive freezing temperatures (including the Beast from the East this year) and new growth starts appearing as soon as the temperatures warm up in early summer, though be warned that slugs and snails are very partial to the tender young shoots.
I value the showy coral pink and yellow flowers too much to dig up the plant in search of tubers, though maybe one day I will sample them, or try it on the allotment.
Bomarea edulis tumbling over the wall of a raised bed in our garden
Exactly 250 years ago today, on August 26th 1768, the Endeavour departed from Plymouth on Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world, with the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on board to document the natural history they encountered on route. A few days ago, Rob and I went to a superb exhibition at the British Library which brings together the journals, log books, charts and sketches produced by those on board to tell the story of a hugely important expedition which ushered in an age of empire building and scientific discovery, led to the founding of modern-day Australia, and which remains both influential and controversial to this day.
Earl of Pembroke, later HMS Endeavour, leaving Whitby Harbour in 1768 to be refitted at Deptford. By Thomas Luny.
I have been fascinated by Captain Cook and his voyages since I was a boy. My mother worked at the Museum of Mankind in Piccadilly (where the British Museum’s ethnographic collections were once housed in their own wonderful small museum, now sadly closed and the collections absorbed into the main museum), and I would spend many hours during school holidays wandering the dimly-lit galleries exploring the objects brought back from far-away regions of the world. The highlight of the Pacific galleries were the polished wood and shell objects brought back from Cook’s voyages.
Replica of HM Bark Endeavour, completed in 1994.
The British Library exhibition opens with a pre-Endeavour world map, with only bits of the coastline of New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia sketched in, and it brought back the childhood excitement at the thought of embarking on an expedition to an area literally off the map. More recently, for 10 years I was lucky enough to be the Curator responsible for the botanical collections at the Natural History Museum which included the preserved plant specimens brought back from all three of Cooks voyages. For many, the botany of the Endeavour voyage is epitomised by the beautiful sketches produced on board by Sydney Parkinson, and the artists who worked up the finished painting after the return to England. But for me the preserved specimens, brown and shrivelled though they usually are, are far more exciting, like the botanical equivalent of mediaeval relics (except, unlike most relics, they are not fake). The actual plant (still containing viable DNA in many cases), that was actually growing in Botany Bay or by the Endeavour River in the 1770s, and which was actually picked by Banks, Solander or Cook, and transported back to England on the actual Endeavour. But was exactly were Banks and Solander collecting, and how were they going about it?
Plant collecting on the Endeavour
As well as the surviving plant samples themselves, two other sources give an insight into the day-to-day collecting activities on the Endeavour by Banks, Solander and their assistants and servants. These are Banks’ Endeavour journal and a remarkable handwritten ‘Rules for collecting and preserving specimens of plants’ which exists amongst Joseph Banks’s personal archive, both of which are housed at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
‘Rules for collecting and preserving specimens of plants’, in the Banks archive at the State Library in New South Wales.
In the Rules, Banks explains how, for the purposes of the Botany (the science of identifying, naming and classifying plants), it is not necessary to transport plants in a growing state, but that “branches with fruits and flowers, gather’d when in perfection and dried in such a manner as to be preserv’d from Corruption…is sufficient to Distinguish and ascertain their species”. He then proceeds to describe his preferred method of collecting and drying plants.
“No plant shall be gathered unless it has either flowers or fruit upon it …
Each specimen whether intended for flowers or fruit must be chosen with a competent number of leaves upon it…
The plants thus gathered are to be lay’d in a basket not pressed close, lest they should bruise each other, and kept as much as possible from the sun, that they may not fade and wither: in cases however where plants are to be brought from a distance it is better to have a faded or withered specimen than none at all.
In his journal entry for 12th July 1770, Banks describes the baskets he used in more detail:
“The Wild Plantain trees, tho’ their fruit does not serve for food, are to us a most material benefit; we made Baskets of their stalks (a thing we learn’d of the Islanders) in which our plants which would not otherwise keep home remain fresh for 2 or 3 days; indeed in a hot climate it is hardly Practicable to go on without such baskets which we call by the Island name of Papa Mya.”
Plant collecting baskets on board the replica HMB Endeavour. Captain Cook generously gave up the Captain’s cabin for use as Banks’ herbarium and study.
The Instructions on collecting continues:
“When they are brought home which should be within a few hours after they have been gathered, they are to be put in between the leaves of a paper book, two leaves of which should be left between each plant. They should be lay’d as smooth as they conveniently can, each leaf flat to the paper, but no leaves or flowers should be pulled off even if they should happen to be rumpled, the books are then to be piled upon each other and a flat board or some such thing of 10 or 12 lbs weight layed upon them to keep the leaves of the book together. In this manner they are to lay 12 hours: they are then to be taken up and will be found damp, the plants must therefore be shifted into other books that are dry, during which time they may be materially smoothed, and many leaves which have been rumpled by the first laying in spread out flat and even.
A specimen collected by Banks at the Endeavour River in 1770, pressed and dried but not yet mounted, with original field label attached. Natural History Museum, London.
Each of these books is then to be tied up with pack thread to prevent the plants from dropping out, and exposed to the sun or a fire for 3 or 4 hours during which time they should often be turned that they may be equally warm’d, after which they should be piled upon each other again and remain in that state 12 or 14 hours more; then the plants may be changed into their old books (which in the mean time must have been dried) and again exposed to the sun or fire; by this time the smaller plants and grasses will be sufficiently dried and may be put up in the books themselves, the larger and more juicy will take more time but a repetition of the same process for a fortnight will dry almost any plant; the books in which they are put up may be looked at about once a fortnight, and if they are found damp, the plants changed into dry ones 2 or 3 such changes will secure them from all future danger.”
In the journal entry for May 3rd 1770, Banks describes spending a day at shore at Botany Bay drying specimens:
“Our collection of Plants was now grown so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books. I therefore devoted this day to that business and carried all the drying paper, near 200 Quires of which the larger part was full, ashore and spreading them upon a sail in the sun kept them in this manner expos’d the whole day, often turning them and sometimes turning the Quires in which were plants inside out. By this means they came on board at night in very good condition.”
Such was the volume of material collected, that the process of changing the papers and drying the specimens in the sun became a full-time job:
“One person is entirely employ’d in attending them who shifts them all once a day, exposes the Quires in which they are to the greatest heat of the sun and at night covers them most carefully up from any damps, always careful not to bring them out too soon in a morning or leave them out too late in the evening.”
‘A view of Endeavour River, on the coast of New Holland, where the ship was laid on shore, in order to repair the damage which she received on the rock.’ The ship was forced to anchor in the mouth of the River Endeavour, after striking the Great Barrier reef. They were to spend six weeks there, and Banks made full use of the time ashore for collecting plants.
The Instructions on collecting concludes:
“They may then be laid a plant in each leaf of the Books, or if they are small several; as many as will cover the surface of it, these books should be pack’d in boxes to prevent their being bent, which would break the plants in them. Any kind of paper that is tolerably smooth will do for this purpose, but the best of all is paper which has been printed upon it if it can be procured sufficiently large.”
Remarkably, one such “book” still exists in the Natural History Museum: a quire (an old bookbinding term meaning a group of printed pages that have been gathered prior to binding) of Addison’s Notes on Paradise Lost. It was used to store and transport specimens back from Madeira, the Endeavour’s first port of call, but was never processed and the specimens have remained in situ ever since.
Addison’s Notes on Paradise Lost, used to store and transport plant specimens on the Endeavour back from Madeira. Photograph: Mark Carine, Natural History Museum.
Interestingly, the paper is dated 1738, meaning it was already 30 years old when it was sourced by Banks for taking on board the Endeavour as a supply of plant-pressing paper.
The original pressed plants and field labels can be seen inside the leaves on the volume.
This low-tech method of collecting and preserving plants results in specimens which, if house and handled carefully, can last indefinitely and contain all the elements necessary for modern scientific study. The method of collecting and preserving herbarium specimens described above remains essential the same today, and any modern field botanist will be familiar with Banks’ descriptions, particularly the time-consuming activity of changing drying-papers, often in the evening after an exhausting day in the field.
Over 3,000 plant specimens were collected on the three-year voyage, including an estimated 1,000 or more which were new to science. Although living material was not brought back on this expedition (other than some seeds), the impact on horticulture was huge. The specimens and paintings that arrived in London after the expedition, of now-iconic Australian plants but which were then unlike anything seen before, created a thirst amongst gardeners for more exciting plants, and heightened the excitement of obtaining new, exotic seeds from around the world, and discovering how to germinate them and keep them alive in our climate.
As I said in a previous blog post, it is difficult to imagine the excitement among botanists and gardeners when new and exotic plants unlike anything in Britain or Europe started arriving from overseas, first as a trickle in the 17th century and then a flood by the mid 18th century, thanks to global trade and exploration. By the end of the 18th century, no other country had so many plants in cultivation and today the number of non-native plant species grown in British parks and gardens is estimated at a staggering 14,000 species (and over 50,000 varieties and cultivars).
The Endeavour and our garden
Even today, Australian and New Zealand plants have a special allure, and I am not the only gardener who enjoys the challenge of trying to grow them in a British climate. In honour of Banks, Solander and Cook, in our garden we grow several plants which they encountered in Australia and New Zealand, in a bed devoted to Australasian plants.
The flowers of this unusual aquatic plant, which seems to have become more popular in cultivation in recent years, are held in an inflorescence (flower head) that is said by some to resemble a single anemone flower. I can’t see it myself, and suspect that this is based on an assumption as to the origin of the name Anemopsis, when in fact the name has nothing to do with anemones. The genus was initially named Anemia until it was pointed out that this name was already taken by a group of ferns, and so it was later changed to Anemopsis.
Anemopsis californica (a member of the Saururaceae family) belongs to an ancient group of flowering plants, the magnoliids, which are characterised by flower parts in multiples of 3 (like the monocots, but unlike most other dicots) and which also includes the nutmeg, laurel, custard apple, black pepper and magnolia families. In fact, if anything the inflorescence reminds me of a single magnolia flower although unlike magnolias, which have large, solitary flowers, Anemopsis californica flowers are tiny and arranged on short spikes, at the base of which are 6 large, petal-like bracts, reminiscent of the petals of a Magnolia stellata flower.
Leaves are mostly arranged in a basal whorl, with pinnate veins (separate veins along each side of the midrib). Tiny flowers are arranged on a dense, conical head 1-4cm long, surrounded by 6 petal-like bracts, such that the inflorescence superficially resembles a single star magnolia flower.
Leaf stalks are hairy.
Flowering stems are up to 50cm long, with a stalk-less clasping leaf in the upper half and 1-3 smaller leaves in the axil.
Each individual flower on the spike has a small white bract at the base, and has 6 stamens and 3 styles.
In the wild, Anemopsis californica grows in southwestern USA and Mexico, where it forms dense stands in wet, alkaline soils. The leaves, creeping stems and roots are aromatic and contain essential oils which are thought to have medicinal qualities. In our garden, it is content growing in a submerged basket pot in the pond, along with fellow North American aquatic Penthorum sedoides, where it flowers in summer and autumn.
Field of Anemopsis californica in the San Dieguito River Park in Escondido, Southern California. (Source: Wikimedia, public domain).
Anemopsis californica growing in our pond with Thalia dealbata.
Just when we all thought we’d got away with another relatively mild winter and spring was on its way, the temperature in the garden plummeted to -4C as freezing cold air and snow direct from Siberia was blasted across the country by what the media dubbed “the Beast from the East”. It felt like the coldest winter UK temperatures for years, but was it?
Although most plants in the garden should, according to the books at least, survive down to -5C, this was certainly the coldest winter in the garden since most plants have been in the ground, and the first time they have been tested beyond a few days at -2C. Time will tell if there have been any casualties. Some plants, like the echiums below, look utterly miserable while others like the Citrus reticulata and Banksia integrifolia seem to shrug off the cold and snow without a worry.
Echium pininiana (L) looks unhappy with the recent low temperatures, while the mandarin orange Citrus reticulata is (so far) not showing any adverse effects.
The garden in the snow.
Banksia reticulata in the snow.
The media claimed that this cold snap was “historic” and it seems that there were indeed record low temperatures and snowfall for the month of March. But overall, how cold was it, and how did the minimum temperatures compare with those of last winter, and of previous cold winters?
Minimum temperatures compared with previous years
To answer this question I analysed data from the Met Office MIDAS database, identifying the minimum temperature recorded by each station, checking and cleaning any erroneous records. The data were then plotted as isotherm maps using ArcGIS software.
The resulting maps (below) show that the minimum temperatures from February 28th to March 1st 2018 were surprisingly consistent across the country, with most areas recording lows of slightly above or below -5C. This is a relatively mild winter temperature for most parts of the country, but for London and the southwest which also experienced temperatures of around -5C this is relatively harsh, and many gardens in these areas saw the lowest temperatures since 2010 (when Kew Gardens went down to -10C and RHS Wisley gardens -12C).
Winter in 1991 saw unusually low temperatures in London and the southeast, with Kew Gardens dropping to -10.9C and even the usually mild St James’s Park in central London dropping to a record -8.3C.
Winter of 1987 was the stuff of nightmares for exotic gardening enthusiasts, as unusually low temperatures were experienced in the southwest, including the usually frost-free Tresco Abbey Gardens which were devastated by temperatures below -7C.
The winter we really don’t want repeated is that of 1982 which saw record lows in many parts of the country including -15.5C in Edinburgh Botanic Garden, -15.1C at RHS Wisley and -16.1C at Cambridge Botanic gardens. That year also recorded an all-time record low of an unbelievable -27.2C at Braemar in Scotland. Perhaps climate change means such winters are a thing of the past?
In the second part of this post I will look at whether minimum temperatures in the past can be used to guide what plants we can safely grow, and what it’s worth trying to grow, where we live. I’ll use the same data to explore the urban heat island effect which enables gardeners in city locations to grow more tender plants, and I will plot the most detailed and up to date hardiness maps for the country yet published.
Met Office (2012): Met Office Integrated Data Archive System (MIDAS) Land and Marine Surface Stations Data (1853-current). NCAS British Atmospheric Data Centre, 2018.
I greatly enjoyed the first episode of the new BBC series Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens, charting the history, design and symbolism of the beautiful and tranquil Islamic garden style. The programme reminded me of how these gardens influenced the design of my own garden when I started planning it five years ago. Having had to content myself with being an armchair gardener up to this point in my life, I now found myself in possession of my own plot, a blank canvass, and had to decide how to make the most of it to create my own dream garden. Aiming to create a piece of Paradise in Camberwell seemed like a good starting point.
As Monty taught us in the programme, the idea of a Paradise garden comes from the ancient Persians, who were themselves influenced by earlier civilisations: the Babylonians (in c. 2,100 BC) described their Divine Paradise in the Epic of Gilgamesh: ‘In this immortal garden stands the Tree…beside a sacred fount the Tree is placed’.
The traditional Islamic garden has a four-fold design, called a chahar bagh (“four gardens”); these are Persian words indicating a Persian origin of these key design features. Photo: British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
The English word ‘paradise’ itself comes from the Persian word pairidaeza, pairi meaning ‘around’ and daeza meaning ‘wall’. Pairidaezas were walled areas which protected an area of lush growth within. Originally the harsh environment being shut out was the desert, but the idea is just as relevant to us city dwellers, where the garden can serve to shut out the noisy and polluted world outside to create a calming oasis of peace and contemplation, our own piece of paradise.
Monty’s programme took us to the remains of the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great’s 6th century BC pairidaeza garden at Pasargardae in Iran and told us how, after Islam had conquered the Persian empire in the 7th century AD, they absorbed the cultural traditions of the Persians, including their enclosed gardens with crossed watercourses and shady fruit trees, and by the 13th century AD had spread them with Islam throughout Egypt, Mediterranean north Africa and into Spain. Like many others, I have visited and been inspired by the beautiful Generalife Gardens of the Alhambra, but it was a trip to the beautiful country of Uzbekistan, which it turns out played a crucial role in the development of Paradise gardens, and their development into the great Mughal gardens of India, which made me fall in love with the exotic romance of Paradise gardens.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Islamic gardens and their predecessors is the consistency in style and design over thousands of years. As Vita Sackville-West says in her 1953 essay on Persian gardens “there is very little else to be said for the Persian gardens, except to say the same thing over and over again”. This consistency in style is perhaps because gardens developed in response to the hostile desert environments in which early civilisations developed, where shade from the sun and shelter from wind were important, and water had to be brought into the garden, stored and distributed around it via channels in order to irrigate the plants.
To this can be added certain universal human responses to the landscape, as for example when we get a feeling of security, comfort, peace, privacy and spiritual well-being from being in an enclosed outdoor space such as under tall foliage, which encourages reflection and contemplation. The prospect-refuge theory suggests that this feeling may be heightened when the prospect is good, yet it affords a safe refuge from potential hazards, for instance (as in Persian gardens) when surveying the garden from a raised pavilion.
In addition, since the dawn of human civilisations the number four has had mystical association with the natural world: for instance the four seasons, four elements (important in Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Persians) and four points on the compass. Christianity and Islam both emphasise these ancient, widespread and universal truths. The Bible states: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden and from thence it was parted into four heads” and the Prophet Muhammed speaks of four rivers: of water, milk, wine and honey.
Taken together, it is no surprise that the same basic garden design has evolved several times, and remained remarkably consistent over long period of time, surviving many changes in rulers, cultures and religions. Biologists call this convergent evolution: an example is how unrelated dolphins (mammals), sharks (fish) and ichthyosaurs (extinct marine reptiles) all independently evolved a similar form in response to the same physical and biological laws of the marine environment in which they lived as predators. In the same way, paradise gardens are a perfect manifestation of the physical environment, and universal human truths. Paradise is certainly a worthy description.
Unlike European gardens, which historically been used for strolling in (the European climate being considered too cold and wet for sitting out much of the year), Persian gardens were places to rest and observe. As Vita Sackville-West puts it “Persians used their gardens as places of retreat, either for prolonged discussions on philosophy, poetry and metaphysics or for feasting endlessly by the water’s edge” to the accompanying sound of rippling water. In other words they were used as what today’s garden designers would call “outdoor rooms”.
A courtyard in Uzbekistan. Pools were intended to suggest dark, unfathomable depths, rather like the reflective pools coloured with black dye beloved of modern garden designers, and would have been strewn with rose petals or candles set adrift in the evenings.
The poetry which flourished in Islamic Persia was rich in garden imagery, much of it linking the garden to paradise. The greatest epic in Persian literature was the Shahnameh which was completed in 1010 by Abū al-Qasem Manṣūr who adopted the name Ferdowsi, meaning the garden, or paradise.
Afrasiab was a mythical hero featuring in the poem, and dating from the time of the first Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great. Intriguingly, Afrasiab (or Castle of Afrasiab) is also the name given to the ruined site of the ancient city of Samarkand dating from the same period, in modern-day Uzbekistan.
In one place in the poem, the garden of the daughter of the ruler Afrasiyab is described:
It is a spot beyond imagination
Delightful to the heart, where roses bloom,
And sparkling fountains murmur – where the earth
Is rich with many-coloured flowers; and musk
Floats on the gentle breezes, hyacinths
And lilies add their perfume – golden fruits
Weigh down the branches of the lofty trees…
The gardens, then, were multi-sensory experiences, long before “sensory gardens” became a thing. Taste was represented by the fruits grown there, as well as rose water which would have flavoured sweets and pastries. Sound was provided by birdsong, the rustling of wind in the trees, and the sound of water (gardens were usually built on slopes so that rushing, gurgling or splashing water channels and riffles could be achieved). And smell was of course provided by the deliciously scented selection of plants grown, above all the rose.
Inspiration for my own garden from the Paradise gardens of Persia and Islam.
How then to distil the essence of Paradise into our garden? My aim was to use the various elements of Paradise gardens to inform the design, rather than to faithfully recreate a garden in the Islamic style. I decided that I needed to incorporate the following features:
Divide the rectangular space into two square “rooms”, each further divided in fours.
Each “room” enclosed by pergolas, walls or fences (though I do enjoy chatting to our neighbour and exchanging gardening tips and plants, over the garden wall, so a little compromise was needed here).
Create a covered raised area (our version of a pavilion) at the sunniest end of the garden, with a bench and table for sitting, relaxing and eating (and perhaps even reciting poetry and discussing metaphysics!), from which you can survey the whole garden, fronted by a square, central pool with a bubbling fountain.
Trees, not too large for the garden, but large enough to provide a canopy and dappled shade.
In the spirit of the Moghul gardens, where exotic plants were introduced into the traditional char bagh, create beds for our collection of unusual and exotic plants.
Like the courtyard gardens of Marrakesh, to cram in as many plants as possible by making full use of vertical space, carefully pruning trees shrubs to provide several canopy layers and make full use of the understorey planting space.
Fill the garden with Persian-inspired plants, with an emphasis on fruit and scented plants.
I eventually settled on the following design:
Constructing the raised seating area and pool. The Victorian edging tiles were salvaged from my parents garden.
The newly planted box hedging (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’).
A local fox gives the garden its seal of approval.
For a thorough list of plants recommended for creating a Persian/Islamic inspired garden in a UK climate, based on plants mentioned in the Quran, medieval plant lists, travellers descriptions, Islamic miniature paintings and poetry, I recommend Emma Clark’s excellent book The Art of the Islamic Garden. A selection of the plants I settled on in order to give our garden a flavour of Paradise is as follows:
A wood pigeon feasting on the olive tree.
Blossom on an apple (left) and pomegranate (right). When planting fruit trees, I often forget how beautiful the flowers are.
Pear blossom and fruit.
Dianthus ‘Monica Wyatt’ and Lavandula angustifolia ‘Little Lady’, with Citrus junos ‘Yuzu’ behind.
Fan-trained fig (Ficus carica ‘Rouge de Bordeaux’)
Fan-trained peach (Prunus persica ‘Rochester’)
Grape (Vitis vinifera ‘Seyval Blamc’ and ‘Madeleine Angevine’)
The garden next door has a large orange tree in it, grown from a pip by the previous owner, which thrives unprotected outdoors and produces many (rather pithy) oranges. This has encouraged me to try planting citrus outdoors. The clementine Citrus reticulata ‘Fine’ is doing well, as is Yuzu (Citrus junos), although it is growing slowly and the snails seem to have a passion for the bark. Citrus auranticum (Seville orange) is supposedly one of the hardest of the Citrus, but mine hasn’t fared so well, though it’s still alive it doesn’t seem to grow much. I also have Citrus limon ‘Four Seasons’ which I’ve over wintered in the greenhouse until it grow too large and has spent this winter outdoors, without much ill-effect, so I might try planting it out in the spring.
Cercis chinensis ‘Don Egolf’, with (left) dwarf Narcissus including ‘Tête-à-tête’, and grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) in foreground.
Albizia julbrissin, Persian silk tree, which I have been growing from seed since 2012. It is now over 2m tall but yet to flower.
The shrub most associated with Persian/Islamic gardens is the rose, such that in Persian the word rose and flower are synonymous. Old roses are the most suited to a modern take on a Paradise garden, especially those from the damascene and gallica groups, both of which originated in the Near East. The flowers are subtly beautiful and strongly scented and many have evocative names such as Ispahan, Rose de Resht and Omar Khayyam. Unfortunately though, they only have a short flowering season, so for our small garden where every plant must earn its keep I opted for two of the repeat-flowering old roses from the portland rose group, which were developed from a cross between (amongst others) Rosa gallica var. officianalis and Rosa damascena var. semperflorens, which is unusual in being a damascene rose with some repeat-flowering. Comte de Chambord and Jacques Cartier are similar, with a very rich pink colour and a powerful Damask Rose fragrance which travels well and fills the garden with the scent of rose water. I also grow the noisette climbing rose Lamarque, which I cannot recommend highly enough: it is vigorous with lush, disease-resistant foliage which sets off the creamy flowers with pale lemon centres to perfection. Best of all is the delicious scent which stops you in your tracks and keeps you coming back for another hit.
The story of how the Mughal gardens were born in Uzbekistan.
In his recent TV series Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens, Monty showed us the great Islamic gardens of Iran, Spain, Turkey and India, but you may have been left wondering how a Persian style of gardens found its way to India. I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful country of Uzbekistan ten years ago, and was delighted to discover that the country was the setting for the refinement of Paradise gardens and their development into the famous Mughal garden style surviving today at the Taj Mahal and other sites in India, visited by Monty in the second episode. This blog describes the gap in the story provided by medieval Uzbekistan gardens.
In the first episode, Monty took us to the excavated remains of the earliest surviving Paradise garden: that of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae. The Persian empire founded by Cyrus (known as the Achaemenid Empire, 550-330BC) extended into modern-day Uzbekistan (a region known as Transoxiana, ‘the land beyond the river Oxus’), as did the later Sassanian Empire (224-651AD) which saw a great renaissance of Persian culture.
Achaemenid palaces were built in a similar style throughout the empire, and the Greeks described the palaces as having a pairadaeza thickly planted with many kinds of trees in orderly rows, with aromatic shrubs between them, and beautiful, well-watered gardens. It seems likely that such gardens existed in Transoxiana at this time.
The River Oxus, Uzbekistan. Transoxia has long been associated with Paradise: in the 2nd century BC Ptolomy even indicated in his Guide to Geography that the four rivers of Paradise originated there.
The mains cities of Transoxiana were Samarkand and Bukhara, names resonant with romantic legend and occupying important positions on the Silk Road. Under the Sassanian Empire, it became a great cultural and scientific centre.
Early 18th century garden carpet from Iran. Garden carpets originated during the Sassanian Empire, and depict walled gardens, outlined by trees, with a central watercourse with one or more cross-channels boarded by paths and multi-coloured, geometric flower beds. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
The province was known as Sogdia, and the cultured Sogdians were keen gardeners as well as talented merchants. As well as trading precious metals, spices and cloth along the silk road, the Sogdians introduced central Asian horticulture to China, and introduced plants such as the peony from China to gardens in Samarkand. Sogdia is commemorated in a number of plant species, including Tulipa sogdiana.
Left: 7th century Sogdian mural excavated from the ancient site of Afrasiab, near Samarkand. Right: an Iranian tile featuring a peony.
Following the Muslim conquest of Transoxiana in the early 7th century, Samarkand and Bukhara continued to be centres of learning, and the Persian heritage and culture of the Sogdians played an important part in the evolution of Islamic art and architecture in the region, as well as gardens.
The River Zerafshan flows through Samarkand, fed by snow melt from mountains to the east and south and over the centuries an elaborate network of irrigation channels had been built, creating a wide zone adjacent to the town of forests, orchards, vineyards and meadows where the royal gardens and palaces were to be found.
The tenth-century AD Iranian author Istakhri, who travelled in Transoxiana, describes the natural riches of the region he calls “Smarkandian Sogd”:
I know no place in it or in Samarkand itself where if one ascends some elevated ground one does not see greenery and a pleasant place….Samakandian Sogd…[extends] eight days travel through unbroken greenery and gardens….The greenery of the trees and sown land extends along both sides of the river [Sogd]…and beyond these fields is pasture for flocks….It is the most fruitful of all the countries of Allah; in it are the best trees and fruits, in every home are gardens, cisterns and flowing water…
Little remains of the architecture of this time, due to the destruction wrought when Genghis Khan invaded the area in 1220, but Samarkand was rebuilt as a great city by the conqueror and founder of the Timurid empire, Timur (also known as Tamerlane, 1336-1405), from the 1370s.
The centrepiece of Timur’s Samarkand was Registan Square, which has been described as “the noblest public square in the world”.
Modern gardens in Registan Square.
Building work was continued by his grandson, the Sultan, astonomer and mathmetician Ulug Beg, who built a school (madrassa) in Registan Square (left) and an observatory outside the city (right).
Timur’s mausoleum, Gur-e Amir (1403), architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal which was built by Timur’s descendants.
Timur was undoubtedly a ruthless warrior, responsible for thousands of deaths, but in later life he took up gardening (or, at least, garden-building) on a grand scale, bringing in the master builders and architects of Persia. As Elizabeth Moynihan says “it is one of history’s quirks that such a brutal warrior was so important in the history of a great garden tradition and was the ancestor of men who attained such high artistic achievement: the Timurids of Persia and Mughals of India”.
By 1400 Samarkand was famous for its gardens which ringed the city. Timur lived in the splendid gardens he built at Samarkand, moving between them, and while he was away on campaign, according to a contemporary account “the citizens, rich and poor, went to walk therin and found no retreat more wonderful or beautiful than those and no resting place more agreeable and secure; and its sweetest fruits were common to all“.
None of the Timurid gardens survive today, but they are described in miniature paintings of the Timurid period and in several contemporary accounts, most famously the Spanish Ambassador Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo who was sent by the King of Spain to visit Timur at Samarkand in 1403, where he was received in the Garden of Heart’s Ease:
“We found Timur and he was seated under what might be called a portal which was before the entrance of a most beautiful palace that appeared in the background. He was sitting on the ground, but upon a raised dais before which there was a fountain that threw up a column of water into the air backwards, and in the basin of the fountain there were floating red apples. His Highness had taken his place on silk cloth, and was leaning on his elbow against some round cushions that were heaped up behind him.”
The Spaniards entered the charbargh through a high gateway “beautifully ornamented with tile work in gold and blue”. Left: blue and gold tiled archway, Samarkand. Right: Timur granting audience on the occasion of his accession. Zafarnama, or Book of Victory, ca 1467 from The John Work Garrett Library of The Johns Hopkins University (photo: Wikimedia Commons,CC BY-SA 2.0).
Clavijo also describes the Bagh-I Naw, or New Gardens:
“This orchard was surrounded by a high wall, four square, enclosing it and at each of the four corners was a very lofty round tower, and the enclosing wall going from tower to tower was very high, and built as strong as the work of the tower. This orchard at its centre had a great palace, built on the plan of a cross, and a very large water-tank had been dug before it. This palace with its large garden was much the finest of any that we had visited hitherto, and in its ornamentation of its buildings in the gold and blue tile work far the most sumptuous.”
and the vast royal chaharbagh where they were housed some distance outside the city and approached through a vineyard, its wall bordered by shade trees:
“a full league round and within it is full of fruit trees of all kinds save only limes and citron-trees which we noticed to be lacking” [the winters being too cold in Samarkand for citrus to survive].
The remains of the huge (65m) gate house of the Ak Sarai (1395-6), covered in blue, gold and white tiles, is the only fragment of one of Timur’s palaces to survive. Clavijo’s description tells us that “before it was a large garden with many shady and assorted fruit trees. Inside it were many pools and artfully sited meadows. By the entrance to this garden there was such a vast space that many people could have enjoyed themselves sitting there in the summertime beside the water and beneath the shade of the trees. The workmanship in the palace is so luxurious that, in order to describe everything well, one has to go and examine it a little at a time.”
According to Wilber, the main characteristics of the Timurid gardens were:
the enclosure within high walls
the division of the enclosed areas into quarters
the use of a main axis of water
the location of a palace or pavilion at the centre of the area
the choice of natural slope of the creation of an artificial hill in order to ensure the proper flow of water
a mixture of utilitarian vineyard or orchard with the pleasure garden
occupying a very large area
the magnificent portals decorated with blue and gold tiles
In the century after Timur’s death, the politics and power of the Timurids moved to Herat in Afghanistan, where a number of gardens were built under the rule of Husayn Bayqara, including the Bagh-I Jahan Ara or Garden of the World Adorned, covering over 100 acres and featuring a palace, pools and masses of red tulips and roses. A remarkable agricultural manual exists from this time, which describes the garden tradition practised in Herat by the later Timurids. They are similar to Timur’s gardens, except the pavilion is placed at one end of a rectangular enclosure, looking out to the formal fourt-part garden: an arrangement found in Moghul gardens such as the Taj Mahal.
Eventually the Timurid empire split into many separate kingdoms. A descendant of Timur called Zahirud din Muhammad Babur (usually known simply as Babur) won the throne of one such province and in 1504 he conquered Kabul. A long-time admirer of the gardens of Samarkand and Herat (described in detail in his memoir), he set about beautifying Kabul with gardens, along the same lines.
The Gardeners of Kabul is a beautiful film telling the story of Babur and the Bagh-i Babur in Kabul where he is buried and how a love of gardens and gardening still exists in the city.
In 1508 Babur founded the Bagh-iVafa, or Garden of Fidelity, in Kabul which he describes: “Its grass plots were all covered with clover, its pomegranate trees were entirely of a beautiful yellow colour. It was then the pomegranate season and the pomegranates were hanging red on the trees. The orange trees were green and cheerful, loaded with innumerable oranges. I was never so pleased with the Bagh-iVafa as on this occasion.
By this time, the power of the Uzbeks in Central Asia was growing, so Babur looked to north India for land to conquer, and in 1526 he founded the Mughal Empire there. The garden style of the Timurids was to have a huge influence on later Mughal gardens. As Lisa Golombek puts it “The diversity in Mughal gardens reflects the diversity in the Timurid models, available to the Mughals in eye-witness reports, descriptions in the chronicles and agricultural manuals, and manuscript illustrations. The Mughals venerated their Timurid ancestors and sought inspiration from Timurid culture. When the Mughals wished to emphasise their decent from Timur, they chose freely from the full menu of artistic traditions developed over the entire Timurid century. The garden was where the descendants got in touch with their noble ancestry and their fantasies about Timur’s nomadic lifestyle.”
The chaharbagh, the Timurid formal garden, was not a Timurid invention: the concept of a walled, four-part garden containing a pavilion was an ancient one going back to Sassanian and even Achaeminid times. But the Timurids adapted and perfected it to perhaps the highest degree.
Golombek, L. (1995). The Gardens of Timur: New Perspectives. Maqarnas Vol. 12 pp. 137-146.
Moynihan, E. Paradise as a garden in Persia and Mughal India.1979.
Wilber, D.N. Persian gardens and garden pavilions. 1979.
Last summer, Rob and I were on a mini-break in Rome with my parents. On the last day, we arrived at the station far too early for our train back to the airport. Spotting a museum across the street, we decided to pop in to kill some time, but the museum (the Palazzo Massimo) turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. On the ground floor was a fine collection of Roman portrait sculpture, and three breath-taking Greek bronze statues from the 5th century BC (any one of which could have been the highlight of a museum in its own right). Things got even better upstairs, with one of the finest collections of classical statuary I think I’ve ever seen (much better than the monotonous corridors of the Vatican Museum), each lit and displayed to perfection. But the real highlight for me was the next floor up, which was devoted to Roman frescoes, including an entire room covered on all four walls in life-size paintings of a garden, from the villa of Livia (58BC-29AD, wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus, which was located just outside Rome. Walking into the room containing Livia’s garden fresco really was like stepping back 2,000 years: I could feel the calming effect of the lush, naturalistic planting, and almost sense Livia, Augustus and their dining guests there with me in what would have been their dining room (helped by the fact that this stunning museum seems to be little visited, and I had the room to myself).
The artist has depicted many different plants stylistically, but also accurately such that they are identifiable (although the garden is idealised in the sense that not all the flowers and fruits would be present simultaneously in real life). The design elements that garden designers strive to achieve today stretch back at least 2,000 years, and are clearly present in the design of this garden. For example: rhythm (for instance, the repeated niches in the wall, each containing a coniferous tree), unity (all the elements working together to create an harmonious whole, achieved through repetition in the planting and the marble wall and latticework fence running along the whole composition), proportion (the Romans certainly knew a thing or two about this), contrast (for example, the spiky, architectural shape of the palms contrasting with the elegant, conical cypress trees and the sprawling mounds of the fruit bushes) and balance (the same visual dominance of plants on both sides of the composition). Even with their limited selection of available plants compared with today (or perhaps, thanks to it), the artist has designed a planting scheme to perfection.
The golden fruits of a quince tree Cydonia oblonga and red flowers of Rosa gallica var. officinalis (the apothecary’s rose).
Detail of the roses, with golden stamens visible in the centre of the flower.
On the left, a stone pine (Pinus pinea) occupies a niche in the garden wall, with bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) growing at its base. To the right, birds feast on the fruits of a strawberry tree (Urbuts unedo) and pomegranate tree (Punica granatum) which groans with fruit. Further to the right is an Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) and a young date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). Flowers depicted in the foreground, just behind the wall, are yellow chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) and red Rosa gallica var. officinalis (the apothecary’s rose). Depicted in the background are box (Buxus sempervirens), laurel (Laurus nobilis), common myrtle (Myrtus communis) and Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas). In front of the wall along the garden path, are early dog violet (Viola reichenbachiana), hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), and Iris.
Growing in another niche in the wall is a Norway spruce (Picea abies), flanked by a quince on the left and a pomegranate on the right, with more yellow chrystanthemum growing up behind the wall.
Left: Another strawberry tree, date palm and quince, with more yellow chrysanthemum. Right: detail of Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and Anthemis cotula (foul chamomile) poking over the wall and, in front of the wall, Viola reichenbachiana with flowers just visible.
The experience reminded me of another encounter with a Roman garden fresco, at the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition in 2013, where the fresco from the house of the Golden Bracelet was displayed. In this garden, sculpture is beautifully integrated into the planting, including a fluted basin containing a bubbling fountain and a pair of hanging theatrical masks.
Photo by Stefano Bolognini, Wikimedia Commons
Photos by Stefano Bolognini, Wikimedia Commons
Again, the plants are accurately depicted and include several additional species to those listed above, including Rosa gallica var. officinalis ‘Versicolor) (the beautiful red and white striped Rosa mundi), Oleander (Nerium oleander), Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) and giant bindweed (Calystegia silvatica): all so evocative of these beautiful ancient gardens that I vowed to include them in my own garden, which was beginning to take shape at the time (the bindweed being already present!), along with other plants widely depicted in Roman art such as Vitis vinifera (grape vines, to be grown on a pergola, also a feature of Roman gardens), Ficus carica (figs), Malus domestica (apples), Olea europea (olives), and Prunus persica (peach).
Nerium oleander ‘Tito Poggi’ and Vitis vinifer ‘Seyval Blanc’ bring a touch of ancient Rome to Camberwell.
The beautiful, waxy flowers of Lilium candidum (Madonna Lily) which has been cultivated for millennia and fills the garden with what is in my opinion the finest scent of all lilies in early summer. They thrive in a sunny spot on the gravelly soil in my garden.
A young pomegranate bush produces lovely orange, tissue paper-like flowers followed by young fruits, though the fruits drop off while still young. I am hoping this is because the plant is still young, and I will get pomegranates once it is a bit more mature.