from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Flowers…

May 29. Flowers!  On May 19 I discussed the very high level of domestic gardens in this lock-downed country.  It is a practice with a long and much-described history.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, specialised plant-rearing spread out from country houses to the mass of the population.  By the beginning of the Victorian period there was a large industry of specialised nurseries, supported by a burgeoning literature which in its way supplied as much useful and timely information as Monty Don’s Gardener’s World.  The 1803 edition of John Abercrombie’s Every Man His Own Gardener, for instance, ran to 646 pages of monthly tasks, followed by another hundred pages cataloguing plants and then a thorough index.  Artisans joined together in associations which offered annual prizes.  A survey of the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions. 

I have on past Fridays, supplied stay-at-home food from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861Here now, for those who like me still cannot get to garden centres, is the London trade in plants as sold in the Covent Garden and Farringdon wholesale markets.  In this case the volumes are not the point; there were numerous nurseries on the edge of the capital also supplying a substantial market.  But Mayhew’s table does describe the basic tastes of Londoners in garden flowers:

Primroses         1,000                                     Polyanthus                         1440

Cowslips           1200                                       Daisies                                  1400

Wallflowers     1920                                       Candytufts                          1200

Daffodils          1200                                       Violets                                  2400

Mignonette      3800                                       Stocks                                   2880

Pinks & and Carnations   800                      Lilies of the Valley            288

Pansies              1080                                      Lilies and Tulips                 280

Balsam               640                                       Calceolarii                            600

Musk Plants       10560                                   London Pride                     720

Lupins                 1600                                     China-Asters                      850

Marigolds           10560                                    Dahlias                                  160

Heliotropes        1280                                      Michaelmas Daisies         432        (p.131)

Most of these plants, in one form or another, are the staple of modern nurseries.  It could be argued that gardens constitute one of the strongest links between the present and the past.  In most other areas – diet, clothing, occupation, health, mortality, warfare, politics, religious belief (in particular) there is a void between our own times and a period even as recent as the Victorian era.  But less so in the practice of growing flowers (and vegetables).

Rose Cecile Brunner

John Clare (1793-1864), the great peasant poet of nature, owned half a dozen gardening books, including Abercrombie, and had a deep interest in the latest developments in horticulture.  Were he to find his way into my garden, he would recognise many of the plants as versions of those that he grew, and would take an informed interest in later imports and introductions.

Above all he would understand why I spend so much time between my hedges, and what pleasure it gives me, with or without the current inconvenience.

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