Tag Archives: Kew

The curious case of the de-potted orchid

The pyramidal orchid - Anacamptis pyramidalis

The pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

A centenary approaches: on the morning of 8th February 1913 gardeners arrived at work at a large hothouse complex in London to find glass broken in three houses, orchids removed from their pots and the pots broken, and plant labels removed. ‘An attack on plants is as cowardly and cruel as one upon domestic animals or those in captivity’, snorted the Gardeners’ Magazine. Garden staff were helped in their investigations not only by the police, but by the perpetrators themselves: clues were some ‘feminine fingerprints’, a handkerchief, a bag, and an envelope bearing the inscription Votes for women ‘in an uneducated hand’. The Daily Express has always had a taste for a sober and reasoned headline, and on this occasion it read ‘Mad women raid Kew Gardens!’

In case anyone was in any doubt, the Raiders of the Bust Pot returned to Kew twelve days later and burned down the refreshment pavilion, strewing placards for women’s suffrage nearby.

The remains of the refreshment pavilion at Kew after the fire

The remains of the refreshment pavilion at Kew after the fire

This time the raiders were caught. The Morning Post reported the trial on 8th March:

At 3.15 next morning one of the night attendants noticed a bright light inside the pavillion and running towards the building he saw two people running away from it. He blew his whistle and did his best to extinguish the fire, which immediately broke out, but his efforts were unavailing. At this time two constables happened to be in the Kew-road, and after their attention had been attracted to the reflection of the fire in the sky, they saw two women running away from the direction of the pavillion. The constables gave chase, and just before they caught them each of the women who had separated was seen to throw away a portmanteau. At the station the women gave the names of Lilian Lenton – who was too ill to appear before the Magistrate on remand – and Joyce Lock, the accused, who later gave her correct name of Olive Wharry.

(From http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk)

Olive Wharry

Olive Wharry

 According to the Roger Fulford in his history Votes for Women:

A girl [sic – she was then 27], Olive Wharry, was arrested and brought before the local magistrates’ court. She threw a directory at the head of the chairman, Councillor Bisgood. Although she aimed from a distance of six feet, she fortunately missed her target.

Olive Wharry  was sentenced to eighteen months in prison.  The plan of her companion, Lilian Lenton. had been to burn two buildings a week in order to make Britain ungovernable – and a few depotted orchids can only have hastened that goal.

Lilian Lenton

Lilian Lenton

We do miss the daring and novel tactics of the suffrage movement – where is this energy these days?  Other acts in early 1913 listed by Roger Fulford include the action of a Miss Melford:

the daughter of a leading actor, perched…on the top deck of a motor-bus…from this vantage point she drove along Victoria Street, firing stones from a powerful catapult into the windows of the buildings passed by the bus.  The professionals at many of the golf courses around Birmingham were startled to find that some of their putting-greens had, during the night of January 30th been burned by acid with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’..

And what were the results of this bold and imaginative campaign?  Ray Desmond’s Kew: a history of the Royal Botanic Gardens goes straight to the core issue, but is phlegmatic : ‘The destruction of the Pavilion was no great loss. It had been crudely fabricated ….’

Were Kew – and golf courses for that matter – plucked out of the air as targets? Or chosen solely for maximum public impact?  Not only for those reasons  – Kew also had ‘form’ as far as women were concerned. Here, from Desmond’s history of  Kew, are the views of Sir Joseph Hooker, the former Director of Kew, as reported in a letter in 1902:

At one time some women (not ladies in any sense of the word) gardeners were employed at Kew but there are none now.  Sir Joseph says he could not possibly recommend any lady to go there. She would have to work with the labouring men, doing all they have to do, digging, manuring, and all the other disagreeable parts of gardening.  Then there is the work in the hothouses; the men, I believe, work simply in their trousers, and how could a lady work with them.

Two women gardeners at Kew, 1898

Two women gardeners at Kew, 1898 (the ones without moustaches)

As I’ve mentioned in another post (here), the cultivation of orchids was also a particularly male obsession, and one to which well-off gentlemen devoted much more time and resources  than to getting a women’s suffrage bill passed by Parliament.  If you want to get a man’s attention (if not his goodwill), kick him in the orchids –  that’ll teach him to garden in his trousers.

Today’s plant is of course an orchid: Anacamptis pyramidalis. It’s maybe the most common orchid round my way, so it wouldn’t have excited much attention from the gentlemen orchid collectors. I see it often in grassy roadside verges, sometimes in quite large groups.

‘We now come to Orchis pyramidalis, one of the most highly organised species which I have examined’ wrote Charles Darwin in his On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fe rtilised by insects (1862, available at Darwin online here).  He noticed that the flowers were so  successful at attaching their pollen sacs to the proboscis of visiting moths that some of these were so encumbered they must have found it hard to feed.

Head and proboscis of Acontia luctuosa with seven pair of the pollinia of Orchis pyramidalis attached to the proboscis

Head and proboscis of Acontia luctuosa with seven pair of the pollinia of Orchis pyramidalis attached to the proboscis

Let’s update the daring woman theme. Betty Carter was one of the most independent of all jazz singers – she not only created her own style and led her own trios, but founded her own record company, BetCar.  I’ve always liked this song, from the album of the same name: ‘Droppin’ things’.  It brings back the images of the broken pots, and just when you think she’s playing the dizzy woman lost in love, she sings the lines: ‘now the table’s turned, he knows not to fool around…’




Filed under Anacamptis

Flower as star: Calendula arvensis (field marigold), and Kew Gardens

Calendula arvensis in the vines

Calendula arvensis in the vines

This little flower has reappeared in the last month or so, an irrepressibly cheerful sight this dark time of year.  It’s a composite flower of the Asteraceae family – so named for their similarity in form to stars – the outer female florets sporting a long strap petal, and the inner male florets being simple tubes. The colours range from yellow into orange, emphasising the individuality of each one. It’s an annual which is supposed to flower all year round – hence its Latin name, from the Roman Calendae, the first day of each month –  but here it seems to die back in the summer heat. It’s an annual, having to regerminate from seed, which is easier in the autumn rains. It’s also a rapid coloniser of cultivated, ploughed land so it often appears here at the edges of vineyards.  The scientific name is probably more familiar than those of most plant genera because of its healing properties, although most products seem to be made from the cultivated marigold, Calendula officinalis. It’s anti-everything: antifungal, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory etc. Why ‘marigold’? Because as a healing plant brought from the Mediterranean to northern Europe in the Middle Ages it was named in honour of the Virgin Mary, to distinguish it from other, non-therapeutic ‘golds’ such as chrysanthemums.

Calendula growing thickly

Calendula growing thickly


Its name in French is Souci des champs, souci  usually meaning a worry or concern.  That doesn’t seem the right name for something pretty, long-flowering and healthy, and in fact it is the wrong interpretation: souci in this context comes via old French soulsie from the Latin sol sequia, meaning sun follower, because the flowers open in sunlight.

Flowers are the stars in front of the camera in the recent David Attenborough series, Kingdom of Plants, which was shown on Sky I believe – I was lucky enough to be given the DVDs and some kind of report on them is well overdue. As you may know, the series was made over the period of a year in Kew Gardens: here’s the man himself introducing it:

In the films, the flowers really take the starring roles: there is exquisite time-lapse footage of petals of every shade and size unfolding, the largest being the Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), a flower seven feet tall:

The strong points of the series for me were the photography, and Attenborough’s awareness of the interdependence of the whole natural world:  bats needing nectar, flowers needing to be pollinated, fungi exchanging nutrients with green plants, and so on. But I can’t help being in two minds about the films, as I am about Kew itself.  I haven’t got a TV so I was the more taken aback by the relentless search for an exciting visual, and hence the focus on flowering rather than any other plant process. And the ‘making of’ feature brought home to me how in some ways the sheer tonnage of high-tech equipment deployed began to dictate the film: if something could be done, with an expensive gadget (3D cameras, booms, robot helicopter cameras) for the first time ever, then it HAD to be done.

I only have a vague memory of going once to Kew with my parents: I just recall a lot of rhododendrons. In the films Kew itself is ever-present, constantly lauded and never questioned, given a respect that even deities don’t enjoy these days. It is a fascinating place, but it fills me with very mixed emotions. On the one hand I agree with the superlatives: it does have over 40,000 plants actually growing there, while I think I’ll be lucky to see half the 2,000 or so species growing near my home – present count is only about 120.

On the other hand: maybe it’s a kink in my personality, but I always want to puncture inflated reputations, deserved or not. Kew Gardens have undergone several metamorphoses since their origins around 1720 as private pleasure gardens for the royalty whom Britain imported from Hanover after the Act of Settlement, and with whom the country is still saddled. Kew is still a ‘Royal Botanic Garden’. As with many botanic gardens, it served initially as an ego-project, each prince and king in Europe vying to have the greatest number and the most exotic species. The cost of botany was high and many plant collectors died: Captain Cook’s 1768-71 Pacific voyage in the Endeavour cost the lives of 38 crew members, and Joseph Banks, the botanist (and later Kew adviser) who went with him, lost five of his eight staff while amassing 3,600 dried plants.

Kew began serious collection of plants targeted for the needs of the British Empire in the 19th century, transporting from one continent to another tea, rubber and many other plants – for the benefit of the colonial planters.  We forget what the lifestyles of the Victorian upper classes were like. For example, in 1868 Charles Darwin and his family went to the Isle of Wight on holiday, renting a cottage from the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, for whom he sat for a portrait.

Charles Darwin photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868

Charles Darwin photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868

Her family lived solely from the proceeds of their coffee plantations in Ceylon. While coffee had originally been brought there by the Dutch (who had stolen plants from Mocha in Yemen), it was Kew who stepped in with Liberian varieties in 1873 when a quarter of Ceylon’s plantations were wiped out by disease. Darwin’s own private income came mostly from his tenant farmers and railway shares.

I’m realising that the history of Kew is too full and too interesting to cover here, including as it does much of the history of botany itself, so I’ll come back later to these and other themes, including a bizarre minor skirmish in the battle of the sexes. The reinvention of Kew in the last century has been as a scientific institution – although that’s not obvious from its website (here), which presents it as a jolly public attraction. But I’ll give credit where it’s due: the scientific work behind the scenes is invaluable, and is mentioned in the Kingdom of Plants. I’ll mention just two projects: the first is the use of its vast herbarium, which includes over 8 million specimens and covers 90% of all known plant species, to compile an internationally accepted list of named plants.  The results are online at theplantlist.org (click to go there) and are available and indispensable to people like me, as well as to professionals.

The second is the Millennium Seed Bank, an effort to conserve indefinitely supplies of seeds from all over the world to protect against extinction and catastrophe – here’s the Kew video about it:

The last words are from David Attenborough:

The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependent on that world. It provides our food, water and air. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.

I thought I’d celebrate the flower as star with two stars of the music scene in France: the New Orleans-born Sidney Bechet wrote and recorded the tune Petite Fleur in France sixty years ago, in 1952.  You’d like to hear it sung in French? Pas de souci – seven years later the singer and guitarist Henri Salvador, born in French Guiana, recorded a popular version, with French lyrics by Fernand Bonifay, and here it is:

Because it’s winter and this post is about a garden, here’s a song Salvador recorded on one of his last albums, Chambre Avec Vue (2001), when he was 84. But this time it’s sung by Stacey Kent: Jardin d’hiver.

Coming up soon: Trying out a new camera, and seasonal colour.



Filed under Calendula