England's gardens are ablaze with texture and colour, thanks to the range of bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees available. But have you ever wondered where this huge selection comes from?
Our garden plants bring the seasons to life: brilliant yellow narcissi, scented lilac, shapely hostas, evergreen rhododendrons. Many have become so familiar that it’s easy to assume they’ve always been here. Some imports can’t deceive us as to their origins, the dramatic outlines of the American agave, for example, or the Brazilian giant-leaved Gunnera manicata will never look native to these shores. But what about the sweet pea, sunflowers, hydrangeas? These garden standbys hail, respectively, from Italy, the Americas and Asia. How did they get here? The answer is, in a number of ways.
Colonialization. As the Romans came, saw and conquered northern Europe, they brought with them a huge range of trees and plants, many of which became acclimatized to their new surroundings. These included roses, plums, almonds, figs, the periwinkle, Christmas rose, dill, beet, the Madonna lily and, believe it or not, ground elder, which they put in salads.
Politics. Diplomatic relations were restored between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Ottoman Sultans in 1549. Travelling to Constantinople in the depths of the winter, the emperor’s ambassador, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, was astonished to see a great range of flowers in bloom. Amongst the bulbs and seeds Busbecq sent back to the emperor’s court in Vienna were tulips, as well as the horse chestnut and lilac. Further treats to arrive in Europe were irises, ranunculi and anemones.
Royal Marriage. Traditionally, royal marriages were important unions formed to cement a political alliance or to accumulate territory. The marriages of England’s Edward I (r.1272-1307) to Eleanor of Castile, and Edward III (r.1327-77) to Philippa Countess Of Hainault and Holland benefited the country in other ways: the queens introduced, respectively, hollyhocks and rosemary.
Stealth. Ambassador Busbecq’s tulip bulbs were grown by botanist Carolus Clusius and travelled with him to Leiden in the Netherlands, when he was made director of the botanic garden there in 1592. Such was the Dutchmen’s love of the flower that the first winter saw the pilfering of a large number of tulips, no doubt ending up in gardens across the Netherlands and, perhaps, beyond.
New Found Lands. With the discovery of uncharted lands has come the discovery of hitherto unknown flora. Many have proved to be unsuited to the climate of northern Europe, but consider where we’d be without the following: petunias, zinnias, dahlias, verbena and cosmos (Central and Southern America); Pelargonium inquinans (the parent of the modern bedding plant, Cape of Good Hope); callistemoms (Australia); nasturtiums, maidenhair fern, evergreen honeysuckle and Magnolia grandiflora (North America).
Exploration. For many centuries plants had been collected by amateur enthusiasts but towards the end of the 1700s this vocation became more professional. Armed with specific instructions from their sponsors, plant collectors travelled great distances and endured terrible hardships in order to return with a new species. To such men we owe the blue poppy Meconopsis betonicifolia (brought back from the Himalayan foothills by Frank Kingdon Ward in 1926); the Douglas fir, California poppy, Clarkia elegans and a parent of the lupins now found in our gardens, Lupinus polyphyllus (brought back from the American West between 1824 and 1833 by David Douglas); the regal lily and the Handkerchief or Dove tree (brought back from China at the turn of the 20th century by E H Wilson).
These examples just scratch the surface – can you imagine gardening without this choice?