17 May 2015

The Unicorn And The Duchess

Coincidence is a strange phenomenon isn't it?

Here is my latest brush with it:

This Saturday's Guardian (I think you can guess who I didn't vote for this past election) had a review of a book called 'A Natural History of English Gardening'. Naturally I pounced on it. This book is "one in which the garden is seen as an ecological and cultural system rather than a stage for fashionable designs or horticultural achievements." Yes, definitely my kind of book. Unfortunately at £45 this review is as near as I'll get to seeing the contents of its pages.

As it happens this may not be too much of a loss because I get the impression the author's focus is not on the garden in the cultural context of the normal person. Instead, by cultural system he means 18th century land owners and their ability to send botanists to far corners of the empire to bring back new plant species. Perhaps not my kind of book after all.

However, we are all, rich or poor, human and there was one plant collector I found some sympathies with. The Duchess of Beaufort (remember that name), who had a garden that rivalled the one at the royal palace at Hampton Court, used gardening to help deal with depression.

"When I get into storys of plants," she said, "I know not how to get out."

I understand that.

I put the paper down and went to the Unicorn (a vegan veg shop) in Chorlton. On the street approaching the shop I spotted a pretty weed growing under some trees that I hadn't seen before. Being a shameless plant hunter (give me a brigantine and a merry crew and I'll go get you some plants for your garden) I picked a few flowers and took them home to identify.

The flowers had yellow daisy-like petals, so we are talking of the Asteraceae family, and they had a look of groundsel about them. I went through a couple of flower ID sites online, but they didn't reveal anything. So I resorted to the old fashioned method of using a key system in a book. This pointed to ragwort, but to me ragwort is a big aggressive plant, this one was chirpy and dainty. With an extra boost of some Wiki flicking I got the answer: Oxford Ragwort .

This plant came from the lava fields of Mount Etna in Sicily. Originally it was intended as a garden ornamental but it escaped and famously spread throughout Britain along the clinker trackways of the new railways.

'I have seen them enter a railway-carriage window near Oxford and remain suspended in the air in the compartment until they found an exit at Tilehurst'

Now here is where that coincidence weaves its magic ...

In whose garden was it first grown? The Duchess of Beaufort's of course.

Mary, Duchess of Beaufort, 1650