Garden Seats

At first glance decorative ironwork might not seem to have much to do with gardens.  But as this catalogue dated 1862 from the General Iron Foundry Company (located in Thames Street, London) shows, as well as its many uses in architecture of this period, cast iron was also a popular material for outdoor seating.  This company offers six garden bench designs, together with tables and chairs.

Trade catalogues like these show the enormous range of cast and wrought iron items that were available in the mid nineteenth century.  Over 300 pages of precise and beautiful plates show everything from ovens and sanitary ware to railings, gates, gutters, fireplaces and balcony balusters.  We are reminded what an important feature decorative cast iron was in architecture of this time, in both interior and exterior design.

The first bench design from the General Iron Foundry Company looks broadly similar to some of the famous benches produced by the Coalbrookdale Company, which typically have ornate cast iron sides and backs, using stylised leaves and flowers, and wooden slat seats.

Benches three, five and six (and one of the chairs) are in rustic style, where the iron is fashioned to look like rough pieces of wood artfully placed together to form simple furniture.  Design five is particularly charming, with its entwined oak boughs, foliage and acorns with the legs of the bench ‘tied’ together by means of entwined serpents.  All the benches can be made to bespoke lengths, and can be painted or bronzed.  The advantage of all these cast iron these garden seats is that they would be robust and hard-wearing, and could be left outside.

Although so much of Victorian London has disappeared, some of the decorative iron work from the period remains, and even if a mere fragment, is always an evocative reminder of the past.  In restoring an outside space, details such as the style of railings and garden furniture can give a park or garden a particular atmosphere.

Below (after the garden seats) are some designs for railings, window guards and gratings, which can sometimes still be glimpsed in parts of London today.

(notice the apostrophe that has crept into the section showing hollow columns.)

Possible examples of wrought iron hurdles of various designs, Millfields Park, London E5

Castings Ranges Stoves Pipes &c 1862  from Archive.org made available by the Sydney Living Museums / Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Jardinique  Garden antiques – a mine of information about top makers of antique garden ornaments and furniture (on website)

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Parkinson’s Kitchen Garden

1. Brassica capitata Close Cabbage, 2. Brassica patula Open Cabbage, 3. Brassica sabandica crispa Curled Savoye Colewort, 4. Caulis florida Cole Flower, 5. Caulis crispa Curled Colewort, 6. Caulis crispa variata Changeable Curld Colewort, 7. Rapocaulis Cole Rape

At this time of year I feel a certain nostalgia for my old allotment.  Late July would usually see a harvest of beans, courgettes, beetroot and lettuce.  And if the crops were disappointing, there was always the consolation of blackberries which could be gathered in abundance in the hedges around the perimeter of the site.

These woodcut illustrations from John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (1629) convey the character of home grown vegetables so successfully.  Many plants are drawn with their roots, foliage and flowers, giving a sense of their true scale, in contrast to the trimmed vegetables we find in supermarkets today.   Bold, dark lines evoke the texture of the cabbage leaves and the strong artichoke stems bearing their enormous flower heads.

Written in English, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (or, Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) by apothecary and botanist John Parkinson, describes how English gardens were cultivated in the early 17th century. Divided into three sections Parkinson discusses the flower garden, kitchen garden and fruit garden with instructions how to ‘order’ or set these out, as well as giving advice about improving the soil, garden tools and the cultivation of plants.  Most of the illustrations were original woodcuts by the German artist Christopher Switzer.  Parkinson’s garden was in Long Acre, London, close to Trafalgar Square.

Parkinson has plenty of advice to those wanting to establish a kitchen garden, or garden of herbes and his first consideration is where this section of the garden should be situated.  Parkinson has already suggested that the flower garden

‘be in the sight and full prospect of all the chiefe and choicest roomes of the house; so contrariwise your herbe garden should be on the one or other side of the house .. for the many different sents that arise from the herbes, as Cabbages, Onions, &c are scarce well pleasing to perfume the lodgings of any house;’

As well as the disadvantage of the smell of cabbages, Parkinson also points out that a kitchen garden is by its nature in a state of transition, with plants continually being sown and harvested, so it will not always always be neat and pleasing to look at – another reason for siting this garden away from the house:

‘As our former Garden of pleasure is wholly formable in every part with squares, trayles and knots, and to bee still maintained in their due forme and beautie: so on the contrary side this Garden cannot long conserve any forme, for that every part thereof is subject to mutation and alteration.’

As well as supplying the house with produce, another priority for Parkinson’s kitchen gardener is saving seed for future use. He recommends that the largest and best plants are chosen to set seed.  Here he explains how to harvest seeds of lettuce

‘Before your Lettice is shot up, marke out the choysest and strongest plantes which are fittest to grow for seede, and from those when they are a foote high, strippe away with your hand the leaves that grow lowest upon the stalke next the ground, which might rot, spoyle or hinder them from bearing so good seede; which when it is neere to be ripe, the stalkes must be cut off about the middle, and layde upon mats or clothes in the Sunne, that it may there fully ripen and be gathered; for it would be blowne away with the winde if it should be suffered to abide on the stalkes long.’

As an apothecary, Parkinson is well placed to advise on medicinal or physicall herbes.  He records that some country gentlewomen grow these herbs in sufficient quantity for their own families and to share with less well off neighbours.

‘These (herbs) are grown ‘to preserve health, and helpe to cure such small diseases as are often within the compasse of the Gentlewomens skils, who, to helpe their own family, and their poore neighbours that are farre remote from Physitians and Chirurgions, take much paines both to doe good unto them, and to plant those herbes that are conducing to their desires.’

The useful herbs Parkinson recommends include angelica, rue, chamomile, spurge and celandine.

The following images show some of the staple vegetables that would have been grown in 17th century England such as cabbages, root crops like carrots and parsnips, onions and leeks, together with more exotic introductions like potatoes and melons.  There are also indigenous wild plants like goat’s beard which are no longer grown for food.  The complete text can be found at the Biodiversity Heritage Library – see link below.

1 Cucumis longus vulgaris The ordinary Cowcumber. 2 Cucumis Hispanicus The long yellow Spanish Cowcumber. 3 Melo vulgaris The ordinary Melon. 4 Melo maximus optimus The greatest Muske Melon. 5 Pepo The Pompion. 6 Fragari vulgaris Common Strawberries. 7 Fragari Bohemica maxima The great Bohemia Strawberries. 8 Fragari aculeata The prickly Strawberry

Parkinson acknowledges that melons would be difficult to grow in the English climate and suggests a south facing slope with plenty of manure added to the ground.

1 Fabasatina Garden Beanes. 2 Phasioli satsui French Beanes. 3 Pisum vulgare Garden Pease. 4 Pisum umbellatum sine Roseum Rose Pease or Scottish Pease. 5 Pisum saccheratum Sugar Pease. 6 Pisum maculatum Spotted Pease. 7 Cicer arictinuum Rams Ciches or Cicers

Cicers or Ciches are chickpeas.

1 Raphanus rusticanus Horse Raddish. 2 Lepidium sine Piperitis Dierander. 3 copa rotunda Round Onions. 4 copa longae Long Onions. 5 Perrum Leekes. 6 Allium Garlicke. 7 Rapunculus Rampions. 8 Tragopogon Goates beard.

The roots of Goat’s beard or Jack Go to Bed at Noon were eaten cooked in butter.  This plant is related to salsify.

1 Carum Carawayes. 2 Battatas Hispanorum Spanish Potatoes. 3 Papas seu Battatas Virginianerum Virginia Potatoes. 4 Battatas de Canada Potatoes of Canada or Artichokes of Jerusalem.

1 Sisarum Skirrits. 2 Pastinaca latifolia Parsneps. 3 Pastinaca tenuifolia Carrets. 4 Kapum Turneps. 5 (unclear) 6 Raphanus niger Blacke Raddish. 7 Raphanus vulgaris Common Raddish

1 Portulaca Purslane. 2 Dracho herba seu Tarchon Tarragon. 3 Eruca sativa Garden Rocket. 4 Nasturtium sativum Garden Cresses. 5 Sinapi Mustard. 6 Asparagus Asparagus or Sperage.

The nasturtium (4) does not look like the plant we think of as a nasturtium today.

1 Cinara satina rubra The red Artichoke. 2 Cinara satina alba the white Artichoke. 3 Cinara petala The French Artichoke. 4 Cinara silvestris The Thistle Artichoke. 5 Carduus osculentus The Chardon

Portrait of John Parkinson

Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (John Parkinson) at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. (The section about the Kitchen Garden begins on Page 461).

The English Hay Meadow

Helmingham Hall, Suffolk May 2018

Meadow planting is enjoying a wave of popularity right now both in private gardens and public spaces.  As well as looking natural and beautiful, the variety of flowers and seeds they produce offer great benefits to wildlife, such as pollinating insects and birds.

But what are the origins of the meadow these modern plantings reference and attempt to re-create?  Broadly, the inspiration is the traditional hay meadow, where grasses and other plants were grown to be cut and dried, supplying winter fodder for cattle.  In today’s decorative meadows the balance between grasses and flowers tends towards the dominance of flowers, but when hay was still a crop, grasses were the most important plants in the meadow.

Benjamin Stillingfleet’s illustrated study Observations on Grasses (1762) gives some valuable insights into the 18th century meadow.  In this brief account, he explains how meadows were planted and managed, and discusses in detail the best  grasses for a good hay crop.  Stillingfleet’s research on meadow grasses is intended to educate the farmer so the most suitable kinds of grasses can be grown.  He observes how, until recently, the study of these grasses has been neglected,

‘The farmer for want of distinguishing, and selecting grasses for feed, fills his pastures either with weeds, or bad, or improper grasses; when by making a right choice, after some trials he might be sure of the best grass, and in the greatest abundance that his land admits of.’

Stillingfleet criticises the imprecise way in which farmers acquire seed, which was generally collected from their own hay stack or from a neighbour.  The disadvantage of sowing this mixture is that weeds are introduced; ‘I have seen it filled with weeds not natural to it, and which never would have sprung up, if they had not been brought there.’  Stillingfleet’s solution is to gather very specific grass seeds, so that the mixture contains the best kinds of grasses for the type of soil and situation, and weeds can be kept to a minimum.  He describes enlisting the help of children to perform this task;

‘I have had frequent experience how easy it is to gather the seeds of grasses, having employed children of ten or eleven years old several times, who have gathered many sorts for me without making any mistakes, after I had once shewn them the sorts I wanted.’

The charming illustrations of ten of the finest hay grasses are a valuable aid to the identification of these plants for the general reader, as grasses are quite hard to tell apart from descriptions alone.

‘Many people having expressed a desire that I should have plates of some of the profitable grasses added to this piece, that most excellent man, the late Mr Price of Foxley, whose extraordinary character I shall always revere, and do intend to give a sketch of on some future occasion, kindly condescended to employ his pencil, which in the opinion of the best judges was equal to things of a much superior nature, in making me several drawings from the plants themselves, and a very able hand has supplied the rest and engraved them all.’

One of the most beautiful grasses to be found in the hay meadow is the meadow fox-tail which grows to around a metre in height, and was also considered one of the best for high quality hay.

‘I am informed that the best hay which comes to London is from the meadows where this grass abounds.  I saw this spring a meadow not far from Hampstead which consisted of this grass chiefly with some of the vernal grass and the corn brome grass. It might be gathered at almost any time of the year from hay ricks, as it does not shed its seeds without rubbing, which is the case of but few grasses.’

Benjamin Stillingfleet (1702 – 1771) was a naturalist and author, accepted as one of the first in England to use the principles of Linnaeus in his botanical studies.  His portrait by Zoffany hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

The modern meadow is unlikely to be harvested for cattle, and the flowers it contains may well include non-native species.  But meadow plantings using indigenous plants blend so well with the English landscape and its vernacular buildings, and seem to tie these elements together seamlessly.  Mass plantings of ordinary plants like buttercups and cow parsley have a freshness and radiance at this time of year which can stop you in your tracks.

Vernal grass  ‘It is very plentiful in the best meadows about London, viz. towards Hampstead and Hendon.’

Meadow foxtail grass (Alopecurus pratensis)  One of the taller grasses, to approx 1m.

Fine bent grass

Mountain hair grass  ‘It grows in great plenty on Bagshot Heath’

Silver hair grass

Great meadow grass

Annual meadow grass  ‘This grass makes the finest of turfs.  It is called in some parts the Suffolk grass.  ..as some of the best salt butter we have comes from that county, it is most likely to be the best grass for the dairy.’

Sheeps fescue grass

Flote fescue grass

Crested dogs-tail grass  ‘This grass I imagine is proper for parks.’

Meadow foxtail grass Alopecurus pratensis (foreground and against yew trees) in a planting of cow parsley, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Cow parsley, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Meadow planting with willow edging, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk May 2018

Observations on Grasses from Archive.org

Tall Bearded Irises from Cooley’s Gardens

Cover of Cooley’s Gardens catalogue of irises 1935.

When Cooley’s Gardens closed its gates in 2011 after trading for over 80 years, this nursery had, in its heyday, been one of America’s leading suppliers of bearded irises.  Their catalogues show dozens of iris varieties for sale that were exported as far afield as Canada, Australia, and Europe, as well as their home market in the US.  Based in Oregon the nursery was the project of Rholin and Pauline Cooley and, as with many nurseries, was a hobby that in time became a business.  Selling herbaceous perennials with a special focus on tall bearded irises, some of their beautiful catalogues are preserved online via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Like many plants, tall bearded irises go in and out of fashion.  The bearded iris is probably considered by many to be too showy for today’s on trend naturalistic planting, especially as most recent cultivars have frilly edges to their petals, which combined with multicoloured flowers, makes them difficult to associate with simpler flower forms.

In 2007 gardener Sarah Cook was instrumental in reviving interest in the Benton irises, bred by the artist Cedric Morris.  Developed between the 1930s and 1960s  his irises display an elegance of form which modern varieties have lost, but can also be seen in the flowers from some of the Cooley’s early catalogues.  The Benton varieties are grown by Beth Chatto, and seem to integrate well in her garden, amongst the grasses and other sun-loving perennials.

Looking at the Cooley’s catalogues, it’s interesting to observe how tastes in these flowers developed through the 20th century.  The earlier hybrids from the 1930s have the languid look of silk gowns from that period, while by the 1950s the form of the iris flower has become more frilled, and stiffer, like prom dresses.  In the process, the flowers somehow seem to lose the elegance of the earlier hybrids.

Cooley’s catalogues from the 1930s show some very elegant flowers indeed. The large black and white photographs show the spacing of the flowers on the stem, which contributes to their poise, while the colour plates show their astonishing colours from browns and purples, to pinks and pure white.

Pictured in colour Mountain Sunset and Eloise Lapham. Cooley’s Gardens catalogue 1935.

Kalinga from Cooley’s Gardens catalogue 1935.

President Pilkington, lavender blue and pale buff from 1935 catalogue.

Venus de Milo (all white) and Grace Sturtevant from 1935 catalogue

Legend with rich deep claret falls and standards of deep blue 1935 catalogue.

Ethelwyn Dubuar, strikingly pink, according to the 1935 catalogue.

For their stock, the Cooleys teamed up with iris breeders, both professional and amateur, who supplied a constant stream of new varieties.  New introductions were expensive (some priced at as much as $20) and aimed at the serious collector, but this was balanced by ‘Bargains for Beginners’ and ‘Class for the thrifty’ where 12 plants of established varieties could be purchased for two dollars.

Ormohr from 1939 catalogue.

Copper Lustre from 1939 catalogue.

Far West from 1939 catalogue.

Dogrose, Legend and Rameses from the 1939 catalogue.

Itasca from the 1939 catalogue.

Treasure Island from the 1939 catalogue.

Kalinga from the 1939 catalogue.

Ethelwyn Dubuar (pink) with Red Dominion, 1939 catalogue.

Rebellion, 1939 catalogue.

1930s evening gown (Wikimedia Commons)

Irises from 1964 showing a more upright form with frilly petals

Irises from 1965

I’ve grown the deep purple flowered iris ‘Matinata’ for many years and love to see the dark, almost black, buds at this time of year, followed by the spectacular flowers.  This iris was bred by Schreiner’s in the 1960s, another Oregon based iris specialist.  Given the renaissance of interest in the Benton irises, perhaps it’s time to re-discover some more heritage iris varieties for our gardens.

Cooley’s Catalogue 1935

Cooley’s Catalogue 1939

The quest for the Benton Irises (The Telegraph)

Wordsworth House and Garden

On a damp, grey day in early April it’s not every garden that tempts visitors to linger. But when I visited the walled garden at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, Cumbria at the beginning of the month there was much to see of interest, as well as providing some welcome shelter from cold winds.

Although early in the season, signs of spring were evident.  Daffodils were flowering, with tulips not far behind them; new shoots visible on the roses and perennial plants were starting to emerge from their  long winter dormancy.

Wordsworth House is the birthplace of William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), who lived here with his family in the 1770s.  The National Trust, which acquired the house in the 1930s, has designed the garden in late eighteenth century style, with plant varieties that would have been available in the period.   Attractive slate labels show the names of these plants, information about their uses and introduction to cultivation in the UK.  The apples Greenup’s Pippin (1790) and Acklam Russet (1768) are cultivated with the the dual purpose pear Williams Bon Chretien (1770), Morello Cherry (pre 1629) and the Gargarin Blue Grape.  The garden also has a collection of Orpington and Silkie hens.

Beans and peas and other household vegetables are grown in open beds at the centre of the garden and the traditional supports for these made out of local materials such as birch are already in place for the coming season.  Supports for flowers like peonies are also constructed using poles and string.

The garden backs onto the river Derwent, which looks tame enough today, but in 2009 William Wordsworth’s ‘beauteous stream’ burst its banks.  Both the house and gardens were damaged by flooding (as were other buildings in the town) with many garden plants swept away by the waters, and even the heavy wooden gates at the front of the building (now replaced) were wrenched from their hinges.  The force of the water must have been immense.

Today the re-planted garden with its fruit trees, roses, flowers and herbs looks well established, which is a tribute to the efforts of head gardener Amanda Thackeray and the National Trust’s team of volunteers.  It’s also a good reminder that it is possible to create a garden with a sense of permanence in a relatively short period of time.

Wordsworth House and Garden, Spring 2018

new shoots of lovage (Levisticum officinale)

Back home, whilst considering the old fruit varieties I was delighted to come across a catalogue of fruit trees from the relatively local grower William Pinkerton, based in Wigan, and dating from 1782.  Despite its fragile looking state it’s available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library.  The comprehensive list includes a surprising number of peaches, nectarines and apricots as well as apples, pears, plums and cherries.  Although not individually named, Pinkerton offers a staggering 74 varieties of gooseberry.  It would be fascinating to know how many of these varieties are traceable today – the Green Gage and La Mirabelle plums certainly sound familiar.  The catalogue is reproduced below.

William Pinkerton’s Catalogue of Fruit Trees, Wigan, Lancs 1782

I wonder if this nectarine variety is anything to do with Thomas Fairchild?

William Pinkerton’s Fruit Catalogue 1782

Wordsworth House and Garden

William Wordsworth

Bernwode Plants  masses of information about heritage fruit trees

Cuckoo Flowers

Lychnis flos-cuculi from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

The arrival of the cuckoo in April remains a popular sign of spring, even for the majority of us now living in towns or cities who might not actually hear the call.  The unmistakable sound of the cuckoo is embedded in our creative culture – in music, poetry and in the common names of some of the UK’s native wild flowers, all of which help us preserve a link with the natural world and the changing seasons.

Flora Londinensis, written by William Curtis and published in six volumes between 1777 – 1798 is an illustrated survey of all the wild plants that could be found within a ten mile radius of London.  Curtis sheds some light on the reason why Lychnis flos-cuculi is known as the cuckoo flower observing that, ‘from the earliest ages’ people have made a connection between the flowering of certain plants and ‘the periodical return of birds of passage’.

Before the return of the seasons was exactly ascertained by Astronomy, these observations were of great consequence in pointing out stated times for the purposes of Agriculture; and still, in many a Cottage, the birds of passage and their corresponding flowers assist in regulating “The short, and simple Annals of the Poor.” 

Curtis points out that  ‘we have several other plants that, in different places, go by the name of Cuckow Flower’ including cardamine, arum, orchids and wood sorrel.  He talks about a double form of the lychnis flower being cultivated in gardens.

Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of plantes (1597) contains many examples of local plant names.  He confirms that cardamines are commonly known as Cuckow flowers, while noting that in Norfolk they are called Caunterburie bels and in Cheshire (his place of birth, in Nantwich), Ladie smockes.  

Another cuckoo flower mentioned by Gerard is the common woodland plant Arum maculatum.  He lists the plant’s common names:

The common Cockow pint is called in Latin Arum: in English Cockow pint and Cockow pintle, wake Robin, Priest’s pintle, Aron, Calfes foote, and Rampe, and of some Starch woort.

According to Wikipedia, ‘pint’ is a shortening of the word ‘pintle’, meaning penis, derived from the shape of the spadix. 

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Cardamine pratensis from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Arum maculatum from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

A double form of Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘Jenny’ (photo Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighteenth century it was understood that cuckoos left the country to overwinter in warmer places, but not known that they travelled as far as Africa.  While we know more about the cuckoo’s migratory patterns now, fewer of us experience the cuckoo first hand, so may not know about the changing call of the cuckoo over the season.  Gerard talks about the time in April and May when ‘the Cuckowe doth begin to sing her pleasant notes without stammering’.  In his poem The Cuckoo John Clare also observes a loss of voice, but in summer:

When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more. 

This alteration in the cuckoo’s call is described as a ‘change of tune’ in Jane Taylor’s poem, memorably and beautifully set to music by Benjamin Britten in his collection of twelve songs entitled Friday Afternoons.  Do listen on the link below.

Cuckoo, Cuckoo!
What do you do?
“In April
I open my bill;
In May
I sing night and day;
In June
I change my tune;
In July
Far far I fly;
In August
Away I must.”

Jane Taylor, 1783-1824

from History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick 1797 – 1804

Cuckoo! by Benjamin Britten

Flora Londinensis

Arum maculatum entry Wikipedia

(images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, unless otherwise stated)

Ribbon Grass

Still Life with Flowers in a Decorative Vase 1670 – 75 Maria van Oosterwijck  (Wikimedia Commons)

We tend to think of grasses used as decorative garden plants as a new development in planting design.  Pioneered by Karl Foerster in Germany in the 1930s, his naturalistic planting schemes used grasses and late flowering perennials, a style which has been embraced and developed by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, and many others, and remains very influential today.  So it may come as a surprise that long before the current fashion for prairie style planting, grasses were grown in European gardens as far back as the sixteenth century.

At the front of the arrangement in the painting above by Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 1693) there is a strand of boldly striped green and white ribbon grass, contrasting with the dark background and the pink flowers of a hollyhock.  The long leaves make contact with marble surface upon which the vase of flowers stands and seem to be reaching out further, almost to the edge of the canvas, inviting us to touch them.  One of a pair of beetles is starting to climb a leaf.

If we believe that the blooms depicted in the Dutch flower paintings of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries represent those most valued by horticulturalists and collectors, it is interesting to see this grass given such a prominent place among the roses, carnations and poppies.

The RHS lists ten common names for Phalaris arundinacea var. picta including gardener’s garters, bride’s laces, and lady grass as well as the more familiar ribbon grass. The number of names would seem to indicate that the plant has a long history of cultivation and was well known in the UK.

John Gerard in The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) describes the grass as being, ‘like to laces of white and greene silke, very beautiful, and faire to behold’ and explains it is ‘kept and maintained in our English gardens, rather for pleasure than for vertue’, (meaning that ribbon grass had no known practical or medicinal qualities).  We know that ribbon grass was cultivated in ordinary gardens in the nineteenth century as it is mentioned by John Clare in a list of cottage garden plants alongside wallflowers, pinks and lavender.

Ladie Lace Grasse from The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes 1597 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Ribbon grass is quite tall (approx 60cm) so too high to fit into the standard rectangular illustration frame size for the Herball.  In the 1597 version the whole plant has been shrunk to fit the frame, but in the updated Herball of 1633 the artist has indicated scale more accurately by cutting the grass stem and placing the roots, stalk and flowering head together.

Lady-lace Grasse from The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes 1633 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Ribbon grass is a very easy plant to grow.  An ideal site would be sunny with a damp soil; it will tolerate some shade and a dry soil, but the seedheads will not form unless it receives a few hours of sun each day.  At its best in spring and summer, the stems collapse in winter, so it doesn’t make good winter structure like miscanthus or calamagrostis.

It would be good to see more ribbon grass grown in historical planting schemes, as it was clearly a valued garden plant in the past.  It associates well with herbaceous plants and creates pools of brightness next to evergreens.  Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), a contemporary of Oosterwijck, also uses ribbon grass in her compositions –  the National Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum have examples of her paintings in their collections.  Well worth checking out on their websites (or better still, visit the galleries if you can).

Garland with blossoms 1683 Rachel Ruysch (Wikimedia Commons)

Phalaris arundinacea var. picta or Ribbon grass

Further Reading:

The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes

Maria van Oosterijck

Rachel Ruysch

Rachel Ruysch at the National Gallery

Alistair Sooke on Dutch Flower Paintings