Johann Hermann Knoop’s Pomologia

Pomologia, dat is, Beschryvingen en afbeeldingen van de beste soorten van appels en peeren by Johann Hermann Knoop. (1758)  Pomologia, that is, descriptions and pictures of the best varieties of apples and pears (The Getty Research Institute via archive.org)

Caroline d’Angleterre, Witte Ribbezt, Spaansche Guelderling, Peppin d’Or, Calville Blanche d’Hyver – what do these names have in common?  All are European apples, grown in the mid-18th century and recorded by Johann Hermann Knoop in his spectacular book, Pomologia, that is, descriptions and pictures of the best varieties of apples and pears (1758).

Exceptional coloured engravings reveal the immense variety in the shapes, scale and colour of these fruits.  Some of the apples have elongated shapes like plums or melons, looking quite different from those available today.  Others, like the Bruindeling and Reinette de Montbron, are exceptionally dark shades of brown, while the skin of the Reinette Grise appears to have a slightly rough texture, as well as its unusual colouring.

The pears are just as diverse.  Some, like the Bergamotte d’Oré and another, simply named Parfum, are small and round like apples.  Bourdon and Muscat-Fleury are conventionally pear shaped, but miniature.  The appropriately named Grande Monarche is a huge green pear, with a touch of redness on the side of the fruit that was exposed to the sun while growing on the tree, and ready to eat in February and March.

Born in Germany, Knoop (early 18th century – 1769) followed his father into horticulture and began his career as gardener at Marienburg, near Leeuwarden in The Netherlands.  By 1747 the estate had lost its status as a royal residence, and not long after this Knoop left his position there, with a suggestion that alcoholism might have been a factor in the termination of his employment.

Whilst still at Marienburg, Knoop’s interest in science resulted in his first publication in 1744 – an update of an existing handbook for engineers and surveyors – but it was the publication of Pomologia in 1758 that brought him wider recognition.  After Pomologia Knoop published Dendrologia (about garden trees) and Fructologia discussing fruit trees such as cherries and plums, and these three publications were sometimes sold bound together as an encyclopedia.  Reflecting Knoop’s breadth of interests, further books on subjects as diverse as heraldry and architecture followed.

Knoop’s ambitious survey of apple and pears covers varieties from the Low countries, Germany, France and England.  Information about each of these is organised in chapters to accompany the numbered plates, and includes details of the size and vigour of the trees as well as the relative merits of the fruits, such as flavour and keeping qualities – especially important before modern refrigeration.  It also served as an identification manual for readers to match fruits from their gardens to illustrations in the book.

According to the university of Utrecht, the engravings for Pomologia produced by Jacob Folkema and Jan Casper Philips were hand coloured by the daughters of the publisher, Abraham Ferwerda.  The skillful use of shading in the engravings conveys a sense of weight and solidity, while the depiction of irregularities and blemishes on the skins of the fruits lends both charm and a sense of authenticity.

Are any of the apples and pears from Knoop’s work still cultivated today?  A brief search reveals the apple Calville Blanche d’Hiver for sale at specialist growers Bernwode Fruit Trees.  Bernwode notes the cooked fruit keeps its shape and that, ‘Victorian gardeners grew the trees against a wall or under glass, for the best flavour and because chefs valued the fruit so highly.’  Calville Blanche d’Hiver can also be used as dessert apple.  The pear Jargonelle is available, and the Poire d‘Angleterre, or Engelse Beurré, with its reddish-brown skin, the flavour described as ‘melting, very juicy flesh, sweet and rich’.

Links to Pomologia (1758) and a French translation (1771) below, plus links to the universities of Delft and Utrecht for biographical information about Knoop published on their websites.

Calville Blanche d’Hyver is the green apple at the bottom right of the page.

The pear Jargonelle is seen at the bottom of this page.

The beautiful brown Poire d’Angleterre appears at the top right of this page

Further reading:

Pomologia (1758)

French translation published in 1771 Pomologia (1771)

Biography of Knoop from University of Utrecht

Discussion of Knoop’s career from Prof Cor Wagenaar, University of Delft

Bernwode Fruit Trees

Changing moods at Montacute House gardens

One of a pair of garden lodges at the original entrance to Montacute House, Somerset with yew hedging and topiary in the foreground.

Yew in all its various forms underpins the planting of the garden at Montacute House, in Somerset.  Twin rows of yew topiary line the drive to the Grade 1 listed house, while hedges of various styles and heights divide spaces and define paths and walkways.  Constructed out of local Ham Hill stone, with its deep, golden hue, Montacute House was built in the late 16th century by Sir Edward Phelips, and passed into National Trust ownership in 1927.

Under the direction of head gardener Chris Gaskin, much of Montacute’s yew is being re-shaped, bringing the plants back to a more manageable size and to a scale that is in harmony with the house and its surroundings.  This has involved some drastic pruning, reducing their height and spread and thinning the centre of the plants to bring in light and air.  Fortunately, yews respond remarkably well to this treatment, having the ability to re-generate from old wood, and are already showing fresh green growth on the cut branches.

The re-instatement of the parterre garden is also part of the plan for re-modelling the garden.  Situated on the north side of the house, this large rectangular area of lawn is sunken, with a fountain at its centre.  Stone steps on each side lead up to a surrounding walkway, providing views of the parterre and the parkland beyond.

The first step in this enormous task has been for the gardeners mark out the shape of the parterre, which they’ve done by mowing paths in the lawn.  These pathways will eventually be covered with gravel and the beds planted with flowers.  It’s expected this project will take ten years to realise – perhaps longer – as the effect of Covid-19 on the National Trust’s funding situation continues to be felt.

Towards the end of the afternoon when most of the visitors had gone home, we had the opportunity to ask two of the staff about their experience of Montacute in lockdown.  With no visitors and hardly anyone at the house, weeds started to grow up through the paving.  Without their foliage, the newly pruned yew trees looked like wooden torches and the faint outline of the parterre in the grass contributed a haunting feel to the garden.  With a bit of imagination, it felt like an abandoned place, in the process of being reclaimed by nature and pulled back into wilderness.

Although the people have now returned, this feeling has not completely disappeared – the un-mown parterre beds were full of wildflowers growing through the grass and children running along the grass pathways were delighted by the challenge of following their geometric shapes.

The lawn in front of the original entrance to the house is flanked by long flower borders and the view over the estate is framed by two matching garden lodges.  Now a tranquil space, this area would once have been a bustling courtyard, with estate traffic and guests coming and going.  It’s a reminder of how plants can create a special atmosphere – sometimes an impression of permanence and sometimes a sense of order slipping away.

More about the history of the house and gardens in the link below:

The row of yews lining the drive to the 18th century entrance before pruning. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A line of yew trees being re-shaped. The encroaching trees behind the yews have caused them to lean towards the light and grow out of shape.

A line of yew trees being re-shaped. The encroaching trees behind the yews cause them to lean towards the light and grow out of shape.

new growth appearing on the pruned trees.

Cloud-pruned yew hedge.

The parterre garden at Montacute before restoration work. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The parterre garden

The shape of the parterre, based on a 19th century design, has been laid out by mowing pathways through the lawn.

Some of the yews are quite characterful – these look as though they are about to make off into the parkland together.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) in flower in the unmown sections of the parterre.

Steps down to the sunken parterre garden.

Rear elevation of Montacute House. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A pair of lions with human faces hold the crest above the original front door to Montacute House.

Most of the roses had finished when we visited.

Visitors (with deep pockets) can stay in this exquisite gatehouse building at the Montacute estate, managed by the National Trust. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Further reading:

Montacute House on Wikipedia

Montacute House National Trust

Late Summer at Forde Abbey

Glasshouses in the kitchen garden at Forde Abbey, Somerset

Last week temperatures soared, making the south of England feel almost Mediterranean.  Shade becomes invaluable in a heatwave, as we seek the relief of a garden seat carefully placed on a woodland walk, or close to the cooling sound of a stream.

Both trees and water are major elements at Forde Abbey gardens.   We arrived just as the Centenary fountain was due to be activated – at certain intervals in the day, a single jet of water powers 160 feet into the air, making this the tallest fountain in the UK.  Although the air was relatively still on the day we visited, the plume of water is sensitive to any variation in the direction of the breeze, changing its shape continually, and covering the surrounding area in a fine mist – a welcome effect in the 90 degree sunshine.

The Great Pond at the southern boundary of the garden was established over 800 years ago by Cistercian monks, and by means of channels, water from this source supplies the more recently added canal and ponds.  The gardens have been developed by a succession of owners over the centuries, including the most recent, the Kennard family, who installed the fountain.

The impressive walled kitchen garden was constructed in the 19th century and is now planted in a colourful, contemporary style against a background of traditional stone walls and glasshouses.  Sweet peas are trained against a tunnel made of rustic poles, covering a central pathway, and alongside the array of vegetables and fruit is a profusion of flowering plants.  Whether grown for cutting, or encouraging crop pollinators, all the blooms contribute to the sense of abundance and generosity which characterises the entire garden.

The large growing beds are edged with low box hedges.   Sometimes, hedging around smaller vegetable beds can look fussy as well as being a lot of work to maintain.  But here, and on this scale the box looks perfect, and has a practical purpose, in some areas acting as a retaining barrier for the soil which has been built up higher than the paths with the addition of compost over years of cultivation.

Permanent crops such as asparagus, rhubarb and peonies are planted in rows alongside annual sowings of brassicas, squash, courgettes and salad vegetables.  Orange flowers always seem to feel at home in a kitchen garden and there are many examples here, including French marigolds (tagetes), alstroemeria and Tithonia rotundiflora.

The outer walls of the kitchen garden form the backdrop for a spectacular herbaceous border and it was here that, rather unexpectedly, we met Alice Kennard, working in a large brimmed hat alongside her gardeners.  Alice tells us that the border is at least fifteen feet deep – about five paces from the wall to the lawn edge.  Ordinarily, without the complications of Covid 19, much of the produce from the walled garden would be used in Forde Abbey’s kitchens catering for visitors and events, but this year much is for sale in the estate’s shop and staff are encouraged to take home what they can.

In the intense heat, I found a few precious pockets of shade in the walled kitchen garden, from which these photographs were taken.  Forde Abbey’s Grade 1 listed buildings currently remain closed, but the 30 acre garden is open daily.  More photographs of the gardens and information about Forde Abbey’s history and opening times here: Forde Abbey   Some of the covetable plants seen in the herbaceous borders are available from the Abbey’s excellent plant nursery.

Low box hedges surround the growing beds

Aramanth ‘Red Army’

Sweet peas on a rustic framework

Rhubarb in a cooler section of the garden

Beautiful clematis on a shady wall

The peach house

Tithonia rotundiflora

A ripening squash

Further reading:

Wikipedia entry for Forde Abbey: Forde Abbey on Wikipedia

Gertrude Jekyll’s Cottage Gardens

Cottage porch from Old West Surrey (1904) by Gertrude Jekyll (University of California Libraries)

Gertrude Jekyll’s Old West Surrey Some Notes and Memories (1904) represents something of a departure from her vast output of books and articles about plants and garden design.  This study of the locality around her home at Munstead Wood reveals an enthusiasm for all aspects of vernacular architecture and the rural way of life in this part of southern England, which was rapidly disappearing at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Illustrated with dozens of Jekyll’s photographs, details of farm buildings and cottages, trades, furniture, tools and everyday household articles are documented – and, of course, the people she encountered on her travels.  Jekyll dedicates a whole chapter of her book to the cottage garden, praising both the skill of the cottage gardener, and the dedication needed to maintain the displays of flowers over the season.

This style of gardening, with roses framing the front door and a profusion of flowers in the borders, was a favourite of Jekyll’s and examples of cottage gardens regularly appear in her other published works.  These gardens are still deservedly popular, despite associations of sentimentality and nostalgia, perhaps because this unpretentious style of planting complements smaller houses so well.  Any meanness in the scale of the building is softened and the cottage front garden, in particular, lifts the spirits of passers-by as well as providing pleasure for the owners themselves.

Here follow Jekyll’s photographs of cottage gardens from Old West Surrey together with some of her observations about them.   Her detailed knowledge of plants makes this a useful resource for anyone wishing to re-create a cottage garden from this period.  Links to the text below:

‘The most usual form of the cottage flower-garden is a strip on each side of the path leading from the road to the cottage door.  But if the space is a small one, it is often all given to flowers.  Sometimes, indeed, the smaller the space the more is crammed into it.  One tiny garden I used to watch with much pleasure, had nearly the whole space between road and cottage filled with a rough staging.  It was a good example of how much could be done with little means but much loving labour.  There was a tiny green-house, of which the end shows to the left of the picture, that housed the tender plants in winter, but it could not have held anything like the quantity of plants that appeared on the staging throughout the summer.  There were hydrangeas, fuschias, show and zonal geraniums, lilies and begonias, for the main show; a pot or two of the graceful francoa, and half-hardy annuals cleverly grown in pots; a clematis smothered in bloom, over the door, and, for the protection of all, a framework, to which a light shelter could be fixed in case of very bad weather.  

It must have given pleasure to thousands of passers-by; to say nothing of the pride and delight that it must have been to its owner.’

‘There is scarcely a cottage without some plants in the window; indeed the windows are often so much filled up with them that the light is too much obscured.  The wise cottagers place them outside in the summer, to make fresh growth and to gain strength.  These window plants are the objects of much care, and often make fine specimens.’ 

‘The deep-rooting Everlasting Pea (Winterbean is its local name) is a fine old cottage plant, and Nasturtiums ramble far and wide.  Nowhere else does one see such Wallflowers, Sweet-Williams, and Canterbury Bells, as in these carefully-tended little plots.’

‘Here and there is a clipped yew over a cottage entrance; but this kind of work is not so frequent as in other parts of the country.’

‘China Asters are great favourites – ‘Chaney Oysters’ the old people used to call them – and Dahlias, especially the tight, formal show kinds are much prized and grandly grown.

Sweet smelling bushes and herbs, such as rosemary, lavender, southernwood, mint, sage and balm, or at least some of them were to be found in the older cottagers’ garden plots.’

From Wood and Garden, first published in 1899.

Quintessential cottage garden from Wood and Garden first published 1899.

Further reading:

Old West Surrey

Official Website of the Gertrude Jekyll Estate

Celebrating Fairlop Friday

The Fairlop Oak surrounded by the crowed gathered to celebrate the Fairlop Friday Fair. From A Curious Account of the Origin of Fairlop Fair: with an entertaining description of the motley multitude who assemble on that occasion, published by W. Darton 1811 (images courtesy University of California Libraries, via archive.org).

On the first Friday of July,
Then people meet together,
Regardless of the summer fly,
And fearless of the weather.

The summer has always been a time for all kinds of outdoor celebrations.  While seasonal events like harvest festivals were celebrated by communities all over the country, other festivals had a specifically local character.

One of these is the Fairlop Fair (still celebrated today), a day-long event focused around the once famous Fairlop Oak in Hainault Forest, Essex.  Many English festivals have ancient roots, but the Fairlop Fair appears to be a relatively modern invention, a gathering of London workers wishing to escape the city for a rare summer holiday in the countryside.

The Fairlop Fair, which took place on the first Friday in July, was established in the early eighteenth century.  Its continuing popularity is reflected in A Curious Account of Fairlop Fair; with an entertaining description of the motley multitude who assemble on that occasion, a book for children published in 1811 by William Darton.

The book’s plentiful illustrations and verse describing the day out capture the character of the ‘motley multitude’ of Londoners travelling to Hainault.  From the packing of refreshments to sustain them through the day, to their late night meanderings home, Darton’s vivid portraits of everyone from typical family groups to revellers packed onto carts and coaches conveys the rambunctious nature of Fair’s visitors.

The Fairlop Oak is well documented in paintings and prints, (many examples of which can be seen on the Hainault Forest website) and these images record the tree’s gradual decline over the years, showing its hollow trunk and dying branches.  In its heyday the Fairlop Oak’s trunk measured more than thirty feet in circumference, while its canopy was said to cover an acre of ground.  Although the tree was all but dead by the time Darton records the Fair, the event still drew in crowds of visitors.

The celebration was started by Mr Thomas Day, a boat-builder from Wapping, and Darton explains to the young reader how Day and his friends would travel to the Fairlop Oak in a horse-drawn boat.  The boat, filled with musicians, would be paraded around the old tree.  This spectacle gradually attracted more and more people, and so the Fair began.  Some fascinating photographs on the Hainault Forest website show that a boat on wheels still travelled by road to the Fair from the East End of London as late as 1901.

There’s a sense in which Fairlop Friday with its music, crowds, and copious alcohol mirrors the supposedly more genteel garden gatherings at venues in central London from this time, at Vauxhall and Ranelagh.  The Fair also anticipates the immense popularity of today’s outdoor music festivals like Glastonbury.

Sadly, most of these festivals are unable to go ahead this year due to Covid-19, and judging by the unusually large crowds of people in my local park, enjoying the sun and picnics in the shade of the plane trees, they’re much missed.  There are links to the Hainault Forest website and Darton’s book below.

A family gets dressed for the fair, with their coach waiting for them outside.

Thomas Day, founder of Fairlop Fair drinking and smoking with his friends at the foot of the oak – whilst musicians entertain them.

Thomas Day’s extraordinary boat.

Thomas Day is said to have taken a branch of the Fairlop Oak with which to fashion his coffin.

A festival atmosphere greets visitors to the Fairlop Fair.

This carriage is over-loaded with travellers – many of whom are drinking heavily.

Outdoor events are at the mercy of the weather – here revellers are rained off.

The return to London – the dome of St Paul’s is visible across the fields. Many travellers look the worse for wear.

Further reading:

A Curious Account of the Origin of Fairlop Fair

Hainault Forest website – Fairlop Oak

Hainault Forest website – Fairlop Fair

Trellis work from The Netherlands

Illustration from Den Nederlandtsen Hovenier, or, The Dutch Gardener (1669) by gardener Jan van der Groen.  The reader is invited into the garden to learn the secrets of Dutch horticulture – including some fabulous trellis work. The Getty Research Institute via archive.org

If you look closely, images of 17th century gardens often reveal glimpses of elaborate trellis and lattice work.  Styled to echo architectural features, they provide shaded walkways and privacy for visitors, as well as year round structure in the garden.  Openings in the trellis work frame views of the garden, softened by the foliage and flowers supported by their frameworks.

Frequently, however, it’s hard to see from illustrations exactly how the trellis work was constructed – the plant cover might be too dense, or the structure is too far in the background to be able to see much detail.  While many gardening books from this period contain patterns for knot gardens it’s more unusual to see designs for trellis structures, so I was delighted to find some contained in Het Vermakelijck Landt-leven (1669) which translated from the Dutch means The Pleasurable Country Life.

This book brings together several texts – two about gardening and others about household medicine, bee-keeping and cooking.  A gardener’s calendar explains about plants and seasonal tasks while Den Nederlandtsen Hovenier, or, The Dutch Gardener by Jan van der Groen, a gardener to the Dutch royal family, contains illustrations of some of the country’s finest gardens together with dozens of designs for parterres – and trellis.

According to Lenneke Berkhout at the University of Groningen, Jan van der Groen married into a family of stadholder gardeners, who managed gardens belonging to wealthy households, and by way of this connection he was able to build his career.  Berkhout notes that Van der Groen’s father grew and supplied plants to stadholder gardens alongside his main profession as a broom maker, which might have sparked his son’s early interest in horticulture.

In Dutch society, a stadholder gardener had the status of an overseer, and was part of the middle class, probably owning their own property.  In the mid-17th century there would have been many such stadholder gardeners employed in the Netherlands, but Van der Groen was remarkable in that he wrote a book about his experiences.  Berkhout says, ‘Ultimately, it was the publication of his book that set Van der Groen apart from his peers.  No other court gardener ever penned such a work.’

As you’d expect from a gardener to royalty, many of the trellis structures featured in Van der Groen’s book are extremely complex.  Some of the porticos are crowned with globes and pyramids, and have alcoves for statuary – others have trees incorporated into the structure, their tightly clipped canopies emerging from a trellis vase at the summit.

However, in the last two pages of illustrations the designs are less complicated and smaller in scale.  Constructed out of lateral lengths of wood, these include a charming arbour with a seat, some gateways and a simple colonnade.  As with some of the patterns for knot gardens, these trellis designs could be scaled according to space and budget.

When re-constructing period gardens today the choice of appropriate plants is important, of course, but these striking images show that features like trellis also play a crucial part in creating a space that possesses an atmosphere of the past.

Links to Het Vermakelijck Landt-leven below:

Lattice work in the shape of pyramids, a pillar and a vase designed to incorporate a standard tree growing through it. One of the structures reveals wooden spikes at the bottom to fix it into the ground.

Rosa x alba ‘Alba Maxima’ (A) or the white rose of York grown on an arbour constructed of hazel poles in the 17th century garden at the Geffrye Museum (2016)

Further reading:

Het Vermakelijck Landt-leven

As ever, David Marsh at the Gardens Trust has explored this subject comprehensively – link to his blog : Treillage

Lenneke Berkhout’s article about royal gardener Jan van der Groen

Humphry Repton at Hare Street

The view at Hare Street after improvements were made to the garden. Images from Fragments of the theory and practice of landscape gardening (Getty Research Institute via archive.org)

Written towards the end of his life, Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816) is a personal reflection on his career, recalling dozens of the garden projects that he undertook, both great and small, some completed and others unfinished.

Liberated, perhaps, by a sense that he had not much longer to live, Repton is candid about garden styles – and clients – providing us with some interesting insights:

‘Twenty years have now passed away and it is possible that life may be extended twenty years longer, but from my feelings more probable that it will not reach as many weeks; and therefore I may now perhaps be writing the last Fragment of my Labours.  I have lived to see many of my plans beautifully realized, but many more, cruelly marred; sometimes by false economy; sometimes  by injudicious extravagance.  I have also lived to reach that period, when the improvement of Houses and Gardens is more delightful to me, than that of Parks or Forests, Landscapes or distant prospects.’

In the concluding chapter Repton returns to his cottage and garden at Hare Street, his home in Essex for thirty years and his retreat from ‘the pomp of palaces, the elegancies of fashion, or the allurements of dissipation’.

Two illustrations of his garden are provided – one as it was when he acquired the property and another after improvements.  By extending the garden at the front of the house, he is able to frame the view of the village which he finds more pleasing than extensive parkland.  Repton explains:

‘.. it stood originally within five yards of a broad part of the high road: this area was often covered with droves of cattle, of pigs, or geese.  I obtained leave to remove the paling twenty yards farther from the windows; and by this Appropriation of twenty-five yards of Garden, I have obtained a frame to my Landscape; the frame is composed of flowering shrubs and evergreens; beyond which are seen the cheerful village, the high road, and that constant moving scene, which I would not exchange for any of the lonely parks, that I have improved for others;’

A closer inspection of the improved garden reveals the detail of the planting.  Repton has retained two mature trees which he has set within a semi-circular lawn, helping to frame the outlook.  The view of the butcher’s shop is obscured with an iron structure supporting climbing roses and a low rose hedge hides ‘the dirt of the road, without concealing the moving objects which animate the Landscape.’  The practical watering can and simple kitchen chair reinforce the humility of this country residence.

Repton concludes:

‘The most valuable lesson now left me to communicate is this: I am convinced that the delight I have always taken in Landscapes and Gardens, without any reference to their Quantity or Appropriation, or without caring whether they were Forests or Rosaries, or whether they were Palaces, Villas, or Cottages, while I had leave to admire their beauties, and even to direct their improvement has been the chief source of that large proportion of happiness which I have enjoyed through life,’

As we currently spend more time at home than usual – and in our gardens if we are fortunate enough to have them – Hare Street is a reminder of the importance of gardens as a refuge from the world outside whatever their size, and that constructing them is a source of great contentment in our lives.

Humphry Repton 1752 – 1818

The view from the cottage at Hare Street before improvements were made.  The site is located near to Gidea Park in east London.

Detail of the shop front Repton wished to obscure from view

Repton does not say as much, but perhaps another reason to extend his garden was to keep certain people at a distance.

Detail of climbing roses on a structure placed to obscure the view of the butcher’s shop

Detail showing a flowerbed and a hedge of roses and sweet-briar which obscured the dirt of the village road, but allowed Repton to see the movement of people

Repton believed his clients might derive pleasure not so much from the beauty of the their rural view but from calculating how much their livestock might be worth

A vignette showing surveying and drawing implements, plants and practical gardening tools – all necessary to the trade of the landscape architect

Further reading:

Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening

Humphry Repton on Wikipedia

The Veteran Wisterias of Haggerston Park

The pergola walk at Haggerston Park showing three veteran wisterias

In any normal spring I’d now be planning some visits to new gardens.  But as the Covid-19 crisis tethers us to a short radius of our homes, I’ve been re-examining outdoor spaces closer by.

Actually, this is no hardship, as in April Haggerston Park’s veteran wisterias provide a show of scented purple flowers as spectacular as any to be seen in much grander gardens.  Judging by the size of their trunks, it’s likely these climbers were planted in 1956, when the park was developed by the London County Council – which means they are now in their mid-sixties.

The University of Oxford records that the first wisteria plants were introduced to the UK in 1816 from China.  While early cuttings changed hands for six guineas, by the mid 1830s wisteria plants could be purchased for less than two shillings, an indication of their immediate popularity with gardeners.

On the north side of the park, bounded by Whiston Road, there’s a long pergola walk and three of the wisterias are located here – their immense stems curling up slim brick columns.  As the winding growth of these plants joins together and spreads out above these columns, at this time of year the flowers cascade down along the entire length of the structure.

On the west side of the pergola is a spiral staircase – a wonderful architectural detail echoing the shapes of the wisteria trunks – leading upwards to a viewing platform.  It’s here that visitors can study the flowers close up and appreciate their intense perfume – somewhere between lilac and hyacinth – or even sweet pea, as the wisteria is in fact a member of the legume family.

Haggerston Park is situated on land previously occupied by a gas works, and according to Hackney Council’s history of the park, the gas produced there for street and indoor lighting was ‘of offensive smell, unnatural brilliance and unfailing propensity to cause headaches.’  The gas works suffered bomb damage in World War Two and when the decision was made to develop the site into a park in the 1950s, some of its impressively high 19th century brick walls were retained as part of the design.

One of these immense walls bisects the park, dividing the grassed areas to the north from the football pitch, wildlife areas and Hackney City Farm, all developed in the 1980s.  It is here that a fourth veteran wisteria is found.  Left untrained, it now spills over the top of the wall and covers the substantial roofs of the adjacent toilet blocks.

The source of the plant is not immediately apparent, but can be found at the base of the wall in a shady corner – another enormous trunk shooting upwards towards the light supporting a massive tangle of stems branching upwards and outwards in all directions.  An arched opening in the wall – possibly once a tall window in the gas works – is still just visible through the vegetation.

These park walls are large enough to accommodate such a specimen, but show just how vigorous wisteria plants are and how large they can get without regular pruning – if this was a residential street, a row of terraced houses would now be submerged in such a profusion of growth.

In the hopeful spirit of the 1950s Haggerston Park was conceived to improve the quality of life for Londoners – which it has done admirably since – and now makes an incalculable difference for local people who might otherwise have no outside space in which to take their daily exercise.  Let’s hope that Hackney’s green spaces can continue to remain open to visitors throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

Entrance gate to Haggerston Park on Whiston Road

According the RHS, Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) twine clockwise, while Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) twine anti-clockwise. Who knew?

Wisteria flowers cover the railings on the viewing platform

The trunk of an un-pruned wisteria on a high wall in the centre of the park

The arch in the wall is just visible through the profusion of wisteria stems and flowers

Further Reading:

Haggerston Park on Wikipedia

Hackney Council – History of Haggerston Park

London Parks and Gardens Trust

Herbaria – University of Oxford

RHS Guide to Growing Wisteria

Some Medicinal Herbs

Garden rosemary from The herball or, Generall historie of plantes by John Gerard 1597. Images courtesy of The Getty Institute via archive.org

Here’s fine rosemary, sage and thyme.
Come buy my ground ivy.
Here’s fetherfew, gilliflowers and rue.
Come buy my knotted marjorum, ho!
Come buy my mint, my fine green mint.
Here’s fine lavender for your cloaths.
Here’s parsley and winter-savory,
And hearts-ease, which all do choose.
Here’s balm and hissop, and cinquefoil,
All fine herbs, it is well known.
Let none despise the merry, merry cries
Of famous London-town!

The Cries of London Anon. (17th century) from Poems on the Underground (Cassell,1997)

When traders’ cries like these were a familiar sound on London’s streets, herbal remedies were central to our treatment of disease.  Ordinary plants like sage, thyme and ground ivy were grown in gardens, gathered from hedgerows or, as the poem demonstrates, sold door to door for domestic use as medicine.

The herball or, Generall historie of plants (1597) by John Gerard is a rich source of plant based cures and treatments considered effective against illness in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It’s also a reminder of the important practical role gardens had in relation to our health in the past, and the ongoing quest for cures which continues to this day.

The herbs mentioned in the poem are listed here with woodcuts and excerpts from Gerard explaining some of their medicinal purposes.   There’s a link below to the 1597 version of The Herball from The Getty Foundation.

Of Sage.
Gerard’s evocative description of the texture of sage leaves: ‘The great Sage is very full of stalks, fower square, of a woodie substance, parted into branches, about the which grow broad leaves, long, wrinckled, rough, whitish, very like to the leaves of a wilde Mullein, but rougher, and not so white, like in roughness to woollen cloth thread bare;’  He confirms that none of the sage varieties are native to England, but they are widely grown – ‘I have them all in my garden, most of them are very common.’


Of garden Time.
‘Time boiled in water and honie and drunken, is good against the cough and shortnesse of the breath.’  Dried thyme was used to make a medicine called Oximell, used as a cure for a range of ailments from intestinal worms to pains in the head and melancholy.  ‘Made into powder and taken in the waight of three drams with Meade or honied vineger, called Oximell’


Of Ground Ivie, or Alehoofe.
‘Ground Ivie is commended against the humming noise and ringing sounde of the eares, being put into them, and for them that are hard of hearing.’  Gerard also recommends the leaves of ground ivy steeped in water for eye complaints – interestingly, not just for humans but for ‘horse, or cowe, or any other beast’.


Of Feverfew.
As Gerard observes, to grow well this plant requires sharp drainage: ‘The common single Feverfew groweth in hedges, gardens, and about olde walles.  It joyeth to grow among rubbish.’ As its common name suggest, this herb is used to drive away ‘agues’ or fevers.


Of Wall flowers, or yellow stocke Gilloflowers.
‘These kindes of stocke Gilloflowers do grow in most gardens throughout England.’
‘.. yet are they not used in phisicke, except amongst certaine Empericks and Quacksalvers, about love and lust matters, which for modestie I omit.’

Of Rue, or herbe Grace.
‘Sage and with it herbe Grace or Rue,
Make drinks both safe and sound for you.’
Gerard records multiple uses for this herb, used both on its own or in combination with other ingredients.  ‘Rue boiled with Dill, Fennell seede, and some Sugar, in sufficient quantitie of wine, swageth the torments and griping paines of the belly, the paines in the sides and breast, the difficultie of breathing, the cough, and stopping of the lungs, and helpeth such as are declining unto a dropsie.’


Of Marierome.
‘The leaves are excellent good to be put into all odoriferous ointments, waters, powders, broths, and meates.’  ‘There is an excellent oile to be drawen foorth of these herbes, good against the shrinking of sinewes, convulsions, and all aches proceeding of a cold cause.’


Of Mints.
Some uses of mint recorded by Gerard include stomach complaints and headaches:  ‘Mint is marvellous wholsome for the stomack.’  ‘.. being applied to the forehead, or to the temples, as Plinie teacheth, doth take away the headache.’  Children’s ‘sore heads’ could also be treated with this herb.


Of Lavender spike.
Gerard records that lavender conserve was used for a variety of complaints affecting the head, including headaches, dizziness and fainting.  Pill sized amounts of the conserve were to be taken daily: ‘Conserve made of the flowers with sugar, profiteth much against the diseases aforesaid, if the quantitie of a beane be taken thereof in the morning fasting.’


Of Parsley.
‘The leaves of garden Parsley are of a beautiful greene, consisting of many little ones fastened together, divided most commonly into three parts, and also snipt rounde about the edges:’  Parsley was believed to be a cure against venom and poisons, and could be effective for a cough if mixed or boiled with other medicines.  Gerard observes that the roots of the plant were also used, ‘if they be boiled in broth; they be also delightfull to the taste, and agreeable to the stomack.’


Of Savorie.
Gerard describes winter savoury as ‘hot and drie in the third degree’ and having the same uses as thyme.


Of Harts ease, or Paunsies.
‘It is commended against inflammations of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.’  Common names for the plant Gerard mentions include ‘Herbe Trinitie by means of the triple colour of the flowers’ and ‘three faces in a hood’.


Of Bawme.
‘Bawme drunke in wine, is good against the bitings of venemous beasts; comforteth the hart, and driveth away all melancholie and sadnesse’.  Today we know this plant as lemon balm or Melissa officinalis.


Of Hyssope.
‘A decoction of Hyssope made with figs, water, honie, and rue, and drunken, helpeth the inflammation of the lungs, the olde cough, and shortnes of breath, and the obstructions or stoppings of the breast.’


Of Cinkefoile, or Five Finger Grasse.
‘The juice of the rootes while they be yoong and tender, is given to be drunken against the diseases of the liver and lungs, and all poison.  The same drunk in meade or honied water, or wine wherein some pepper hath beene mingled, cureth the tertain and quartaine fevers:’

Further reading:

The Herball, or Generall historie of plantes

Shigemasa’s Birds and Flowers

Birds with cherry blossom (Vol 1) from Kacho shashin zui by Kitao Shigemasa (1805).  All images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute via archive.org.

Magnolia, wisteria, winter flowering jasmine, Japanese quince – many of these species were introduced from Japan into European cultivation by explorers and plant hunters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Now familiar and available to everyone, and growing in gardens by their thousands, it’s hard to imagine that these plants would once have been rarities.

In Kacho shashin zui, an intriguing collection of early 19th century Japanese woodcuts, the branches of these flowering shrubs and trees form settings for some spectacularly beautiful birds.  According to the British Museum, Kacho shashin zui translates as ‘Lifelike depictions of flowers and birds’.  However, a quick internet search suggests that today the Japanese word ‘shashin’ can also relate to film, indicating a snapshot or photograph.

The composition of these woodcuts does indeed give them a photographic quality – they possess the immediacy of a close up shot.  Typically spanning two pages, birds are shown perching on leafy twigs and sprays of blossom the edges of which are cropped by a rectangular black border.  This has the effect of drawing us into the image, focusing our attention on the birds.  In a striking image of a jay hanging upside down in a gingko tree, only one of the leaves is shown in its entirety, the rest are cut through by the frame of the image.

The creator of these woodcuts, Kitao Shigemasa, is a precise observer of the forms of plants.  The shape of leaves, textures of bark, angles of branches and the way flowers are held on the stems reveal very accurately the character of each plant.

Kitao Shigemasa (1739 – 1820) was a print maker based near modern-day Tokyo, who, in a long career, produced illustrations for more than 250 books.  The three volumes of Kacho shashin zui referred to here are from the Smithsonian Institute’s collection – and one of their delights (as well as the stunning woodcuts within) is to open their plain covers and experience the digital books opening left to right – links are below.

There’s always something very special about blossom appearing on bare branches, and, as spring officially begins this week, it’s the perfect time to appreciate the emerging flowers of cherries and magnolias in our parks, streets and gardens.

A jay perches on a gingko (Vol 1)

Kerria japonica

Citrus

Begonia (Vol 2)

Oak (Vol 2)

Magnolia stellata (Vol 2)

Wisteria (Vol 3)

Winter flowering jasmine (jasminum nudiflorum)

Peony (Vol 3)

Further reading:

Vol 1 Kacho shashin zui

Vol 2 Kacho shashin zui

Vol 3 Kacho shashin zui

Kitao Shigemasa (Wikipedia)