HOW EXOTICIS YOUR GARDEN?

A Lecture by Anna Pavord on 21 May 1998
Anna Pavord is Gardening Correspondent of ‘The Independent’, Associate Editor of ‘Gardening Illustrated’ and has just completed a six-year study of the history of the tulip.

The first lecture in the series was marked by the lecturer's breadth of knowledge, and made delightful by her engaging enthusiasm for plants, enlivened by many well chosen and imaginative slides. She opened her talk with an appreciative reference to the marrying of literature and science in the Institution, which should be well exemplified by the present series of lectures.
Having shown pictures of quintessentially ‘English’ gardens, she explained how nearly all our favourite garden plants in them, both flowering and shrubs, which we now think are English were brought into this country, mainly from the sixteenth century onwards, from virtually all over the world. They have flourished in this, their adopted land, owing to its helpful, temperate climate. She gave lively descriptions of the origins of these imports, including a large number of vegetables. One of the biggest changes in the English garden was brought about by the arrival of flowering bulbs in the second half of the sixteenth century. Nature, she said, had “endowed this country with a ridiculously small palette of plants, compared with, say, Madagascar. But the compensation for this is our climate: we have discovered, over the last five hundred years, that we can grow plants from an extraordinarily wide range of other countries, other habitats”.
Among the imports were Anna Pavord's particular favourites, tulips, and we were treated to a memorably enthusiastic, informative and well illustrated excursion to the native lands of tulips in all their remarkable and ever changing varieties. Tulips spread over the ages from their heartlands in Central Asia, to Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iran, Turkmenistan, the Caucasus and Turkey, and thence westwards into the Balkans and Mediterranean countries.
We take the effect that imported exotic plants have on our gardens so much for granted that it is difficult to imagine life without them. As an outstanding example, she gave a dramatic and lucid account of the origin of the garden at Hidcote Manor and its development by Lawrence Johnston from about 1910 into the garden we see today, run by the National Trust. It owes most of its character to exotic plants, some of which Johnston himself collected on excursions abroad. To conclude her excellent talk, Anna Pavord reminded us that Hidcote “remains as an enduring symbol of the obstinate desire of all gardeners to grow plants that nature never intended”.
Questions ranged from the rise and fall in the popularity of particular plants and in their fortunes due to attack by viruses to the possible effect of the Ice Ages on the numbers of surviving species. There was some speculation about the causes of the reversal in our own age from the prevalence of conifers over deciduous species of trees in prehistoric times. Lupins, once prominent in gardens, seem to have suffered from a virus; though now recovering, they are not yet popular and seem to prefer soils of low pH. The recently established national collections are playing a vital part in preserving cultivars which would otherwise disappear for ever in adverse circumstances. Railway, and lately motorway, verges have provided places largely free of interference along which interesting and attractive plants have been able to spread.
She deplored, however, the present misleading impression being given in the media that ‘wild gardens’ are easy to manage, because they are not. Based on her particular interest in tulips, she also gave a lively account of the extraordinary causes and effects of the early l7th century Tulipomania in the Netherlands.
John Coates