Taking my medicine at the Chelsea Physic Garden

Visiting a London garden twice in eighteen months might seem indulgent when there are so many fabulous gardens to see but the Chelsea Physic Garden was well worth another visit.  Second time around I joined a guided tour, something I tend to shy away from but which I highly recommend for this garden.  The tours are taken by volunteers and Jane, our guide, was excellent, full of knowledge delivered with humour and authority.  The ease with which she remembered countless botanical names was impressive, but she did mention she’d been taking tours for 14 years so had had plenty of practice.  I don’t know a lot about medicinal plants so was ready and willing to absorb everything I could.

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Jane’s tour was made up of highlights from various areas in the garden and as it’s easy enough to find out about the history of the garden on its website, I’ll concentrate on those.

The pond rockery (which as the name suggests is a rockery with a pond in the middle) was built in the garden in 1773 and is thought to be the oldest rockery in Europe.  Several of the stones the rockery was built in have connections to people who, as a New Zealander, I felt an affinity with.  Clam shells from Captain James Cook’s voyage to Hawaii and a black basalt stone donated by Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cook’s first voyage when New Zealand was “discovered”, are part of the rockery.  I love rockeries and had never seen one with a pond in the centre before so that was a first.

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As we moved along Jane introduced us to the philosophy behind the Doctrine of Signatures, an important part of medicine at the time the garden was created in 1673.  This was the belief, by those administering to patients, that every plant had a signature, that is if a plant looked like a part of the human body, then it was able to heal illnesses of that body part.  I knew that Plumonaria’s common name was lungwort and this explained why, as it was believed that the leaf shape resembled a lung and so Pulmonaria was useful for treating diseases of the lung.  Another Dentaria (toothwort) was used for dental ailments.  Unfortunately, as Jane told us, none of these treatments worked.

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Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’.  http://www.puririlane.co.nz

A section on common but poisonous plants caused lots of consternation within the group, especially the deadly aspects of the popular oleander (Nerium oleander).  I was standing next to a woman who, in an undertone, told me she was a florist and that they frequently used oleander in their arrangements which seemed more than slightly risky.

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Nerium oleander.  gardenia.net

The Garden of Useful Plants included a bed full of plants that could be made into tea or tisanes.  Like the rest of the garden, the plants were all labelled, which made it easy to identify exactly what plants could be brewed and poured into a cup and saucer.

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Tea bed in the Garden of Useful Plants.  The teapots were a nice touch.

I’ve long been fascinated by plant hunters and have read frequently of the importance of the Wardian case, which enabled plant hunters to get a much higher proportion of plants home alive.  The Wardian case on display was much bigger than I thought it would be although I’m not sure what I was expecting because after all it was designed to transport species found over a period of months.

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Wardian case, an early type of terranium.

After the tour we wandered  and discovered additional parts of the garden.  There were several glasshouses, including one containing a fernery – always a favourite of mine.   The glasshouses were various ages.  I loved the iron shelving in the Victorian one.

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I’m always a sucker for sweet peas and one of the projects the student gardens were given was to plant a bed of sweet peas and stake them.  They were all different but  all looked lovely and the fragrance was magnificent.

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Bed of sweet pears.  The cane supports were perfect for this garden.

So, I’d urge you when next in London to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden.  I know I will, although probably not for another year or two.

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Sweet, Sweet Peas

I was working in the Heritage Garden last weekend and saw a lovely little tripod for sweet peas that one of the Heritage Gardeners had made.

Sweet peas - Heritage Garden

There were a few sweet peas already sprouting and it reminded me it was time to plant mine.  I love sweet peas.  I enjoy planting the nice, big seeds.  They’re greedy plants and I like feeding them with compost and blood and bone, imagining how much good I’m doing them.  When they start to wind and coil around my cane tripods it’s exciting to check on them every day.  They look so good it’s almost a shame to pick the flowers but pick them I do as they smell so delicious and picking them will encourage more blooms.  Sweet peas are becoming more and more popular in New Zealand which garden historian, Bee Dawson, describes as being paramount in the sweet pea breeding world.

A bunch of sweet peas - book cover

A few years ago I stumbled on a little book A Bunch of Sweet Peas which told the story of Reverend Fraser, a Scottish minister who, in 1911, entered a sweet pea competition in the hope of winning some money to help with the cost of repairing the roof of his church.

The competition was held in London so the sweet peas had to be carefully packaged for transport by train.  The Reverend Fraser won the first and third prizes and I was intrigued to see that news of his success, and his recipe for prizewinning sweet peas, was printed in the Taranaki Herald at the time.  Perhaps I’ll try his advice this year.

Taranaki Herald article on sweetpea competition

Taranaki Herald, 26 September 1911, 2

Cherry Blossom Time in Washington DC

Today the winter returned after several sunny, still days.  As the southerly rips and roars around the garden I look forward to spring, the flowering of my three newly planted cherry blossom trees (Prunus Amanogawa) and remember my northern hemisphere spring earlier this year…

Cherry blossom and the US capital don’t go hand in hand in the way that Japan and cherry blossom do, but Washington DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival attracts one and a half million visitors each year.  For the four weeks of the festival in March and April the advent of the cherry blossom is celebrated throughout the city.  We arrived by train on the eve of the festival and our Uber driver assured us we were in luck.  The cherry blossom had just come out and the weekend was scheduled to be fine with no wind.  It won’t last, he told us, strong winds were on their way, his words reminding me of Mary Poppins’ arrival at 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

Tidal Inlet, Washington DC

Tidal Inlet, Washington DC

We walked to see the cherry trees the next morning and the city felt festive.  Passing magnolias bursting with pink buds, cheery yellow daffodils and groups of richly hued tulips, we sprung along revelling in the morning sun.

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Magnolia, Washington DC

Magnolia, Washington DC

We paused at the Washington Monument before crossing Potomac Park towards the Jefferson Memorial.   The circle of cherry blossom trees surrounds the Tidal Basin, an artificial inlet of the Potomac River and we ambled and paused by the water under the froth of pink and white.  We were early but others were earlier.  We picked our way along joining in the chorus of oohs and ahs.  Cameras and phones clicked as festival goers posed against a backdrop of blossom.  Young girls peered from behind blossom laden branches, couples sat under trees with blossom dripping above them, families were grouped.  Tripods and zoom lens were everywhere, it was a frenzy of photographic artistry.  Most of the visitors were American but a number were Japanese, enjoying the magnificence of their native sakura far from home.  On the steps of the Jefferson Memorial we sat and looked across the lake framed with trees bedecked with blossom.

Washington Monument, Washington DC

Washington Monument, Washington DC

It was too early for the food trucks and other festival attractions near the cherry trees but as we wandered around the city reminders and mementos of the cherry blossom we’d seen were everywhere.  At the Library of Congress, the gift shop sells cherry blossom bookmarks, jewellery, mugs, tea towels, stationery and tea sets.  Shopping at the Smithsonian you can be totally garbed in cherry blossom clothing – there are tee shirts, socks, scarves and caps (a nice alternative to the MAGA caps we kept glimpsing) to wear.

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Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC

I was curious as to why there are so many cherry blossom trees in Washington DC and on my return to New York found the perfect memento of my trip, a recently published book about an eccentric Englishman, Collingwood Ingram, “who saved Japan’s cherry blossoms”.  The book is as much about cherry blossom trees as it is about Ingram.  I read how David Fairchild, a botanist at the US Department of Agriculture, was so enamoured with cherry blossom that he suggested cherry trees be planted in the capital’s Potomac Park, a proposal promoted by Helen Taft, wife of the then President.  So, in 1909 2000 trees were sent from Japan by Tokyo’s mayor in gratitude for American’s role as a go-between in the Russo-Japanese war.  Unfortunately, the trees were infested with insects and had to be incinerated by American quarantine officials.  Soon afterwards another set was sent to New York to celebrate the tricentenary of the Hudson River but the steamer carrying them sunk en route. In 1912 it was third time lucky for the indefatigable Tokyo mayor who arranged to donate another 6,020 cherry saplings to the USA.  Half went to New York, where some were planted in Claremont Park (later renamed Sakura Park), others in Central Park and some along the Hudson River.  The remainder went to Washington DC where Helen Taft planted the first tree around Tidal Basin, now the focal point of the Cherry Blossom Festival.  I like to think I walked under the very tree.  About 60% of the trees were prunus somei-yoshimo, the most numerous variety in Japan today, while the rest were a mixture of 10 cultivars.

For me Washington DC will always be linked to the pink and white of the cherry trees.  Amongst my memories of presidential monuments, the most famous library in the world and a museum I’d planned to visit for decades, I’ll remember a people enjoying their city, their capital and their country against a backdrop of cherry blossom.  But above all I’ll remember the beauty of the cherry blossom, a botanist who planted an idea and a First Lady who planted a tree.

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The Sakura Obsession: The incredible story of the plant hunter who saved Japan’s cherry blossom.  Naoko Abe.  New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2019.

‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms.  Naoko Abe.  UK: Vintage Publishing, 2019.

 

The Charm of Snowdrops

“Snowdrops: Theirs is a fragile but hardy celebration … in the very teeth of winter”.  Louise Beebe Wilder.

Last week I went to the regular working bee in the Halfway House garden.  Things are picking up there weather wise and there were two groups of snowdrops nodding happily in the winter sun.  I was enchanted, as I always am, by these dear little bulbs and their bravery in popping their heads up in what is (here in New Zealand) literally the middle of winter.  Although New Zealand does have snowdrops they’re not as common a sight as they are in the UK where they are so much a part of the horticultural scene that one can brighten up a winter’s day by attending a snowdrop festival.  How I’d love to go to one of those.  But wait, perhaps all is not lost.  Today I’ve learned of the spring garden open day at Terrace Station in Hororata and this garden has loads of snowdrops.  Granted it’s not close by but is certainly something to note for next year.

Snowdrops

Inspired by the snowdrops at the Halfway House I bought four small pots of flowering snowdrops at my local garden centre and have planted them safely in a pot nestled under a tree in the front shade garden.  I have tried snowdrops before, planting some in the cherry tree garden out the back, but they only came up for two years then vanished.  I’ve since been told they prefer well drained soil and the cherry tree garden is built on clay.  My new snowdrops are the traditional English variety, Galanthus Nivalis, but I know there are hundreds of others as I listened to a RHS podcast recently where a book on snowdrop collectors was reviewed.  There’s a whole world of snowdrops and enthusiasts out there.  I’m not sure I’m ready for that level of commitment but you never know and I’ve put the book on my “To Read” list.  Once my snowdrops have died back I’ll plant my collection in the front shade garden and hopefully they’ll naturalise.  I also plan to add to them next year, so who knows?  I might just become a Galanthophile.

 

The Galanthophiles: 160 years of Snowdrop Devotees.  Jane Kilpatrick and Jennifer Harmer.  Leominster: Orphans Press, 2018.

S F Aburn building

Well one week it was one side of my father’s family in the news and this week the other.  On Friday an article appeared in the Otago Daily Times regarding the restoration of the S F Aburn building in Princes Street.  I hadn’t ever noticed the building before the fire which almost consumed it but when in Dunedin in 2016 had taken a photo of it gutted, and could see from the article that not much had changed in three years.

Aburn building photo

Samuel F(elix) Aburn trained as a painter and paper hanger and began in business in 1903.  The business later became involved in glass, and in this capacity it still operates today although the Aburn family is no longer involved in it.

The Hocken holds an archive for the business and also a wonderful photo of a group of young painters, including Samuel Felix, taken early in the 20th century.  I don’t have permission to reproduce the photo but this is a  link to a brochure produced by the Hocken on Dunedin businesses which has the photo on the first page.

It’s wonderful to see buildings such as this restored and even more exciting when there’s a personal connection.  Can’t wait to see what it looks like when I’m down in Dunedin later this year for the 1869 Conference.

 

 

The sad life of Geoffrey Tozer

Tozer

“Who’s heard of Geoffrey Tozer?” a teacher at the Victorian College of the Arts asked his class at the beginning of The Eulogy.  No-one had.  An hour and a half of footage later the same teacher asked the same class “Who thinks Geoffrey Tozer deserves to be in the same group as Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Joan Sutherland?”.  All hands were raised.

Like the VCPA class I’d never heard of Geoffrey Tozer before seeing this film.  Based around the accusations in the obituary Paul Keating gave at his funeral, the documentary explored why Tozer’s loss was not mourned as the loss of “Glen Gould of Canada or Ginette Neveu of France” would be.  Why he was not named alongside the Australian musical greats of Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Joan Sutherland.  Why, despite his exceptional gifts, he had been so neglected.

The Eulogy was based around the VCPA’s teacher’s quest to answer Keating’s accusation that it was the “bitchiness” of the Australian music scene in Sydney and Melbourne which was responsible for this neglect.  But, as the documentary showed, nothing is that simple.  There was no one reason but several.  An important one was the ultimately negative, almost destructive influence, of his mother.  A talented pianist herself she was an amateur genetic engineer choosing a genius to be the father of her child, and deciding her unborn child would be a musical prodigy.  She dominated his life and career until her death, keeping him, but more importantly his talent and career, under her control.  Tozer was thus completely unprepared for everyday life.  He left school at 13, lived a very socially isolated existence, couldn’t look after himself and only seems to have felt comfortable and at home sitting at the piano.  During an affair he began to party and drink heavily.  Although the affair and partying ended he kept drinking; the alcohol eventually killing him.

Juxtaposed against the interviews with his brother and others who knew him was Keating’s obituary, which he had agreed to recreate for the film.  Of interest to me was the championship of Tozer Keating undertook after hearing him perform at his son’s school where Tozer was a music teacher.  Keating is a fascinating subject in his own right (for me anyone who listens to Mahler to relax is) and was a great champion of the arts in Australia, instituting the Creative Artists Creative Fellowships which were later abolished.  Interviews with the past manager of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a concert pianist who played with the orchestras which rejected Tozer, revealed Tozer’s unreliability, perhaps alcohol induced, and the impact this had on those he was working with.

I came away uplifted by Tozer’s music but saddened by his life, the harm a mother could do to her child, his lost childhood, his largely lonely adulthood, his hideous and long road to death by alcohol.  But on the positive side the documentary introduced me to his wonderful music and it’s easy to hear why Rubenstein called him “an extraordinary pianist”.    As I’ve been writing this I’ve listened to many of his performances, including his recording of Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, where he slips Waltzing Matilda into the cadenza.  He may not be spoken of in the same breath as Melba, Grainger and Sutherland but he was one of Australia’s musical greats.

“Who’s heard of Geoffrey Tozer?” a teacher at the Victorian College of the Arts asked his class at the beginning of The Eulogy.  No-one had.  An hour and a half of footage later the same teacher asked the same class “Who thinks Geoffrey Tozer deserves to be in the same group as Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Joan Sutherland?”.  All hands were raised.

Like the VCPA class I’d never heard of Geoffrey Tozer before seeing this film.  Based around the accusations in the obituary Paul Keating gave at his funeral, the documentary explored why Tozer’s loss was not mourned as the loss of “Glen Gould of Canada or Ginette Neveu of France” would be.  Why he was not named alongside the Australian musical greats of Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Joan Sutherland.  Why, despite his exceptional gifts, he had been so neglected.

The Eulogy was based around the VCPA’s teacher’s quest to answer Keating’s accusation that it was the “bitchiness” of the Australian music scene in Sydney and Melbourne which was responsible for this neglect.  But, as the documentary showed, nothing is that simple.  There was no one reason but several.  An important one was the ultimately negative, almost destructive influence, of his mother.  A talented pianist herself she was an amateur genetic engineer choosing a genius to be the father of her child, and deciding her unborn child would be a musical prodigy.  She dominated his life and career until her death, keeping him, but more importantly his talent and career, under her control.  Tozer was thus completely unprepared for everyday life.  He left school at 13, lived a very socially isolated existence, couldn’t look after himself and only seems to have felt comfortable and at home sitting at the piano.  During an affair he began to party and drink heavily.  Although the affair and partying ended he kept drinking; the alcohol eventually killing him.

Juxtaposed against the interviews with his brother and others who knew him was Keating’s obituary, which he had agreed to recreate for the film.  Of interest to me was the championship of Tozer Keating undertook after hearing him perform at his son’s school where Tozer was a music teacher.  Keating is a fascinating subject in his own right (for me anyone who goes home to relax and listen to Mahler and Bruckner is) and was a great champion of the arts in Australia, instituting the Creative Artists Creative Fellowships which were later abolished.  Interviews with the past manager of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a concert pianist who played with the orchestras which rejected Tozer, revealed Tozer’s unreliability, perhaps alcohol induced, and the impact this had on those he was working with.

I came away uplifted by Tozer’s music but saddened by his life, the harm a mother could do to her child, his lost childhood, his largely lonely adulthood, his hideous and long road to death by alcohol.  But on the positive side the documentary introduced me to his wonderful music and it’s easy to hear why Rubenstein called him “an extraordinary pianist”.    As I’ve been writing this I’ve listened to many of his performances, including his recording of Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, where he slips Waltzing Matilda into the cadenza.  He may not be spoken of in the same breath as Melba, Grainger and Sutherland but he was one of Australia’s musical greats.

You can see the trailer for The Eulogy here.

The music merchant, his wife and her lover

Imagine my surprise on opening the Saturday Dominion Post to see the lurid account of my great-great-uncle Alec Begg’s divorce recounted 100 years after it took place.

Alec Begg article

The Truth was known for its love of the sensational and Alec’s divorce provided plenty of material.  You can read Tina White’s account of this “Music Merchant’s Marital Miseries” here.  I was pleased to see Meet Me at Begg’s get a mention even though I was misquoted.  Alec and a (subsequent) wife adopted a boy not a girl.