Posted on | September 27, 2008 | No Comments
In the mid 19th century, a craze had begun for planting exotics outside as well as in. Fabulous displays were created in the larger cities, with massed beds of flamboyantly coloured plants laid out in intricate, often geometric patterns.
One of the earliest Victorian proponents of the new style of bedding was John Gibson, who produced large foliage displays in Battersea Park, one of London best known public gardens. Gibson had been a pupil of Joseph Paxton, the remarkable head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth who also designed one of the first public parks at Birkenhead.
Paxton not only taught Gibson to understand design and planting, but in 1835 he had sent the young man on an extraordinary plant-hunting mission to India, which inspired one of Battersea Park’s horticultural highlights, the Sub-Tropical Garden.
As well as the more familiar bedding plants that we use today, he presented a dazzling array of exotics such as bananas, cannas and tree ferns, all bedded out for the summer. The park was laid out between 1846 and 1864 to the grand designs of James Pennethorne and John Gibson.
In 1871 William Robinson, who disliked the more formal, regimented planting styles that had gone before, wrote The Sub-tropical Garden, in which he discussed the use of many different types of tropical and sub-tropicals that could be successfully planted out during the warmer months of the year. He, and later Gertrude Jekyll, preferred the more naturalistic look.
He also maintained that exotic-looking gardens could be created using hardy plants that had the appearance of their more tender sub-tropical counterparts, plants that would look visually pleasing yet were capable of surviving throughout the year and which revelled in our cool maritime winters.
The sub-tropical garden was quite a novelty when originally introduced in England and caused much interest to horticulturalists and landscape gardeners. Robinson grouped hardy plants of a tropical appearance such as aralias, acanthus, grasses, bamboos and palms.
During the summer, cannas, tobacco, various palms, bananas, and other tender exotics were added to the collection, causing much excitement when they first appeared at Battersea Park. Though still planted up in the present day during the summer, much of the old charm and originality of the early planting has been lost.
Unfortunately the present, official idea of what sub-tropical gardens should contain, carries a certain stereotyped stiffness with it, creating a sad reflection of past glories. Gardeners, in general, soon discovered from the likes of Robinson that many exotic plants would actually thrive in our gardens with a mixture of hardy exotics and the more tender summer bedding, with the larger sub-tropical species and their cultivars kept under glass for the cold winter months.
It’s a style I emulate at the Exotic Garden in Norwich. One of the benefits discovered in this style of gardening was that it greatly lengthened the garden’s season of interest. Plants of this nature could be enjoyed for a far longer period compared to the more traditional style of the cottage garden using herbaceous perennials which reach a flowering peak in June and early July, before rapidly going over.
The new style carried on through high summer to autumn, often creating an explosion of riotous colour and large leaves, with the use of such plants as cannas and gingers. The fashion for this sumptuous style of planting started to wane towards the end of the 19th century with the loss of the larger estates and their patrons, who had suffiucient wealth to pay for their rather expensive upkeep.
The once praised glasshouses became far too expensive to run with labour costs spiralling and the price of fuel soaring. Many of the people who helped establish the first sub-tropical gardens were growing old and becoming either satisfied with the spectrum of plant material they already had, or were losing enthusiasm.
A return to a more traditional style of gardening was gaining popularity once again, especially in the cooler parts of Britain where it was deemed impractical to maintain a sub-tropical garden in the political and social climate of the time.
Noted gardeners like Gertrude Jekyll (1843- 1932) praised the virtues of the cottage garden style, thus hailing the end of bedded-out plants. Hence the fashion for exotics came to an end, like so much else, at the outbreak of the first world war in 1914.
Following the second world war, the use of bedding plants returned in the form of fairly low growing, regimented bedding plants such as blue lobelia, red salvia, white alyssum, heliotrope and bedding begonias which were especially used by parks and gardens with the odd well-spaced solitary canna thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, it was a style still extremely popular with local councils.
These plants were comparatively cheap and could be grown from seed, creating a splash of colour fairly quickly, though they looked rather bland, lacking any real interest or excitement. The latter part of the 20th century, however, saw exotic plants slowly regain their old popularity, with public interest in them boosted by wider travel to the Mediterranean and even more far-flung places.
These new travellers saw many exotic plants and returned home with the notion of trying to recreate a small part of their holiday location in their very own garden. Suddenly, the traditional herbaceous borders and prissy summer bedding familiar since the war appeared boring and rather tired.
It was time for exotica to flourish once more…
Next week Will Giles takes the story of exotica from the late 20th century into a future affected by our ever-changing climate.