Gardening Women Day at Cheltenham

I'm just back from speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival where yesterday was definitely 'Gardening Women' day.

First off was Jekka McVicar, queen of the herb garden. It was Jekka who broke Beth Chatto's record of ten consequtive gold medals at Chelsea before retiring from exhibiting in the main marquee. Instead as well as running her highly successful nursery, she's been writing and the audience pounced on her new cookbook using herbs.

Women growing herbs was one of the questions that came up during my session. This is, of course, one of the oldest forms of gardening that women have been involved. Yet during the eighteenth century, women became increasingly marginalised from herbal medicine as the medical profession became 'institutionlised', excluding female practitioners. Amazingly the growing of herbs fell out of favour until the 1920s and 1930s when one woman revived their popularity. Mrs Hilda Leyel was the public face of herbalism in the interwar years. She was the force behind the Society of Herbalists which started a year after she opened the first Culpeper shop in London.

In my session, there was lots of chat about sex and scandal - not botanical interbreeding but the fascinating lives of two of my 'horticultural women', Lady Anne Monson and Lady Dorothy Nevill. Plenty of lively debate and excellent questions ranging from seventeenth-century nursery-women to Beatrix Havergal who ran the Waterperry School of Horticulture to the trials of being a female head gardener today.

After me, the delicious James Alexander Sinclair interviewed Gardener's World presenter, Carol Klein, in front of a rapt audience. From the time she shared a bath with John Lennon to filming a year at Glebe Cottage, Carol entertained everyone giving encouragement to all to 'get out and propagate'!

Off to Guildford next week for my last 'litfest' of the year. I'll miss them - they are such a great way to met like souls and swap stories about favourite gardening women. Hopefully lots will follow this blog and keep the comments coming.

What's a man doing among Gardening Women?

You may well ask! The reason is that a favourite company of mine, The Chocolate Elephant, have been writing about family connections on their blog, and lo and behold, it turns out that the father of CE's owners, Ian Thomas, rescued the herbal shop, Culpeper's, in the 1970s. It had run into financial difficulties in the 1970s after the death of its founder, Hilda Leyel.

Mrs C E Leyel, as she was always known, started the revivial in popularity of herbs in the 1920s and 1930s, started the Society of Herbalists, and founded Culpeper's shop selling long-forgotten herbs and remedies. Because of all this, she features in Gardening Women.

Citrus Original 1

The original shop, in London's Baker Street, sold wholesome sweet-scented distillations of plants in various forms of medicines, perfumes, lotions, superior soaps and creams, the latter made from such healing flowers as lilies, roses and cowslips. Culpeper’s also offered many of the simple tisanes, such as camomile and lime-blossom tea, so popular abroad but at that time almost unknown in this country.’ A male visitor to her new shop was entranced.

"A certain new establishment which I was tempted into the other day is radiant and alluring with its green facade, its barrels and jars and bottles, and not a little of the atmosphere of the garden about it - not merely the physic garden, but the garden of the flowered walls, and birds and spaniels and lawns. Yet to my eye it is the words on the jars and bottles that are the most attractive feature of this new herbalist. On the herbalist’s labels I found words that, if not actually new to me, had been long forgotten, and just for that reason came back with added charm: such words a Comfrey and Agrimony, Eyebridge and Melilot, Borage and Basil, Silverweed and Marjoram, Betony and Lovage."

Thanks to Ian Thomas, Culpeper's have several shops across the UK and abroad, and Mrs Leyel's dream continues.