Potted History

The Story behind those Valentine's Day flowers

Getting very excited about the opening later this week of the new exhibition at The Garden Museum,  Floriculture: Flowers, Love and Money. It's about time that the story of floristry, the 'Cinderella' trade of the horticultural industry, was told.  It opens, naturally, on Thursday 14 February, the biggest day of the year for the trade, and runs until 28 April 2013.

Here's what they say we can expect:

"Next Valentine's Day the Garden Museum will open the first exhibition to tell the story of the cut flower trade from the 17th century until today. The exhibition will also explore the inspiration of cut flowers to painters, and to the art of floristry, and their symbolism in rites of passage such as marriage, funerals, and memory.

The exhibition begins in 17th century Covent Garden: the square built by The Earl of Bedford contained a market for fruit and vegetables. Covent Garden continues to be the heart of the flower trade, whether represented by the Floral Hall, illustrations by Edward Bawden, or iconic films such as Lindsey Anderson's Everyday Excerpt Christmas, from the 1950's. The stall-holders, in their current location in Nine Elms, will be the subject of an artist's commission as we seek to record their stories of life at the Flower Market.

Until the 19th century, the wholesale trade in flowers was local, small in scale, and existed alongside allotments and Head Gardeners' cutting gardens and displays in the great house. This slowly evolved, with, in the 1880s growers of snowdrops and daffodils in Spalding, Lincolnshire, racing to supply London markets by train; by 1929 this had increased to 20 tonnes a day. In 1940, 4 million bulbs were shipped to America as payment for arms. 

The world's flower trade has increased from £1.8 billion in the 1950s to in excess of £64 billion today. After trains came planes: in 1969 the first air freighted flowers flew to the United States from Colombia. However, the globalised trade has attracted increasing controversy over its environmental impact, and allegations of exploitation of vulnerable workforces.

The exhibition will explain each side of the debate – including the new movement for "Fair Trade in flowers" – but will also be a celebration of the domestic growers, an industry which has all but vanished but may be revived by a new generation of eco -aware, creative growers.
The exhibition will follow the growth of the retail industry, from florists' shops to supermarkets; in 1979 Marks and Spencer– which had sold plants since the 1920s – first experimented with the sale of cut flowers and quickly grew to be a significant
force in the modern marketplace. 

Earlier in the century, Gertrude Jekyll and Constance Spry established floristry as an art form and a profession. The exhibition will pick out iconic weddings which have transformed taste, such as the 1961 marriage of The Duke and Duchess of Kent in York Minster or that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2012 – masterminded by Shane Connolly, whose ideas in floral design the show will explore. 

The exhibition will look at the relationship between artists and cut flowers, through works by artists such as Stanley Spencer's view of his cutting garden at Cookham, Duncan Grant's still-lives and glimpses of the garden path at Charleston, and Cedric
Morris's masterful studies of irises. The paintings selected will capture the fragile beauty of flowers from their gardens.

Finally, we shall explore the place the beauty and quick mortality of cut flowers play in rites of life and death: marriage, funerals, and memorial shrines."


Gardening Women Tip of the Week: Growing hyacinths in glass vases (1840)

It's not too late to start hyacinths off in glass containers growing purely in water in time for Christmas (use prepared ones) or the New Year. If, like me, you have tried to grow them this way in the past and then found them at the back of the airing cupboard or in the garage in May, having forgotten all about them, read what Jane Loudon had to say about growing hyacinths in water in Gardening for Ladies (1840):

Hyacinth Original 1

'The very circumstance of growing hyacinths in glasses, where they vegetate and send down their roots exposed to the full influence of the light, appears contrary to the usual effects of light on vegetation; and indeed the plants are said generally to thrive best, when the glasses are kept in the dark till the roots are half grown. However this may be, it is quite certain that hyacinths in glasses should never be kept in darkness after their leaves have begun to expand; as, if there be not abundance of light to occasion rapid evaporation from the leaves, the plants will soon become surcharged with moisture from the quantity constantly supplied to their roots, and the leaves will turn yellow, and look flaccid, and unhealthy, while the flowers will be stunted, or will fall off without expanding.'

So there we are. Send yourself a reminder to keep checking for the expanding leaves and then bring them into a light but coolish place. When colour appears on the florets then bring into the warm to fill the house with perfume.

You can read more about the history of hyacinths in the home in my book, Potted History (Frances Lincoln, 2007). Sadly, the type of glass hyacinth vases that Jane Loudon and her contemporaries used are collectors' items now. Because of their fragility, secondhand vases rarely survive but there is a useful blog dedicated just to them. Luckily Sarah Raven has some lovely mauvey-purple ones on sale this year if you can't run to originals.

IMPORTANT: Remember that hyacinth bulbs contain an irritant that many people are allergic to. As a precaution, they should be handled with plastic gloves.

Sweet smelling homes

G83.1.1178 This beautiful flatback bulb grower would have stood proud on an eighteenth century mantelpiece helping to scent the room around it. But long before that, plants were brought into the home to help get rid of nasty odours. 'Fresh, sweet, and pleasant air' was vital in the Elizabethan home. After all, this was a time when tussie-mussies (scented posies) were still needed as much within the household as on the streets to combat noxious smells.  With scent so important in the home, it is not surprising that rare sightings of plants in paintings often turn out to be that most perfumed plant, the carnation.  In his book Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, the poet Thomas Tusser (1524-80) listed 40 'herbs, branches, and flowers for windows'. In addition to bulbs such as 'Flower de Luce' (iris), 'Daffadowndillies' (narcissus) he recommended three sorts of gillyflower for scent: Queen's (hesperis matronalis), Stock (matthiola incana) and Wall (erysimum cheiri).