Thomasin Tunstall

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.

Hellebore heaven - or orchid eradicator?

Did you know that there are a couple of weeks in the year when the roots on hellebores put on an extra spurt of active growth? That time is now so it's the perfect moment to plant them out or move them.

I wonder if my favourite gardening woman from the early seventeenth century knew anything about that? She certainly knew enough about hellebores to be able to send them safely from Lancashire to London in the late 1960s - no mean feat.

Mistress Thomasin Tunstall was, according to John Parkinson, the famed seventeenth-century herbalist and botanist, a ‘great lover’ of rare plants and ‘a courteous Gentlewoman’. In Lancashire some time in the late 1620s, Mistress Tunstall, who lived not far from the village which bore her family name near Hornby Castle, carefully wrapped up some roots of one of her favourite hellebores. She had dug them up from a clump growing on the land surrounding her home, Bull-banke, close to the wooded edge of the river Greta which wound its way between the wild fells of Lancashire and North Yorkshire. Painstakingly, she prepared to send them to London to her friend, the famed apothecary and herbalist John Parkinson (below).

John Parkinson

Although we don't know what Mistress Tunstall looked like,  I have been able to find out quite a lot about her life and love of plants. Mistress Tunstall knew that Parkinson was developing his garden in Long Acre in Covent Garden and was always pleased to accept new discoveries. Sending plants such a distance was a fraught business in the seventeenth century and Thomasin would have wanted to make absolutely sure that the dormant roots had the best chance of survival. She may have used damp rags so that they didn't dry out on the long journey. Into the package, she tucked a note describing their blooms as small and white ‘with blush flowers’.

Parkinson, for his part, was no doubt excited to receive this new variety from his enthusiastic friend and gardening correspondent. Although he was one of London’s leading apothecaries, his great passion lay in his garden and the study of plants. He was also gathering information for his first and most successful book on horticulture, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, published in 1629. 


In it, he listed the many varieties of plants that he grew in his beloved garden in Long Acre, many of which had been supplied to him by horticultural contacts across the country. 

Within a year or so, he was delighted to report that Thomasin's hellebores had ‘born faire flowers’, and to conclude that she was indeed a ‘great lover’ of rare plants. But Mistress Tunstall was more than that; she was a fanatical plant collector. Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Reginald Farrer, the eminent plant collector, blamed her for the disappearance of the Lady’s Slipper Orchid from Britain.

‘If only you had loved these delights a little less ruinously for future generations!’ he wrote. ‘Do you sleep quiet, you worthy Gentlewoman, in Tunstall Church or does your uneasy sprite still haunt the Helks Wood in vain longing to undo the wrong you did?’

It feels unjust for Farrer, who knew a thing or two about the passions of plant collectors himself, to accuse Thomasin so harshly, for he would not have known her circumstances. In the very year John Parkinson’s book came out, Tunstall and Alice Clopton (probably her sister) defaulted on some loans and incurred even more debt when they had to move out of their home because of their father and brother’s mismanagement. So it was completely understandable that Tunstall turned to her passion for plants to earn some money. Other than the poor weeding women who earned 3d for clearing dandelions from royal lawns, Thomasin Tunstall is one of the earliest women I’ve found who managed to earn any money from plants. And who could blame her?