I haven’t been abroad as much as usual recently – a combination of circumstances has conspired to keep me at home and I have seriously itchy feet. I took to living vicariously through travel blogs and TV shows, desperate for pictures of African sunshine as the rain dripped steadily down the windows and the heating remains stubbornly on. The only bright spot during the dismal English spring has been my little garden – rapidly turning into a miniature rainforest. The dog has been spotted prowling the undergrowth in search of sloths.
Over the last couple of days, the sun has finally appeared and, basking blissfully under the wisteria with a cup of Earl Grey yesterday, it occurred to me that I really didn’t need to go that far to go round the world – all I needed to do was to go to the end of the garden path.
Generations of botanists, enthusiasts, colonists and explorers have taken my quintessentially English patch of Essex and turned it into a microcosm of the world.
Wisteria comes from China, brought back to Europe by Captain Welbank in 1816 as a present for a friend, CH Turner, from Rooksnet, Surrey. He had seen it during a dinner party with a rich Chinese trader in Guangzhou (Canton) and fallen in love with the magnificent ‘blue vine’.
The hostas in the pots underneath also came from the Far East – they are native to Japan, China, and Korea. The first European to document them was a doctor stationed in Japan with the Dutch East India Company, Dr Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1715), but the first couple were brought back from China to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in the mid-1700s.
There are thought to be around 150 species of native roses throughout the northern hemisphere but the Chinese were probably the first to cultivate these too, some 5,000 years ago. The yellow rambler on the wall is just coming into flower. The brilliant red climber that winds through the wisteria is a mass of bud, but no flowers yet.
The lavender, originally a Mediterranean native, arrived from France in the 1600s when it was thought that a bunch tied to the wrist might protect the wearer against the Black Death. That obviously didn’t work, but it remained hugely popular as a flower and working herb. Tulips arrived in a blaze of financial glory and scandal via Holland from Turkey in the same century.
The Roman invasion
My little peach tree also has an interesting past – native to China, it was first cultivated in South Asia, but is named Prunus persica after the Persians because it was in Persia that it was discovered by Alexander the Great who introduced it to Europe. The Romans then brought it to England. The jasmine also came from the Far East via Persia. Its Persian name ‘yasameen’ means ‘gift from God’.
The Romans have actually been responsible for an awful lot in my garden. It’s small and with little space to spare, I like the idea of things being edible as well as decorative. All those quintessentially English herbs – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme? Think again. Mediterranean natives, everyone of them. Along with the bay, feverfew, fennel, asparagus, chives and onions and raspberries. Sage was considered to be an important medicinal plant by the Romans who prized its digestive properties, particularly in helping to cope with fatty meats (hence sage and onion with pork). Feverfew was used to bring down fevers.
The Americas aren’t so well represented. I don’t have room for a greenhouse, so have given up on growing tomatoes but do astonishingly have some random potato plants that self-seeded from our home-made compost! We’ve also planted some maize (sweetcorn) as an experiment for the first time, so will wait to see how that does – so far it’s not looking promising! The small blueberry and cranberry bushes I put in last year are doing better although they are rather lost in a sea of thuglike forget-me-nots at the moment.
I don’t think I actually have any African plants in my garden at the moment, although I do have some heather and it could be a South African species, but many gardeners do grow irises, pelargoniums, freesias, agapanthus and the gloriously bright Namaqualand daisies.
My immigrant garden
In fact, as I look around, and check more and more plants, it’s hard to find any that are definitely British natives. The gooseberry might be – the book says that it’s native to northern and central Europe, but I’ve never met a wild gooseberry in England, so perhaps it was the Romans again – or the Saxons or the Vikings who introduced it.
I got down as far as humble primrose, primula vulgaris, now past its best as we finally head into summer, before I finally found something that I could definitively call a native to this country. So my archetypical English country garden is, in fact, absolutely stuffed full of foreign immigrants. What would UKIP and the Daily Mail have to say?