Who was Madame Legrelle? A fragmented, detective story…

Punica granatum 'Legrelliae', Tostat, August 2015
Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’, Tostat, August 2015

Spotting new flowers on my non-fruiting Pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’, I was doodling about on the internet trying to find out more about it’s name.  I bought it as ‘Legrelliae’ but it is often named as ‘Madame Legrelle’, and this internet browsing led me, on a hot day, to the beginnings of a detective story.  A blog intrigued me more, with mention of a Madame Caroline Legrelle d’Hanis and her gardener, Francois Veervoot, from Antwerp winning medals and exhibiting in London in 1866.  So, here is what I found out about the origins of this beautiful and tough plant.

Punica granantum 'Madame Legrelliae' 1858  credit: www.anarkalilove.tumblr.com/
Punica granantum ‘Madame Legrelliae’ 1858
credit: http://www.anarkalilove.tumblr.com/

This lithograph appeared in 1858, and may be the first illustration of the plant.  It appeared in the most important Belgian horticultural periodical entitled  l’Illustration horticole, journal spécial des serres et des jardins by Charles Lemaire (editor), published by Ambroise Verschaffelt.  But the story may have an earlier twist. The 2104 Delaware Centre for Horticulture catalogue for their Rare Plants Auction contains a fascinating short passage on Madame Legrelle.  Her full name was Madame Caroline Legrelle d’Hanis and she lived in Berchem, near Antwerp. Caroline was regarded as a distinguished amateur horticulturalist by The Magazine of Horticulture, and it is believed that she got the original Punica plant from a Mme. Parmentier, another Belgian woman horticulturalist, living in Illinois, US. Madame Parmentier is reputed to have said that the plant she gave to Madame Legrelle was the only one of its kind.

Punica granatum 'Legrelliae' New Garden, Tostat, June 2015
Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’ New Garden, Tostat, June 2015

Caroline may have been the daughter of another famous Belgian horticulturalist from Antwerp, Jean-Francois Legrelle d’Hanis, who lived from 1817-1852, and she herself only lived to the age of thirty, dying in 1874.  Very possibly, she never married and took over the pioneering work of her father in the nursery.  She was also connected to other reknowned botanists and horticulturalists and clearly possessed a warm and engaging personality, as well as a sense of mission about her work. She is referred to often as generous and helpful in texts of the time.  A charming inscription exists in a book given to her by her friend, Henri van Heurck, in 1864 when she would have been only 20 years old,

To Madame Caroline Legrelle d’Hanis, Protectrie de la Botanique, Berchem, 3 Janvier 1864

Henri van Heurck himself was a key figure in Belgian science and horticulture. He developed pioneering work on microscopes to support his own botanical studies, was an important plant collector, and finally, persuaded the city of Antwerp to set up its own botanical garden, and became its first Director. His own plant collection was purchased by the city on his death and housed in the Botanical Garden he had founded.

In 1860, Caroline exhibited to great success at the exhibition in Brussels of the Societe Royale de Flore de Bruxelles. The exhibition catalogue states that she

exhibited a large and beautiful collection of palms, more than 50 varieties and examples of Begonia, a brilliant collection of 23 Caladium, also a Dracaena Australis flowering at more than 3m

It is also possible that Caroline’s mother may have been a partner in the pioneering horticultural work at Berchem, from the following quote concerning the discovery of Chysophyllum imperiale.  A Mr Linden won a prize for his work on this plant at the Paris Exposition in 1867, and he recounts that

This noble plant was an inmate of both British and Continental botanical gardens for thirty years before its           genus was determined […] according to a careful history of it drawn up by M. André (L’Illust. Hortic. vol. xxi,         1874, p. 77 & 152, t. 184), the first living specimen known in Europe belonged to to Madame Legrelle-d’Hanis,       at Berchem, where M. Linden saw it in 1846 with the name Theophrasta imperialis.

Thank you, Jardim Formosa, for these useful bits of information.

That’s all, just these tantalising fragments of a life in botany, and a life that allowed a woman, unusual for the time, full recognition and parity with her peers.  That is something to be celebrated by planting Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’.

In praise of….Mirabilis jalapa

Yellow Mirabilis Jalapa in bud, Tostat, July 2015
Yellow Mirabilis jalapa in bud, Tostat, July 2015
Mirabilis Jalapa, Tostat, July 2015
Mirabilis Jalapa, Tostat, July 2015

Mirabilis jalapa is a plant I have come to love, and I have the Chelsea Physic Garden to thank for it.  When we first came to the garden, this plant appeared all over the place and was pretty rampant.  I had never seen it before, and being a bit overcome with the scale of the gardening job facing me (whilst working, travelling to the UK, three children and all that) I ripped as much of it out as I could, reckoning that I needed to get on top of it. And I continued systematic destruction most years, but it always came back and bit me on the backside.

An embarassing number of years passed with me making no effort to discover what it was, and then, I was horrified to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden and see it growing in splendour there.  Not only that, but I discovered that the cultivation of this plant dates back to certainly 1596, and probably before, as an introduction from Mexico via Spain, when it was considered to be the most desirable plant to have in your garden by the cognoscenti. Dr. Alice le Duc, of Duke University, North Carolina, has studied the plant closely, and recorded that Thomas Jefferson grew it at his garden in Monticello.  Nowadays, it no longer grows in the wild in Mexico.  I was mortified by my thuggery.

Standing aside from my ignorance for a moment, and just considering it as a garden plant, it has a tremendous amount to recommend it. First, it flowers reliably and non-stop for about 6-8 weeks at the back end of summer when it’s easy for the garden to be a little on the bare side. Then, apart from the yellow that I have, it also flowers in a deep cerise pink, which is stunning coupled with the fresh, green foliage. Wise people say that it also flowers in several colours on one plant but I have never seen this. It will grow in full sun and some shade, although if in full sun, it will do better in an area with some moisture. Having said that, in very hot summers, it dies back with me and then re-appears when the rain returns.  Some say it has a scent, but I have to say my nose failed me again here.

It is a tall, slightly rangy plant, loosely growing upwards to about 1.5m with me, easily flattened by heavy rain, so needs positioning between other plants that will help it to stand up, or staking. I go for the former, as it fills in late summer gaps really well. In the UK, you might have to bring it in, like a dahlia and store it somewhere dry and cool, but you could probably pot it up and treat it like an overwintering geranium.  The RHS has it as an annual, but this plant can be much more than that if you take a little care over the winter.

With me, the corms survive where they are in soil, but they do start later for me probably.  It self seeds, so you can let it do that, or take seed, as I have from a neighbour who has the cerise-pink variety, and grow them on, the seeds germinate and roar up into substantial seedlings in late summer or early autumn, which you can just overwinter as above.

N.B. Label the pots, another weakness of mine, as the baby corms do an impressive imitation of being mud clots, and I have thrown plenty away not realising they were there.

It really is a pretty bombproof plant, and once you have got it going, it will stay with you for years.  Think about it, you will be growing something that was an Elizabethan delight, and had been in cultivation for 200 years before Linnaeus catalogued it in 1753. That’s pretty impressive.

Hibiscus galore…

Hibiscus, it sounds so exotic. It conjures images of Lena Horne, in a sultry frock, with an impossibly large flower clamped to her head, darkness in the Everglades… and mystery.

The incomparable Lena Horne, wearing a rose actually photo credit: www.pinterest.com
The incomparable Lena Horne, wearing a rose actually
photo credit: http://www.pinterest.com

Well, my hibiscus are a bit of a mystery to me.  Today, for the first time ever, and the plant is now a tidy upright specimen of about 2 feet, my Hibiscus trionum flowered while I was washing up. Well, I saw the flower for the first time whilst washing up to be strictly accurate.  I got the seed from the RHS seed list about 5 years ago, managed to germinate only one, and put it in an average spot when it was about 6 inches high. Perhaps too soon, but I thought it would be a fast grower.  It has taken its time, however, and each year I have cleared room for it and hoped, to no avail until today.

Hibiscus trionum, Tostat, August 2015
Hibiscus trionum, Tostat, August 2015

It is a very lovely, if short-lived, thing. Apparently, the flowers only last for a day, but who cares? Exquisite porcelain white, papery petals with just a hint of pink, and at the centre, a gorgeous plummy-red stain and the long, creamy stamens stand out. It is a charmer.  There are actually quite a few buds, ready and waiting in handfuls, so the rest of this week will be filled with hibiscus flowers. Life could be a lot worse.

Hibiscus trionum buds waiting, Tostat, August 2015
Hibiscus trionum buds waiting, Tostat, August 2015

And over on the bank of the ruisseau, our water canal that runs at the back of the garden, I bought and planted in early Spring a very different Hibiscus, which has also just got going in the flower department.  I am often attracted by sale plants! And have to be strong willed to overcome the temptations of sale items. But this Spring, on the website of a good shrub nursery in the Landes, Pepinieres Côte Sud des Landes, I fell for and bought Hibiscus palustris. I was drawn to the idea of a big, brassy flowering shrub that would like sun and damp and might do battle with the usual late summer weed invaders, and Hibiscus palustris is supposed to get big and dominate.

Hibiscus palustris, Tostat, August 2015
Hibiscus palustris, Tostat, August 2015
Hibiscus palustris buds, Tostat, August 2015
Hibiscus palustris buds, Tostat, August 2015

Well, you can see that it is part of the Hibiscus family. And so far, so good. When it was planted, it was two stout stumps and a big rootball. This year it has got to about 1m high, and the flowers are not as giant as they will be, but they are certainly noticeably large.  The buds are interesting, framed by what look like thin little fingers.  And there are quite a few in waiting. So, I think it is liking where it is, and I am expecting great things for next year, maybe even the 6″ flowers that the books talk about. Okay, it’s pink, and you can have enough of pink, well, I can. But I will forgive it that, I think.

The aristocrat and the pauper…

I love my flowering ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum. They had a rough start in life here. Bought as a few small tubers on ebay, I planted them in what I thought would be a warm and wet enough part of the garden, and for two or three years, they bravely grew leaves and did what they could. I then realised that they took so long to get over winter even in the place I had carefully chosen for them, that they were too exhausted to flower, or if they tried, autumn chills did for them. So, into a pot they went, even though I managed to leave a bit behind, which is now back in the square one position, and yes, I will remember to dig it up this autumn.

Hedychium gardnerianum, Tostat, August 2015
Hedychium gardnerianum, Tostat, August 2015

This variety of Hedychium is reputed to be the hardiest, and so isn’t perhaps as luscious in flowering as some, but I like the Golden Shred colouring, and especially the contrast with the darker orange at the base of each flowerette. But the truth is: each flowerspike, currently one on each plant, lasts only a couple of days and will be utterly blitzed by any heavy rain. So, in plant terms, cost per wear doesn’t look too good.  But I will move it into a more semi-shaded position than now, and try again another year.

But, cost per wear is a given a real ROI when you look at Eucomis autumnalis.  I absolutely adore this plant. It meets all the requirements of a late summer flowering plant, great, lush foliage, flowerspikes that last for weeks and look good before, during, and after flowering, and it is incredibly easy to grow. It is a South African native, grows from bulbs, and is cheap as chips really.  The only thing you have to do, which I didn’t, is really read up on what it likes.  I had it planted in dry, stony ground for several years, which is exactly what it likes in the winter and spring, with very free-draining soil.  My mistake was in not reading about the rest of what it likes. To flower, it wants moisture and quite a bit of it, as well as richer conditions. I promised myself every year I saw the leaves forming that I would dig it up and pot it up and, yes,  each year I forgot.

This year I remembered, and was astonished that 3 bulbs were now nine in number, and went into 2 pots not one. And it has rewarded me, hand over fist, with a lovely display of cool, white flowerheads, for the past month and isn’t finished yet.  I am so pleased that I remembered.

Eucomis atumnalis, Tostat, early July 2015
Eucomis atumnalis, Tostat, early July 2015

I love the faux pineapple shape of the spike, and its cheeky little top, the bit that I thought would make a great earring in an earlier blog.  You get to see the little pineapple shape emerging weeks earlier before it finally flowers, so it is a great reveal when it happens.

Another pot, a bit later in July 2015
Another pot, a bit later in July 2015