Earlier this month, on a crisp, cold and sunny day, I had the pleasure of wandering round the Leiden Hortus Botanicus. One of Europe’s oldest botanical gardens, it was founded in 1594 expressly to curate and acquire knowledge and understanding of medicinal plants, and from the beginning, it rapidly built up a vast collection of plants from all over the world, fuelled by the merchant adventurers exploring both to the East and the West. Carolus Clusius was recruited by the University of Leiden in 1593 to set up the garden, and Clusius himself was an ambassador for a new understanding of internationalism and plants. Speaking eight languages himself, he was a well-known scientist, geographer, engraver and plant collector, who had already published a respected work on the flora of the Iberian peninsula, ‘Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias obseruatarum’, published by Plantin in 1576.
The engraving above, dated 1610, by Woudanus shows us how closely the modern reconstruction has followed the plan for the original garden, although it is a little smaller in size to allow for a modern width of path, and it is now contained inside the perimeter of the Hortus Botanicus. The engraved portrait of Clusius, above left, was made in 1575 by Martin Rota.
Through his work, until his death in 1609, the world came to know and love the tulip, in particular. He was particularly fascinated by the colours of tulips, and worked ceaselessly to try and understand how ‘breaking’ happens, when striping can change the colouring of a tulip. Surviving terribly hard winters and two years, in 1596 and 98, when thieves broke into his garden and stole tulips, Clusius worked tirelessly to try and understand the ‘breaking’ problem. But it was not to be. The world had to wait until 1928 when Dorothy Cayley, a British scientist, discovered ‘potyvirus’, the virus responsible for breaking and colour change in the tulip. A good article in the New York Times tells more of the Clusius tulip story.
In the garden today, although not much was up as it was early in the year, there were still some memorable sights to be seen. I loved the way, in the massed planting of daffodils, how smaller varieties like Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ had been grouped in with the bigger varieties, it made for lovely undulations of colour.
And beneath a vast, spreading tree, clumps of Anemone nemerosa had been encouraged to spread. Visible as a bright blue mist beneath the tree, you had to get up close to see what was actually flowering.
Thinking of plant exploration and connections with Leiden, a 19th century medical doctor working at the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki in Japan, was another important contributor to our expanding knowledge of the plant world. Philipp von Siebold transformed the world of gardening almost single-handedly. Before his travels to Japan, only 34 East-Asian plants were known in the West. Today, 70% of all shrubs and trees planted in Dutch gardens and parks originate from East Asia. The Acer palamatum specimens which can be seen in the Hortus, are in fact more than 150 years old and were brought back by von Siebold on his second visit to Japan between 1859-61.
Back in Tostat, my Sophora ‘Sun King’ has just burst into flower. It is such a good, small tree and was discovered in China by a plant explorer 80 years before von Siebold, a French Jesuit priest called Pierre Nicholas le Chéron d’Incarville. d’Incarville gave precious seed to a Russian caravan to bring them back to Europe sometime around 1747 and the first seeds were successfully germinated in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, with the first trees appearing in England in 1753. This first Sophora, Sophora japonica, is now known more commonly as Styphnolobium japonicum, but it is the plant from which other varieties were bred, including my own Sophora ‘Sun king’. It is a fabulous, spreading, pinnate-leaved tree, small and perfectly formed, with stunning pendulous golden blossoms that hang in handfuls in early spring. Tough, not demanding, it is a perfect small tree. Mine has grown from 50cms to 2ms tall in about 5 years, so it grows reasonably fast, but will not get much bigger, I think. Beautiful.
NB. A great Hortweek article here with more information about the varieties available, and news of an original Sophora at Kew from 1760…amazing. Get down there now to see it!