Looking for reasons to be cheerful this week in the garden led me to buy some perennials that had been on the list for a while, and spend some time splitting and dividing them, followed by remedial re-potting and placing in the intensive care location, a shady area just by the back door. I have to say that this activity, never before undertaken in August, has led to a mood of great happiness (on my part) and great new growth on the part of the plants. So, given that I am looking out on a desert of dryness with occasional spot deep watering now happening for newer plants, this seems to be a good way to look forward to the autumn when there may be SERIOUS rain, and then enjoying these newcomers in their planted spots.
One of these newcomers is Ceratostigma willmottianum. Brilliant periwinkle blue starry flowers cluster at the end of the upright stems, whose leaves are already beginning to turn scarlet in places- so the autumn foliage is already lining up in the wings. It has the look of a good plant about it, easily taking my brutal splitting activity in its stride, and happily rooting into a new pot. And, as ever, I am intrigued by the name, and as the heat baked me into the kitchen, I set about finding out a bit more about Miss Ellen Ann Willmott (1858-1934).
She was an exceptional gardener, collector, photographer and plantswoman, recognised by the RHS in their award of the Victoria Medal of Honour to both her and Gertrude Jekyll in 1897. Sadly for Ellen, she is now largely forgotten whereas Jekyll’s name and legacy has lived on. Jekyll gardens are preserved, though there are not many, and restored whereas Warley Place, Ellen’s great passion and possibly the most famous garden in England until the late 1920s, was abandoned and dismantled. Very little remains except some, now carefully tended by Essex Wildlife Trust, archaeology which hints at the vast garden once gardened by Ellen and her team of over 100 gardeners.
She grew over 100,000 differing species and varieties of plant at Warley Place and financed many plant discovery expeditions, including the expedition led by ‘Chinese’ E.H. Wilson, which discovered and brought back the Ceratostigma in 1907, later named as Willmottianum. There are three roses named for her, Rosa willmottiae, found by E.H.Wilson in 1904 in China, and two named Ellen Willmott, one bred in France in 1898 by Pierre Bernaix and the other raised by Barber in the UK in 1936.
It is undeniable that Ellen really did blow her two fortunes. But, reading the few accounts of her life, this sparky and intelligent woman is mainly reduced to being categorised as ‘foolish’ and ‘reckless’, not womanly enough (she never married), and even, rather bitchily, I thought, by one male commentator as having a ‘weatherbeaten’ face. A once beautiful young woman, eminently eligible, who threw aside everything conventional society demanded of her, for her gardening passion- she is not described in appreciative tones by her contemporaries or most later commentators.
She is described as being demanding of her team of gardeners, impatient and testy at times, and famous for her demands for perfection at all times. And yet, she was also up at dawn already working hard in the garden when her gardeners arrived for work, and she had a prodigious energy for the physicality of gardening. By the end of her life, she was forced to sell her two garden estates in France and Italy, and valuables from Warley Place were already being sold as her money ran out.
But, for me, there is a clear disapproving judgementalism displayed in accounts of Ellen Ann Willmott. Many a man has also lost money, blown their inheritances, and has given far less to the world of discovery and horticulture than Ellen Willmott. Gertrude Jekyll described her as ‘the greatest of all living women gardeners’. That is quite something. I admire her passion and her resolute stubbornness in demanding the best of herself and those around her, even if sometimes there was a price to be paid for that. She deserves better than to be known as the batty old lady scattering Eryngium seeds, she really does.