Musing on Willmottianum…

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Ceratostigma willmottianum, Tostat, August 2017

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.

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Colouring up the foliage, Ceratostigma willmottianum, Tostat, August 2017

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.

Warley Place by Alfred Parsons credit:

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.

Rosa ‘Ellen Willmott’ photo credit:

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.

‘My plants and my gardens come before anything in my life for me and all my time is given up working in one garden and another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves I read or write about them’ Ellen Ann Willmott image credit:

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.

There is one full biography available, and I read two other interesting articles, one by the gardening historian, Jane Brown, and the other in a blog article by the Oxonian Gardener.   Thank you all.




Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ and Le Bois des Moutiers

Sometimes, a visit to a garden introduces you to an unforgettable plant, idea or atmosphere which stays with you. Back in 1990, as a new gardener with not much under my belt, I visited Le Bois des Moutiers, an unforgettable house and garden near Varengeville-sur-Mer, in Normandy. And the plant that I saw there which became one of the first things I bought when we moved to Tostat, was Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’.

Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis'  August 2014
Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ August 2014

It is a wonderful shrub rose. It will grow almost anywhere, is pretty much evergreen all year, requires no pruning other than dead bits, grows away to itself until, in our case, it reaches 3m x 3m, and it flowers for 8-9 months of the year in bursts. It also needs no watering or special feeding of any kind. And when it flowers, it is as if a crowd of peach, pale cream, dark pink and buttery yellow butterflies have landed on the bush. The flowers are single, and crinkle up, so that they really do resemble butterflies en masse. And the colours change as the flower ages, from buttery yellow to deep deep pink. For me, it is one of the highlights of our ‘Shitty Bank’, see my earlier blog for more details.

And I first saw it at Le Bois Des Moutiers. The link takes you to the opening page of their website, and there is a video embedded which will give you a really good idea of how beautiful it is. Still owned and run by the Mallet family, who first commissioned Edwin Lutyens and his friend and associate, Gertrude Jekyll to design the house and the garden, it is a ‘must-see’ if you are in Haute-Normandie. The house is now open for visits guided by family members, and the gardens are open as well.

When we went in late summer 1990, Rosa chinenis ‘Mutabilis’ was flowering magnificently, and I was smitten for ever. Below, are 2 photographs from 1990, which show the Rose placed to front a woodland garden area, and it can be clearly seen mid-right in the second photograph showing the broad allee running down from the house. I remember seeing the then Mme Mallet in wellies in the front garden of the house, and I asked her for the name of the rose, and also for any plant nurseries she would personally recommend. She helped me with both with real interest.

Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis' fronting a woodland planting (centre) Le Bois es Moutiers 1990
Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ fronting a woodland planting (centre): Le Bois des Moutiers 1990
Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis'  (mid right) and the allee leading back up the house: Le Bois des Moutiers 1990
Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ (mid right) and the allee leading back up the house: Le Bois des Moutiers 1990

Here are 2 other views of the house and garden from that visit. In the first, I can be seen bottom-left in a large flowery t-shirt walking towards the house. It is a fantastic example of an Arts and Crafts house with many original pieces of furniture still in place that were specially designed for the house and Guillaume Mallet. In the second photograph, a very young looking Andy can be seen in front of a view of the house and the enormous Lutyens pergola.

Le Bois des Moutiers 1990: Me in a flowery t-shirt and the front of the house
Le Bois des Moutiers 1990: Me in a flowery t-shirt and the front of the house
Le Bois des Moutiers 1990: a young looking Andy in front of the house and the Lutyens pergola
Le Bois des Moutiers 1990: a young looking Andy in front of the house and the Lutyens pergola

And whilst you are there, you can see the stunning Braque stained glass windows in the little church and chapel at Varengeville, and if you are in the mood for another garden, the late Princess Greta Sturdza‘s garden (which is on my list) can be seen at Le Vasterival. If you want to make a visit, the website includes all the information about the various ways of organising a visit but all are by appointment, so need to be arranged in advance. Princess Sturdza was a breeder of hydrangea, amongst other things, and I have just bought Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star’ which was discovered and bred by her. Got to make a trip to Normandy….