Monday, May 9, 2011

A Visit to London

Every self-indulgent person should develop the habit of denying oneself at least one coveted item.  In my case it is a subscription to the Financial Times.  A curious choice you might think, but not if you are denying yourself a weekly visit with Robin Lane Fox who writes about gardens for the Friday/Saturday edition.  He has been doing so for decades, although primarily engaged in teaching Greek and Roman History at Oxford.

I catch up with him only occasionally, usually on a night flight where the FT is distributed to the sleepless.  To read him is to be transported to the singularly British world of gardens, where no plant is too obscure for serious consideration. He is a writer you would like to sit next to at a dinner party, and hope to be so engaging that of course he would invite you to see his garden.

I read his column at the end of March on my way to London.  He wrote about removing an evergreen clutter separating his garden from an adjoining churchyard (see what I mean?) and replacing them with a full range of flowering cherry trees.  When I landed the following morning the cherry trees were indeed in full bloom, at least three weeks ahead of us in New York.

At a visit to a house in Bedford Gardens, a Kensington residential street, the curbside gardens were adrift in flowering pear, cherry and magnolia.  It was the tail-end for camellias and hellebores, which had been blooming all winter, and a visible moment for a few plants you will never see in New York: evergreen clematis, palms and huge tree ferns.

Unfortunately for me I was in London for only a few days, long enough attend a meeting and then leave.  Every year I promise myself a June visit of several weeks, but never quite manage it.  
A few years ago I did slip away to Cambridge for a day to see two splendid gardens: the Clare Fellows’ Garden and the University’s Botanical Garden.  Clare Fellows is not an individual: the garden belongs to the Fellows (the tenured academics) of Clare College, Cambridge.  If there is a better life than that of a tenured professor at Cambridge, I know not of it.  

The Cambridge University Botanical Garden is the more instructive of the two.  Opened in 1846, the idea behind the garden was shaped by John Henslow, widely remembered as the teacher of Charles Darwin.  Henslow wanted a scientific garden to facilitate the teaching and research about plants as organisms worthy of study in their own right, rather than the garden’s earlier incarnation for the sole study of medicinal plants.    

Henslow’s early research on variation and hybridization in the nature of species can be seen today in the design of the garden.  For example, the collection of Pinus nigra (Black pine) variants and all their subspecies are grouped at one end of the garden so that distinctions may be clearly seen one against the other.  

The plantings satisfy both science and aesthetics.  The rock garden resembles an outcrop on a hillside, using 900 tons of limestone to achieve the desired effect.  A dense planting of evergreen hedges in the garden gives the illusion of a continuing hillside slope, a triumph of design in the flat land of this garden.  

Most interesting to the Sunday Gardener would be the nine National Collections, so named for the depth of the research activity.  The Alchemilla collection is fascinating for those of us who have only seen the mollis  (Ladies mantle) and the Geranium collection is equally rich for those who know only the various sanguineum (Cranesbill).

On this most recent trip I went to Jerusalem after London to look at gardens there.  More on that next week, and after that we move full bore into the season at home.

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