Taste in plants changes and flowers are subject to fashion like everything else. Most gardeners shrink in horror at the idea of red salvias grown with French marigolds and pink Busy Lizzies. Many flowers that our parents loved are disliked now. Gardeners can be very snobbish about the sort of flowers they will allow into their gardens. It is really strange to think that something as lovely as a flower can be considered vulgar. The Victorians loved annuals as carpet bedding. It showed that they could afford large greenhouses and many gardeners. When these same annuals became popular with the masses they became vulgar.
The great horticulturist Jenny Robinson used to live just down the road from me. She was a formidable lady who died in 2010 aged 94. Roy Lancaster called her: ‘The Grande Dame of Horticulture’. Amongst other rare and lovely plants, she grew amazing fritillaries, lilies and small bulbs of all kinds. Her garden was featured in ‘The Englishwoman’ s Garden’ by Alvide Lees-Milne and Rosemary Verey. It was considered a great honour to be invited to her lily sniffing parties. She was the arbiter of taste in Suffolk plant circles. Flowers she considered vulgar she always called ‘ Hanging basket flowers’ and you would be amazed at the sort of flowers that she included in this general condemnation. Any gardener who grew what she considered to be vulgar plants was dismissed as: ‘the sort of person who has hanging baskets’ . You don’ t see many hanging baskets round here. Sometimes she would inform you that she was coming to visit your garden. It was like a royal visitation. I used to open for the National Gardens Scheme but that was nothing like as nerve- wracking as a visit from Jenny. You dreaded the lips pursed in disapproval at some floral solecism. Approval from her was something to be treasured and boasted about. After all she was incredibly knowledgeable.
But Jenny grew up in a time when plant snobbism was rife. It was a time when not just individual plants but a whole colour could be condemned as vulgar. The great plants woman Gertrude Jekyll spoke about ‘malignant magenta’. E. A. Bowles called it ‘that awful form of original sin’ . Most garden writers at this time spoke about magenta as if the very presence of such a vulgar colour would contaminate the garden. Basically magenta flowers were considered ‘common’. This is very odd when one considers that the very word was only coined in 1860 when a new aniline dye was created and named after the Battle of Magenta which took place in 1859. I am not sure what the colour was called before the invention of this artificially produced dye. I can find no reference to it in earlier garden writing. Jekyll was writing at the time when adherents of the Arts and Crafts Movement were advocating a return to Nature. Magenta was associated with industrialisation and the availability of artificially produced dyes for textiles that were cheap. The dye was arsenic based and it was only a while ago that people had been poisoned by the arsenic in their wall papers and clothes. The aversion although illogical continued for decades. In the 1970s and 80s people were very careful to plant only pastel shades with silver foliage. I knew several people who said proudly that they would never allow yellow into their gardens. Gradually stronger colours have been reinstated but I’m not sure to what extent magenta has been welcomed back into the fold. Vita Sackville West was not afraid to use it in her purple border and in fact it is the magenta which makes this bed really zing. I love this clump of Geranium psilostemon right in the middle of the bed.
I have to admit that influenced by my reading of early twentieth century gardening books I took a long time to come round to magenta but now I really appreciate the way it brings a border to life. But I am afraid that I do have a list of disliked plants; I don’t think that it is anything to do with fashion and I do regularly revisit my prejudices and try to look with fresh eyes at the objects of my dislike.
Less- Loved Plants.
Tuberous begonias. I loathe the big, blowsy, overhybridised varieties that you see in hanging baskets. Oh dear I’m turning into Jenny. I took this shot at the Farm Shop and had difficulty explaining my objections to the Pianist.
I love the dainty single flowers of Begonia sutherlandii but the hybridisers have been too busy with the one in the Farm Shop. Basically, I generally prefer single flowers to double ones.
Gladioli. Horrid, great big spikey things. Well to me they are just too Dame Edna Everage. But I didn’ t like them before Dame Edna started throwing them at her audience. But I love the little ones like Gladiolus nanus. And who could dislike the adorable Gladiolus robinetta?
I am sorry if I am going to upset my American blogging friends but, ( and I must whisper this as it almost seems to be the American national flower,) I dislike many Hemerocallis. And why are they called Day lilies? They belong to the family Xanthorrhoeaceae, not Lilium. Although it is true that each flower only lasts for a day. Many of them are over- hybridised and vulgar and don’ t get me started on their names. There is an English one called ‘Droopy Drawers’ but even worse is the American one named after an article of underwear that I wouldn’t care to mention on my nice respectable blog. And how can you grow something called ‘Big Honking French Kisses’ or ‘Kissy Poo’? I am a serious gardener and I can’t imagine having gardening friends visit the garden and inviting them to come and look at my ‘Droopy Drawers’. Having said I dislike day lilies I did rather like some of the ones that Pauline showed in a recent post on her blog; Leadupthegardenpath. Maybe I will be converted as long as they don’t have silly names and are not too frilly.
Incidentally, talking about silly names, how can you possibly buy a Hydrangea called ‘Pinky Winky’ ?
Hydrangeas. I always hated them. I associated them with bungalows in seaside towns. I hate the wishy washy way that many of them can’ t decide whether to be blue or pink unless the soil is sufficiently acid. But I have overcome my dislike and love several of the tribe. I enjoy the big dramatic, felty leaves of Hydrangea aspera villosa. I enjoy ‘Annabelle’ and Hydrangea paniculata to name but a few.
Dahlias. My grandmother grew these and was very proud of the enormous size and brilliance in colour of the blooms. Even as a child I loved flowers and examined them closely. Dahlias had a smell I disliked and they were always covered in earwigs. I thought that they were gross. It has taken me many years to look at them with fresh eyes and decide I like them. In fact I have even tried growing them from seed and I showed you my favourite recently. I am inordinately proud of it so I will show it to you again.
Kniphofia. Red Hot Pokers like the ubiquitous’ Atlanta’ were always anathema to me; bright red and vulgar. Well, I still don’ t like ‘Atlanta’ but there are plenty I do like. I’ll show you some of my favourites in another post.
So I am making progress with my prejudices but there are the plants that I still don’ t like despite trying to see them with fresh eyes.
Spiraea Japonica ‘ Goldflame’. Hate it, hate it, hate it. There is one in my garden that I scowl at every time I walk past. When I have the energy I will dig it up. In the meantime I cut off the pink flowers that look awful with the yellow leaves.
Hypericum. I have no idea why I can’ t love The Rose of Sharon. If I try to forget my prejudice and look at the flowers, I have to admit they are beautiful. But sorry, I don’ t like it.
Tradescantia virginiana. This plant is known as Spiderwort and what a good name for it. Horrid, spidery thing with mean little flowers. I know they are blue and we all love blue. But really I think the great Tradescant should be remembered by something less weedy than this. I do grow it; here it is in my garden. But its days are probably numbered.
There are more but I had better stop now. I hope I haven’ t upset anyone with my prejudices. I suppose if I tell you I don’t like something you grow and love it is a bit like coming into your house and saying I don’t like your soft furnishings, what a horrible lamp and I hate your pictures. If you have grown and nurtured it from seed, it is even worse. Then it is like saying what ugly children you have.
But I am sure most of you have your own lists, if not of hated plants then of unloved ones. Many of your loathed plants may be on my list of choicest and most treasured, so please don’ t be offended if I hate a plant you love. It is a good thing that we don’ t all like the same plants. Variety is the spice of life, so please tell me which plants you hate or don’ t like and why. If you know why that is.