Plant biographies in Horatio’s Garden

13 Oct

When you look at a plant in a garden , What do you think ?Do you think , how does that structure work, why has it evolved like that ? or probably, less practically , just.. how beautiful.. but maybe other thoughts creep in.
A garden is by definition a gathering of plants, there is and has been human activity behind this gathering. All that human activity has made the moment you look at the plant possible. What if you thought about other human activity going back further in time associated with that plant, a plant biography? (A plant autobiography!?)
These were some of the thoughts occurring to me, sitting in Horatio’s Garden at the beginning of September.


Steven , with one of the residencies collaborative works, showing calligraphy and maps made by him over three weeks.
The reason for sitting in the garden was to develop ideas for a month long artist and archaeologist residency by EnglaID researchers , Letty Ten Harkell , Sarah Mallett and myself , in collaboration with people associated with Horatio’s Garden.


Letty Ten Harkell talking to Denis and other patients.

Horatio’s Garden is part of the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre, it is named after Horatio Chapple, who came up with an idea of a garden next to the unit, having talked to the patients over a summer when he was a volunteer there. Tragically, Horatio was killed at the age of 17 by a polar bear .The outpouring of love and donations ,has resulted in this extraordinary idea ,being realized into a garden, directly attached to the spinal unit.
In September 2013, Zena Kamash and I had looked at the landscape surrounding the garden, and researched its history, its archaeology and produced a drawn , photographed and mapped response of how it was in 2013.
This year, September 2014, I wondered if part of this methodology might be applied to individual plants.
Most garden plants, on an initial search, turned out to have travelled miles to arrive in the garden. If you start looking at origins, this very English garden (and other English gardens) seem anything but English.
‘after the retreat of the Ice Age, Britain had the distinction of having the smallest range of natural flora of any country in the world, yet by the start of the twenty first century, it contained the widest range of any nation on earth’ (1)
Was this wide floral range the result of the much documented Victorian cultivators and plant hunters ? In the small sample of five plants that we choose, this turned out not to be the case. The most remarkably varied stories behind each plant were revealed.

New Zealand Burr

Collaborative work , New Zealand Burr.

The five plants that were chosen were:
Dahlia ‘Honka White’
Aruncus dioicus ‘Horatio’
Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan”
Verbena bonariensis , Tall verbena
New Zealand burr :Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea’

Here are two examples of the plant biographies:

Dahlia Honka White:

Native from Central and South America, these plants were first grown by the Aztecs as a food crop. It was also used to treat epilepsy, while the hollow stems were used as water pipes. These traditions died out after the Spanish colonization.
It was introduced to Europe in 1789 by Abbot Antonio Jose Cavanilles, the director of the Royal Gardens in Madrid. In 1798, the Marchioness of Bute , the wife of the English ambassador in Spain, sent some seeds to Kew Gardens in London, where they flowered the following season but were unfortunately lost soon after.
The flowers proved very popular in Europe and they regularly appeared at various European courts in the early 19th century, thanks to various Royal Gardeners everywhere sending seeds to each other.
The plant’s native American name was ‘Cocoxochitl’ but upon reaching Europe , it was named after the Swedish biologist Anders Dahl.
Dahl believed that the plant could become popular as a ‘new’ vegetable. The trend never caught on, which is why you’ll find Dahlias in your garden and not in your plates.
Sarah Mallett

Sarah Mallett Horatio'S Garden

Sarah Mallett , Vicky and and others discussing the origins of  Dahlias.

Verbena bonariensis or ‘pretty verbena’ is related to the Englishverbena officinalis , which -in medieval times – was thought to have medicinal and magical qualities, as a cure for the plague and as protection against witches and demons. It was also associated with good luck in warfare, and gun flints were sometimes boiled in an extract of verbena officinalis to increase their potency – or so it was thought!
The introduction of its cousin, verbena bonariensis , into Europe occurred in 1726, when two brothers, William and James Sherard, brought it back with them from Buenos Aires. James Sherard was an apothecary in Eltham in Kent, and also an accomplished violinist and composer. He was good friends with the famous composer Handel. However, in the 1710’s he began suffering from gout, and turned to botany as his main hobby. In the summer of 1716 he wrote the following words:

“Of late, the love of Botany has so far prevailed as to divert my mind from things I formerly thought more material”

James Sherard ‘s personal garden in Eltham became one of the most famous gardens of its time, noted for its rare plants.
Letty Ten Harkel


Collaborative work, Verbena

The residency developed, with myself drawing each plant, this is not my usual subject matter, and so it was a challenge!
Letty Ten Harkell and Sarah Mallett, brought the research into the garden, sitting at a table with books from Oxford libraries. Dan Stansbie helped with research in Oxford.
By doing this, many conversations came about between, patients, their relatives, volunteers who were in on those days, on the origins of plants and the human stories around them… Suddenly collaborative work was being made, as the space in the garden seems to allow and support: Steven was making maps and calligraphic headings, Graham was designing pressed flower pictures, Olivia photographed, I drew, Sheila was organizing art sessions and providing materials. Tina, the head gardener was advising us.
A long list of volunteers and gardeners and patients helped with their knowledge of working with plants, sometimes over years,Denis,  Daphne, John, Victoria, Andrea, Camilla and more..

Graham pressed flowers and clouds

Autumn Flower Picture by Graham, ( note the New Zealand burr on the bottom of the picture)
All this resulted in five collaborative images, which at first glance do not seem to be made by so many people, a true collaboration.

Aruncus Horatio

Collaborative picture , Aruncus Horatio.

The end of the project was crowned by an Indian summer lunch, and the five framed works placed actually in the garden. Sixty people attended and even five on beds, coming to be in the sunshine, that is Horatio’s Garden.
A great many thanks to all at Horatio’s garden, their support has been phenomenal and started conversations in Oxford on plant biographies.

Plant Biography self 2014

Myself, at the Sunday event .

(1) Tim Smit , foreword of The Origin of Plants , Maggie Campbell-Culver (Eden Project Books 2001), p 15.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: