I have lots of flowers, I am very fond of my garden, it is a regular old fashioned farm garden, with a box hedge round the flower bed, and moss roses and pansies and black currants & strawberries and peas – and big sage bushes for Jemima, but onions always do badly. I have tall white bell flowers I am fond of, they are just going over, next there will be phlox; and last come the michaelmas daisies & chrysanthemums. Then soon after Christmas we have snowdrops, they grow wild and come up all over the garden & orchard, and in some of the woods.
When Beatrix Potter wrote to a little girl named Dulcie in 1924, she listed chrysanthemums as the last flowers of the year to bloom in her garden. The last seems sometimes dearest. She had many associations with this plant, and over the years, she wove associations – with people, with places – into the fabric of her garden.
Beatrix’s paternal grandparents grew chrysanthemums of many different varieties. In a sale catalogue for their home, Gorse Hall, in 1885 (after their deaths) Henry Heap & Son touted, “A large number of ‘choice named’ chrysanthemums and auriculas, greenhouse plants including ferns, and rose trees were auctioned, as well as six fish troughs, a watchman’s rattle, and five dozen bottles of White’s sherry.”
Knowing my interests in all things horticultural, a Beatrix Potter Society friend sent me information about Beatrix’s uncle, Crompton Potter, winning for his chrysanthemums in the Manchester’s Autumnal Exhibition of the Botanical and Horticultural Society. The show opened on Tuesday, November 23, 1880 in Town Hall, the impressive Gothic revival building completed in 1877 in Albert Square. The Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener of December 2,1880 reported, “The display of Chrysanthemums was the main feature of the Exhibition, as, owing to the inclemency of the weather, many delicate plants, which would otherwise have been sent to add to the beauty of the Show, were kept in the greenhouses.” The Botanical Gardens’ display alone had nearly 250 plants, so it must have been a lovely sight, especially as an escape from the aforementioned elements on that November day. Mr. Crompton Potter of Rusholme received a certificate of commendation for his display of cut blooms of chrysanthemums.
In her journal, November 1896, Beatrix noted being on the train to London with her uncle, Henry Roscoe. Their many parcels included, “a goose in a hamper and a bunch of chrysanthemums as large as cauliflowers. He was so proud of the latter that he would not let me carry them.” They were coming back from Woodcote Lodge, the Roscoe’s country home in Surrey, where Uncle Harry and Aunt Lucy took great delight in their garden.
In his autobiography, The Life & Experiences of Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, Roscoe waxed poetic:
The pathetic sadness of a garden in autumn, when the glories of youth and of the maturity of the year have passed away, is fortunately relieved by the blooms of the chrysanthemum, a flower which we owe to our wonderful friends the Japanese. Here the skill of the horticulturist is perhaps more visible than in any other floral display, as shown by the extraordinary variety of colour, form of petal, and size of bloom in this singular flower of Eastern origin.
From Roscoe’s enthusiastic description, it is easy to see why the plant became so popular. Chrysanthemum culture in England began in the early 1800s and took off mid-19th century thanks to the efforts of plant hunters and nurserymen. Robert Fortune, the noted Scottish plant collector, brought back key species from China in 1846 and large-flowered varieties like Uncle Harry’s cauliflower-sized specimens from Japan in 1862. By 1901, the Veitch nursery, arguably the most famous nursery in Victorian England, listed 686 varieties of chrysanthemums in its catalog. (See www.caradocdoy.co.uk for facsmiles of the Veitch catalog.)
Her uncles and grandparents grew their large showy chrysanthemums under glass, no doubt with the help of their horticultural staff. Those varieties will not withstand normal garden conditions due to the weight of their blooms and, in some cases, lack of hardiness. Beatrix grew smaller types such as the pompoms, suitable, as the Veitch catalog noted “to the open ground,” enlivening her Sawrey garden in autumn.