Days of Rage

This January Britain’s Gardens are bright with fury, our usually dull winter beds blazing with burst blood vessels and blue language, wisteria-pruning substituted for days of rage and wall-punching. My knuckles are weeping. You see, a water lily has been stolen from Kew Gardens.

The Daily Mail is characteristically in the vanguard of outrage, and asks: “As priceless lily is stolen from the botanical gardens, will thieves target your prize plants?” before helpfully informing its terrified readership that “Police officers in Scotland have expressed alarm at ‘work parties’ of illegal immigrants being used to steal sphagnum moss…, primroses and snowdrops” “with the proceeds being used to fund other criminal activity”. Now, I’m not a racialist, but illegal immigrants stealing our beautiful British tropical water lilies? Its modern man’s final slide into moral incontinence, innit?

Well, no actually. People have always stolen plants – because plants are lovely and people are not. I’d like to reassure any Daily Mail readers who might be looking at this blog that life is not actually getting worse – you’re just getting older and scared of change. So cheer up! Here are some comforting horticultural thefts from the good old days, when foreigners had manners and British snowdrops were the envy of the world.

In the autumn of 1849 a visitor to Dublin’s Glasnevin Gardens, made off with a large quantity of vegetables stuffed into his “unmentionables” and a melon under his top hat. For years the spectre of this audacious crime haunted the trustees of Glasnevin, and they used it to argue against working class admission for over a decade, presumably until they noticed that the post-famine proletariat seldom wore top hats. (Now, think about it, do Illegal immigrants wear top hats?)

An Audacious Felon
A Felon

Anyway, as hungry Irishmen wandered around with bulging trousers, across the channel the British were stealing the flora of six continents. The most famous Victorian botanical thief was Robert Fortune, a master of disguise who lifted great quantities Camellia sinensis from Sung-Low province while dressed as a Chinaman, establishing the Darjeeling tea plantations that still power this blog. His colleague Sir Clements Markham stole Peruvian saplings of the Caravaya tree, essential for the production of quinine, despite being explicitly warned that if he so much as touched a seedling “the people would seize him and cut off his feet”. (So you see, stealing plants is a great British tradition, joining in shows a willingness to integrate.)

Perhaps Kew could learn from the experience of Sir Clements and invest in some signs for the Prince of Wales Conservatory “Plantlifters will be dismembered”. Or they could spend the money on some decent antitheft devices like these from a patent application of 1936.

Patented anti-theft device.
Patented anti-theft device.

I actually find the idea of flowers chained to the ground rather artistic. Kew could use them to make one of their heavy-handed points about habitat loss. Of course water lilies are more vulnerable to theft than flowers or trees, because no-one has patented an underwater plant-chain, which is why they have electric eels in the amazon.

Anyway, digging in F. W. Christianson’s 1897 glossary of Micronesian imitative sounds – Notes from the Caroline Islands I found a reference to one Cherri-Chou-Lang. a minor deity who stole the Kava plant from the Feast of the Gods and brought it to Island of Ponope. Students of intoxication will know Kava to be a mild sedative, recently proved to be slightly more effective than placebos in relieving social anxiety. Its sale in the UK has been banned by the food standards agency since 2003.

Is this the link between plant theft and criminal activity that the Daily Mail alludes to? If so then its readers need not fear, there are barely any Micronesian immigrants to the UK, and those that are here won’t be imitating Cherri-Chou-Lang because they all got converted by 20th century missionaries. Now, like honest Anglican middle-Englanders, they believe that weed, cocaine, opium and tobacco were created by the Christian God.

I hope that’s put everyone’s mind at ease. Yes the theft of the water lily was a bad thing, but not a new thing, and we can rest assured that the perpetrator probably has very wet pockets. Once he has been caught we can cut off his feet, but until then let’s all get back to pruning wisteria.

Water Lilies
Water Lilies

Breaking the Mould

At university I lived with a man who had three-quarters learnt how to wash clothes. He could load a machine, choose a detergent, select a cycle (the hard bit) and press the go button, but never remembered to go back and collect his laundry. It would sit damp in one of the communal machines until he ran out of socks, sometimes over a fortnight later.

He was the loveliest chap, but his clothes were ever-speckled with black mould, a purely cosmetic condition which some people seemed to find off-putting. I’ve thought of him often over the last few days, because unfortunately I now have my own unsightly cosmetic condition that looks a lot like his.

I have sooty mould.

My particular sooty mould is on the glass house camellias (for those of you unfamiliar with the Chiswick House Camellias you can read about them here http://www.chgt.org.uk/?PageID=211) which is a disaster because in six weeks we have our annual Camellia Festival, and the public will demand dark green, glossy leaves – leaves by L’Oreal – not matt-black, mould-mottled, undergraduate-T-shirt-style leaves.

Unblemished Camellia Japonica
Unblemished Camellia Japonica

Luckily sooty mould is a surface condition that does not harm really harm the plant. It’s the visual manifestation of Ascomycete fungi feeding on the honeydew excreted by our Chiswick House Aphids. Usually it’s a summer problem and is washed off by the rain. But we have no rain in the glass house, and we can’t blast the mould away without knocking off the heavily pregnant buds. So we are washing the leaves, by hand, each and every one.

I don’t really mind this slow methodical work. It bonds me to the past horticulturalists of Chiswick House. I’m only the latest in a line of gardeners stretching back centuries to have stood in this conservatory and day dreamed from a stepladder. It gives me the opportunity to think about long forgotten university friends and about their washing, it’s an exercise in the voguish art of mindfulness, and should be sold as therapy to burnt-out bankers. It also gives me the opportunity to put headphones in and practice my Spanish.

This linguistic skiving is actually very important, because next month I’m handing over my stepladder and leaving Chiswick House for Colombia. My highflying diplomatic girlfriend is taking up a post at the British Embassy in Bogota and I’ll be based out there for the next three or four years. I plan to post a round-up of my time in UK horticulture before I leave, but more importantly I intend to carry on working with plants in whatever capacity I can, so if any of my international readership hears rumours of things growing Down South – send me a tip off.

Until then it’s back to those Camellias…

edit

The Author in Search of New Plants
The Author in Search of New Plants