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BRIT Review

The Power of Flowers and Plants in British History

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


This week is the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. It is one of the world’s most prestigious horticultural events and has been held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital since 1913. Britain has a long tradition of gardening and the show will receive thousands of visitors.

The origins of some of our most common garden plants can be traced back to significant periods in British history. Plants have long held symbolic meanings such as featuring on the national emblems of England, Scotland and Wales as well as being used as badges of allegiance. Many figures from history have been honoured with plants named after them.

Plant Origins

When the Romans invaded Britain they introduced several new plants, many of which were of culinary value. These included the sweet chestnut, the walnut, and vegetables such as onions, leeks, garlic and asparagus. Ground Elder, which is now regarded as a pernicious garden weed, was probably introduced as a food crop by the Romans.

After the defeat of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror began building castles to impose Norman rule on England. Stone was imported from northern France and with the stone, it is believed, came the seeds of the wallflower (Erysimum cheiri) and the wild carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus).

Soldiers returning from the Crusades in the Middle Ages are known to have brought seeds, bulbs and plants back with them to Britain. The hollyhock, a cottage garden favourite, is often attributed to Eleanor of Castile who travelled to the Holy Land on crusade with her husband the future King Edward I.

From the 17th century plant introductions became much more numerous as voyages of discovery and exploration found new lands to colonise. The Virginia creeper arrived from the eastern seaboard of North America in the 1620’s. New plants from Australasia soon followed the return in 1771 of Captain Cook and botanist Sir Joseph Banks from their voyage on the Endeavour.

Empire building and the opening up of new trade routes to the Far East brought in a wealth of new plants. Agapanthus and pelargoniums arrived from South Africa; fuchsias from South America and dahlias from Mexico; wisteria from China and Japan. In the 1820’s the Governor-General of India and his wife sent home several plants including Clematis montana.

Less welcome introductions from the nineteenth century are Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam and giant hogweed.

Badges and Emblems

Throughout history plants have often been used as emblems or as badges of allegiance.

Planta Genista

The Plantagenet dynasty of English monarchs took their name from the yellow flowered broom, Planta genista (picture left). This was the nickname of Geoffrey the Count of Anjou who married the Empress Matilda. Their son was crowned King Henry II in 1154. The traditional explanation for the nickname was that Geoffrey wore a sprig of broom in his hat.

The Wars of the Roses takes its name from the white rose of the House of York and the red rose of the House of Lancaster, which were sometimes used by the two sides as badges of allegiance. 

Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 founding the Tudor dynasty. 

King Henry VII took as his badge the Tudor Rose which combined the red and white roses of Lancaster and York. The rose, as a red rose, is still used as the national emblem of England. It is also now the symbol of the Labour Party.

Scotland has the thistle as its emblem. Legend has it that during the Battle of the Largs in 1263 the Scots defeated a surprise attack by an invading Norse army when one of the Norsemen cried out in pain after standing on a thistle with his bare feet. His cries woke the sleeping Scots who then fought off the Norse invaders.

Wales has two plants as emblems the leek and the daffodil. The daffodil is a relatively recent introduction from the 19th century and was heavily promoted as a replacement for the leek by David Lloyd George. The leek as the Welsh emblem goes back much further. 

The story goes that King Cadwaladr, or maybe St David, advised the Britons to wear the leek as a means of identification during a battle against the invading Saxons. Another legend is that it is a reminder of the bravery of the Welsh archers at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, who fought in a field of leeks. The use of the leek as the Welsh emblem has certainly been around since Tudor times. Historical records show that leeks were to be worn by Tudor guards on St David’s Day. The Welsh for leek (cenhinen) and daffodil (cenhinen Pedr) are very similar. Cenhinen Pedr translates as Peter’s leek.

After the Great War the red field poppy which grew in Flanders fields became a symbol of remembrance. For the Crimean War it was the snowdrop, which bloomed in abundance during the spring. Bulbs of Crimean snowdrops (Galanthus plicatus) were brought back to Britain by soldiers and planted in gardens. Graves of men who had fought in the Crimea sometimes had snowdrops planted on them.

Plant Names

Many plants have been named after the people that discovered them, such as the Douglas fir after Scottish plant hunter David Douglas, or Berberis darwinii, a shrub described by Charles Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle. However many historical figures also have plants named after them, particularly roses.

A variety of Scots Rose (Rosa spinosissima) is named for Mary Queen of Scots. Anne Boleyn, another queen who lost her head, has a soft pink rose named after her. Miss Edith Cavell is a red rose named after the English First World War nurse who was executed by the Germans.

David Cameron plants The Churchill RoseThere are two roses named in honour of Sir Winston Churchill. The recently introduced The Churchill Rose was planted by David Cameron in the gardens of 10 Downing Street. Sir Winston Churchill also has a narcissus, fuchsia and rhododendron named for him.

Another British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, caused a diplomatic row when she agreed to let a German breeder name a rose after her as she had already given permission a few years earlier to a Japanese breeder to do the same. There is also an orchid, Dendrobium Margaret Thatcher, which was named during a visit to the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

There are also roses named for historical events. David Austin named an orange English Rose after Lady Emma Hamilton, the lover of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Another David Austin English Rose, Mary Rose, celebrates the raising of Henry VIII’s flagship from the Solent.

Some figures from history have had a plant genus named in their honour.  Queen Victoria had a genus of water lilies named after her. Victoria amazonica the giant Amazon Water Lily has leaves that grow to over 2.5m wide. Captain William Bligh (famous for the mutiny on the Bounty) had a fruit named after him, Blighia sapida, or the ackee as it is commonly known. The genus name of Blighia was given in honour of Captain Bligh as he transported the fruit from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Not all plant names however are meant as a compliment. William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland earned the nickname ‘Butcher Cumberland’ after his victory over the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. In Scotland ragwort, the yellow flowered weed that is poisonous to horses and cattle is commonly known as Stinking Billy in honour of the Duke.


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