March 2021 – David Marsh on ‘Elephants in the Garden’

At our recent Zoom talk, Dr David Marsh, a garden historian, gave a detailed account of the history of elephants in gardens focusing primarily on menageries  and then on large scale mechanical  elephants. His interest in elephants was stimulated by a visit to a café at the grade I listed Chiswick House and gardens where he noticed a coaster had an elephant depicted on it.

The earliest mention of a menagerie in the UK is in 1199 in the grounds of Woodstock Manor situated on the site of the present day Blenheim Palace.

The monarchs over the centuries were very keen on menageries and  elephants. Elephants were often given as gifts. Henry 111 was given an elephant  in 1255  by the French King which cost £24.14s.3p to feed over a period of 9 months. A colossal sum at the time. So too were Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. James I was especially attracted to menageries.  He was given one by the King of Spain.

Henry VIII set up a  menagerie in the Tower of London where an area was set aside for it.  Over the centuries the menagerie became a tourist attraction. A viewing platform was erected in 1597.  The animals were  sometimes baited to entertain tourists. In the 18th century the  entrance fee was 3p, or if you could not afford it a cat or dog to feed to the lions.

Elephants over the centuries were often fed and housed inappropriately. One was fed wine. Not surprisingly some did not live very long. Henry VIII’s elephant only lived 2 years.

By the mid eighteen century menageries became must have features found in many country estates. There were estimated to be as many as 40 at one point. Though rare that they had elephants. One well known elephant was Sadi who was given to the Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick House by the Marquis of Hastings of India fame as a present.  He even introduced her to the Russian Czar. The animals in menageries  became increasingly varied and exotic. A reflection of  the expanding British empire overseas.

By the early 19th century menageries had also become commercial enterprises.  The Exeter Exchange was set up in the Strand near Somerset House in 1815. One elephant there, Chunee was taught tricks. She was hired out to theatres, but eventually had to be killed as  she  became too dangerous.

The early nineteenth century was the heyday and also the swansong of menageries. The tide turned on Chunee’s death and a more  humane and educational approach was introduced during the 19th century.  George IV  had a menagerie set up at Windsor using  a more enlightened approach.

In 1826 the Linnean Society spear headed by its members,  Sir Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy and the Stamford Raffles founded the present day London Zoo in Regents Park  where the animals were provided with more spacious accommodation within beautiful gardens. In the 1830s William 1V closed the Tower menagerie and its animals were moved to Regents Park. It did not have an elephant so the new zoo quickly bought two.

The Exeter Menagerie was moved to a site in the Walworth Rd by its owner Edward Cross. He situated it in a large beautifully designed and laid out garden. It became a major tourist attraction.

Dr Marsh then moved on to mechanical elephants They were first mentioned by Jules Verne in 1880 and started to be manufactured at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Frank Smith and then in the 1940s and  50s, Frank Stuart , developed and manufactured  and sold world wide large scale mechanical elephants.  They became major tourist attractions. They were also used for advertising purposes, including by Chipperfields Circus.  One in Australia called Nellie played a central part in the  annual Adelaide   Christmas Parade. One huge automaton in Nante took 20-30 passengers  and shot  water from its trunk.  Some still exist. One is in the Bewley Motor  Museum. One was even sold on Ebay in 2011 for £1,600.   Another featured in Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear!


Dr David Marsh is a garden historian, lecturer and writer, as well as a trustee of the Gardens Trust, a charity dedicated to the conservation of our historic parks, gardens and designed landscapes. He is an expert on garden history and co-convener of the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes seminars at Institute of Historical Research, London University. A brief introduction to his talks can be found at gardenhistorytalks.com and he also writes a weekly blog for the Gardens Trust.

Members’ gardens, March 2021

Look who has been visiting in Sharon’s garden in Shooters Hill? She says she is so pleased she left part of her garden for the wildlife, and this is her reward! He’s been hibernating in a leaf pile and came out to enjoy the sunshine today. He has been scrubbing around in Sharon’s garden and then wandering through the beech hedge into her neighbours. Oh the advantages of a Wildlife corridor, we should all make one!

Shown below is Angela’s beautiful Clivia in full bloom. Angela says this one is a division from her main plant, and is one of her favourite indoor plants as it needs so little care and attention.

Is today the day?

I have had a worrying time recently, and have bored my husband half to death with my constant observations along the lines of “I wonder if one has arrived yet?” and “Perhaps today is the day”.

As we are awaiting the appearance of our first grandchild, you might think that’s the reason for my anxiety? Well of course that’s very important, but in fact the problem has been that for the first time in 30 years, the toads have not arrived in our pond.

I have been pondering (ha! pond-ering) whether it is the new fence that has stopped them or whether I have been too tidy in the shrubbery and whether I should not have got rid of the overgrown irises at the pond edges. To try to make amends, I have crawled along the new fence and created nice deep tunnels underneath (to the interest of my two terriers and the annoyance of my husband, who has no engineering knowledge and thinks this will weaken his expensive fence).

My neighbours on the other side have known me for a long time, so they have already assured me they will put any lost toads they find through the hole by our shed so they can find their way home.

Toads can travel up to 2 km to come back to the pond they grew up in to spawn, so imagine how many fences and what obstacles we humans put in their way on that journey? They live about 10-12 years, so in theory you should get more coming back each year.  I am afraid my little band has been dwindling in recent years, and I worry that the new fence may just make them give up and change their permanent address to a pond down the road.

Luckily, I am able to tell you that today there has been movement in the pond! It’s not heaving, like Monty’s pond on Gardeners World, but there are definitely a few happy toads in there, making their “chirrup” noises and sounding pleased (relieved?) to be home. No spawn yet, but I expect a happy ending to this story, any day now.

Kathy

OPG diary – March 2021

9 March
So nice to see volunteers back in the garden. A great weeding and planting session.

Old Pond Garden, Charlton House, March 2021:
Primroses, Epimedium and Hellebores in Charlton House gardens, April 2021
Primroses, Epimedium and Hellebores

16 March
The potting-up team

CABAHS volunteers - the potting up team, in the Old Pond Garden, Charlton House, March 2021

The Long Borders Party

CABAHS volunteers - the long border party, in Charlton House gardens, March 2021

We even had a canine volunteer today, being good as gold (no squirrels around luckily!)

CABAHS volunteer and canine companion in Charlton House gardens, March 2021

18 March
The Rockery Ladies.. Making a good start on the Rockery weeding, might need a bigger fork next time!

CABAHS volunteers in Charlton House gardens, March 2021

What a turn out for the Long Border. We had peak volunteer numbers, on a rather wet and nasty day. Thank you so much to everyone who came along, hope you come back (and please bring nicer weather!)

CABAHS volunteers in the long border at Charlton House gardens, March 2021

The start of a bird bath in the central bed! Thank you to the chain gang..

Old Pond Garden, Charlton House, March 2021

What’s in a name?

Two years ago my daughter bought me a houseplant which she had seen in a shop, but which she had not got a name for. It also didn’t look like anything I had seen before. Despite its rather delicate appearance, through the heat of summer 2020 it did extremely well in a south facing room, even much better than I had expected, but I was still no closer to identifying it.

Then, recently, while trawling through some photos of houseplants, I came across one of my plant!  It is called Asparagus falcatus. Described thus: ‘Often known by the name, Sicklethorn, Asparagus falcatus is a variety of asparagus fern. It is a robust creeper, which is covered with thorns. The roots of this plant form swollen tubers that resemble sweet potatoes. This South African plant climbs rapidly by means of the sharp spines on its stems and is often used in that country as an impenetrable barrier.

Having finally identified the plant, the name now puzzled me. It looks nothing like asparagus and I wondered how it had acquired the designation. 

And now, in March, I find a shoot has come up from the compost. It is brown and quite thin and whippy, with what look like small thorns the length of the stem, but which are not in fact spiky at all. What’s more, the tip looks very much like asparagus!

So there I have it: Asparagus falcatus is named for this tender stem which looks like an asparagus spear and which has ‘thorns’ along its length – ‘falcatus’ means sickle shaped or hooked.

Vija

February 2021: Dr Catherine Horwood on Beth Chatto

Many of us who are avid and long-time fans of Beth Chatto’s garden and her Unusual Plants Nursery will always remember that she won 10 consecutive Gold Medals at the Chelsea flower show.  
Her legacy is a garden she created which is unlike any other in the UK and abroad: it is unique.

Dr Catherine Horwood, Beth Chatto’s authorised biographer, introduced Beth Chatto to members and guests via last Monday evening’s Zoom meeting.

The talk was about Beth Chatto’s personal life and the influences that led to the garden’s creation. We learned that she happily gardened alongside her parents and had her own garden patch of cottage garden flowers. And we know that her hobby as a flower arranger as a young woman hugely influenced her interest in plant forms, textures and colours.

Dr Horwood described Beth Chatto as ‘tough’ and ‘steely’, and she must have been extremely determined from a young age, as she trained as a teacher during WW2, instead of taking the usual route of joining the Forces.  An advantageous marriage to a fruit farmer, Andrew Chatto, with a life-long interest in plant ecology, set the stage for the purchase of land at Elmstead Market and the garden that followed.

But why did Beth Chatto design the garden the way she did?  We know she was influenced by the terrain and various soil conditions, in addition to a natural spring at the lower level. How did her design of a ‘necklace of ponds’ separated by very  narrow water channels come about?   We know she was influenced by her friend and mentor, Cedric Morris in those early days and Beth Chatto acknowledges the huge debt to her husband at the start of her book, ‘The Dry Garden’, in which she states: “Without Andrew neither my garden nor a book would have been possible”.

chattocoverfront.jpg

Anna


Dr Catherine Horwood is an English journalist, author and social historian who has written extensively on horticulture and garden design and is the authorised biographer of Beth Chatto. A keen gardener for over thirty years, Catherine has created three gardens that have been open through the National Gardens Scheme and was for many years an organiser for the NGS. Her Facebook page gives you links to her other work on women gardeners, growing houseplants and you can check out her blog on growing vegetables. Her book on Beth Chatto won European Garden Book of the Year in 2020.