Heart of a Gardener

“All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight – the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.” Vita Sackville West

Watercolor garden

Can you feel the closeness of spring? Do you feel the energy stirring in the soil? Does the ‘great ghostly barn owl’ sweep silently across the pale shadows of your winter garden? I am thinking of gardeners everywhere, in this time of sweet madness, for I remember being held in the same thrall. Plans for new beds get drawn on graph paper, notes are made for new color combinations, plant and seed catalogs are lingered over with a lover’s eye, and the all important shade of butter yellow blooms to pair with violet clouds of campanula is looked for with the intensity of a newly crowned prom queen shopping for shoes.

Louise Beebe Wilder, writer and gardener extraordinaire, would become particularly giddy this time of year, writing, in 1918; ‘we can resist no longer, but rush recklessly hatless to the garden, feeling, if not actually repeating, Lowell’s lines: “Every clod feels a stir of might, An instinct within it which reaches and towers.”

“I cannot help hoping…” said Vita Sackville-West, echoing this sentiment, albeit in a much more restrained style.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years almost as much as gardening is reading about other gardeners and their various trials and successes; even rambling, prosy, moralizing essays written by gardeners from the Victorian past can be fascinating. The articulate minds, the liquid prose and warmhearted lore of the gardener/essayist has helped to pass many a winter day, when the garden was sleeping, the birds were still and the ground was frozen.

“It is a pleasure simply to read a list of the titles of their books.” Nan Fairbrother

In a sense, the writing gardener of the ages has kept all of our collective flowerbeds thriving over generations, continents, and even social boundaries. ‘They have such enthusiasm,’ writes Nan Fairbrother, in her book ‘Men and Gardens’, in discussing the garden writers of the seventeenth century; ‘such curious and enquiring minds, they ride their hobby horses with such zest. It is a pleasure simply to read a list of the titles of their books.’ A pleasure, indeed. I look forward to reading her recommended ‘Cornu Copia, a Miscellanium of Lucriferous and Most Fructiferous Experiments, Observations and Discoveries Immethodically Distributed to Be Really Demonstrated and Communicated in All Sincerity’ (1652).

Yet, today, and for reasons that I suspect I know; I am thinking of Ellen Willmott.

You’ve seen her name, I’m sure. If you garden, or have ever bought a packet of seeds, you have come across some form of her name. If you love flowers, plant lore, history, and crusty old umbrella-wielding spinsters with an attitude, then you have already likely found Miss Willmott’s story interesting.

When I first began to search for information on this mysterious lady who was so apparently dear to the plant hybridizers of the Edwardian generation, the internet was young. Google was woefully inadequate as a resource for my esoteric pursuits of knowledge. Wiki was not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Then I stumbled across—amazingly enough—one of my favorite resources in which to find credible information.

A Book! An actual biography. ‘Hardcover with dustjacket’’; (words that I still find thrilling). ‘Miss Willmott of Warley Place, Her Life and Her Gardens’, was written by Audrey Le Lievre and published by Faber & Faber in1980. *

(Since then, the internet has many more gems to offer on the legacy of Ellen Willmott. Here are just two I have enjoyed:

Ellen Willmott: Gardener and Plantswoman


I suppose there are greater heights to be scaled by one who is truly ambitious, but to have one’s name immortalized by a hybridizer is a pretty heady prospect. Think footnotes, indexes, and Hortus Third. Ellen Willmott enjoyed this sensation many times over.

Other ladies that have been so endowed aren’t as clingy to our curiosity. The beloved ‘Miss Lingard’ of garden phlox fame has brought a moment or two of wonderment. I’ve spared a thought for ‘Nelly Moser’ as I enjoy her clematis, and I had long attributed a doting hybridizing husband to ‘Mrs. Moon’. But Miss Willmott had spawned almost an entire plantsman’s catalog. Was she that beautiful? Was she a femme fatale? Or were her graces of the saintly type, inspiring plant breeders to devise ways to honor her memory?

I pictured Miss Willmott in the latter category. Demure, kindly; no doubt tending one of those ethereal cottage gardens idealized by the painter Claude Strachan.

For such dainty visions I blame Miss Mint and Miss Wheeler. These delightful ladies of gardening literature could certainly be blamed for little else, save for lulling myself and others into the comfortable notion that all vintage flower-loving spinsters smell like lavender and murmur things like ‘goodness’ as they stoop over a plant in distress.

Miss Mint, you’ll remember, is of Beverley Nichols’  Laughter on the Stairs  fame. She was a rare little creature in that she aroused Nichols’ most ardent protective instincts–a distinction usually reserved for cats and neglected plants. This retired governess, described as ‘short and grey and mousey’, but also shy and endearing, was known particularly for her use of the three letters N.W. H. on all of her correspondence. ‘Nothing Wrong Here’, was her earnest message to the world. She wanted to save others the same agonies of anxiety she suffered when watching the postman approach. Thus they could open a letter from her without the least threat of imminent doom. (Once, the comforting acronym was missing from her letter–adequately explained in time by the fact that Miss Mint’s morning glories had come up all wrong.)

I met Miss Wheeler through the pages of Mirabel Osler’s A Gentle Plea for Chaos. There, we take a cozy tour of Miss Wheeler’s cottage garden, full of old-fashioned treasures that she cares for as lovingly as if they were precious family mementoes–and in some cases they are. Primulas, wallflowers, penstemon, and tender gentian all crowd together like scraps of fabric in an heirloom quilt. A lovely specimen of Hardy Plumbago has an honored place–“My mother’s favorite flower”, along with an enduring agapanthus handed down from her great-aunt. The agapanthus brings on a tender sigh from Miss Wheeler;  “I love having something belonging to my great-aunt because she was so lovely.”

Wait–! Let’s get back to that Hardy Plumbago, and look at it more closely. It’s a Ceratostigma willmottianum! And moving down the herbacious border, what do we see growing in Miss Wheeler’s garden but–“Miss Willmott’s little rose”–(rosa willmottiae)!

You see, a gardener is never far from Miss Willmott.

After several encounters with Miss Willmott’s name and Latin versions of it during my armchair tour of Louise Beebe Wilder’s gardens at Balderbrae, my search for Miss Willmott began in earnest. Mrs. Wilder particularly enjoys the Tulipa willmottiae, as it turns out. And after reading about Lathyrus odoratus “Miss Willmott”–a sweet pea described as an “enchanting boudoir pink”, and “compliant enough to bloom” in warmer weather than most–I was hooked. I was already beginning to picture Miss Willmott having tea with Miss Mint and Miss Wheeler, touring their herbacious borders together and cooing in unison like small gray doves.

But wasn’t there a sassy coral potentilla named ‘Miss Willmott’? And a tall other-worldly Verbascum “Miss Willmott’, known in its common form as Witches Candles? And a forbiddingly spiky Eryngium giganteum named ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’?

Hmmm. ‘S. W. H.’ (Something Wrong Here).

Take the Eryngium giganteum-Sea Holly, for one. (please!) The story has oft been told of how this plant, ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ received its name. Miss Willmott, as the story goes, liked to surreptitiously sow seed of this vigorous, thistle-like plant whenever she was a visitor to a garden, thus leaving her hosts with a gift that would most assuredly keep on giving. To further stir the imagination, the plant looked ghostly and spectral in the twilight. A mischievous joke? A way to ensure the immortality of a favorite plant? Or perhaps to ensure her own immortality? Eryngium flowers are considered everlastings, so perhaps the gesture was more a pathetic wish than a roguish trick. The famous plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas, intrigued by the tale, asked readers of a popular gardening journal if anyone could confirm the story, and thus the origin of the name. By that time in the mid-1960’s, no one could.

The image of the accommodating sweet pea had long since faded from my hopeful view, as well as the shy wallflower, and I was beginning to think more of the tenacity of a weedy thistle, springing up everywhere from Aethionema to Zinnia.

The real Miss Willmott was beginning to emerge out of the sentimental mists of my wishful thinking. Yes, she was prickly. Yes, she was tenacious. She could be exasperating, and was even once described as ‘the cankered Ellen’. She was also one of the most respected women in the world of horticulture. There was no romantic story behind the seemingly endless catalog of names, merely sense, logic, and a lot of hard work. There was no lovestruck hybridizer desperate to secure her affections; though attractive, Ellen Willmott never married, was never known to be in love, and never inspired love. Her skills were infinitely better in nurturing plants than in nurturing human relationships. To a man or woman who showed a talent for plants, she could be generous. To anyone of dubious gardening credentials, she showed herself capable of withering scorn.

Though born to wealth and privilege, and in the rosy days of Edwardian England, Ellen Willmott was first and foremost a gardener. She just gardened on a grand scale. At its height of production, her gardens at Warley Place grew over 10,000 species and varieties of trees, plants, and shrubs. Thriving there were ferneries, orchid houses, palm houses, orchards, an alpine garden, and ponds. Ellen Willmott had the distinction of being among the first female botanists to be admitted into the erudite Linnaean Society, and her great wealth funded many expeditions for botanical explorers such as E.H. Wilson. Thus many of the plants discovered on these expeditions came back bearing her name in some form. Some of these she expected to have named for her, not unreasonably, and others were voluntarily given as a mark of tribute.

Her gardens at Warley Place were much more than the pristine and park-like grounds of just another wealthy Edwardian gentlewoman with a hobby. They functioned as an extension of such valued institutions as Kew Botanical Gardens (then Royal Botanical Society of Kew), and Arnold Arboretum. Through letters of introduction from Kew, Ellen Willmott was able to make connections with the Botanical Gardens of Munich and Vienna. Thus, a rich exchange of horticultural information and plant material flowed from these institutions to Warley Place and back again.

Ellen Willmott was meticulous and unstinting in her plant propagation techniques, and had oversight of all stages of work done in the gardens and greenhouses. As a laborer, carrying trug and trowel, clad in working clothes and large floppy hat, she was a familiar figure in her own gardens, and often surprised her staff by showing up to work beside them. This, besides demonstrating her own conviction that she knew best how to get the job done, also ensured quality control amongst her hired help. Thus it was well known that she was often able to successfully grow a rare or capricious new plant, seed or bulb where others, such as even Kew, had failed.

Ellen Willmott was accomplished in many areas–woodworking, music, singing, and in fact her enthusiasm for the organ led her to travel regularly to London for lessons. Yet it was no secret as to the true passion of her life. “Do you play the organ?” asked a curious acquaintaince. “No,” she retorted, inexplicably. “But I can handle a spade.”

Yes, she could handle a spade. But now we come to the part where we, like Miss Mint, dread the postman’s approach for fear of receiving bad news.

The story of this remarkable woman is one of decay, as well as triumph. As her biographer La Lievre wrote, ‘Money in itself was of no interest to her: she cared for it only in its creative capacity’. Thus, with no practical skills in money management, Ellen Willmott’s great wealth dried up. Without money, there were no gardeners. Without gardeners, Warley Place became a ruin, defenseless against neglect and vandalism. Sadly, the once great gardens at Warley Place would not be able to survive for generations to enjoy.

Ellen Willmott had once carelessly remarked about a colleague that “his character was as ugly as his garden.” Her own judgement of another was coming back to haunt her. With her beloved Warley Place slowly sinking into ruins, she seemed to have no defense, or no desire for defense, in presenting a more pleasing aspect to the world’s probing gaze. This is all the more poignant when we consider what she wrote to a friend long before her losses occurred: “As you know, my plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves I read or write about them.’ *

Thus, like the Eryngium she had made famous, Ellen Willmot became hard and spiky with age. Hers was not a graceful exit. She became suspicious, cantankerous, even malicious, her eccentricities legend. She delighted in alienating people. “Has the old devil kicked the bucket, yet?” called out one passerby, as Ellen Willmott lay sick and alone. No, she had not, as it turned out. She lived to attend another flower show–showing up like a ghostly Sea Holly in the twilight gloom–wearing a sprig of Pentapterigonum rugosum in her buttonhole.

What’s in a name, indeed? Who would have thought, on my lavender and old lace-inspired journey, that I would find ‘an old devil’ at the end of it? As picture postcards and sprigs of carefully pressed flowers only capture the wistful nuances of a journey, and rarely tell the whole truth of it, so the name ‘Ellen Willmott’ means much more than a ruffled petal, a double white scented lilac, or a rare seed brought from the misty hills of China.

She was not a cozy stereotype, or a pretty paper doll to add to our mental scrapbook. She was a real human being, with all of the flaws, perhaps more, that we usually attach to that designation. But it is a tolerable truth; a bit ragged, to be sure—like a garden just hit by the first frost; still there are preserved within those enduring elements of beauty.

The gardener today has reason to be thankful to Ellen Willmott. Through her influence and meticulous care, many plants that are now beloved to us came to light. Ellen Willmott was a true original, a brilliant and obsessed woman who managed to live her life doing what she loved. We have more to thank her for than we do (much as we love them) the kindly Miss Mints and Miss Wheelers of history.

In my search for the real Miss Willmott, I found that she was inordinately fond of having the last word. Thus, her own words finish this account, for far from hinting poignantly at loss, they sum up how she was pleased to live, and how she was determined to die.

“I am quite alone with nothing to think about but plants and gardening.”


Melianthus major; aka Honey Brush…A favorite plant from my garden in years past–the leaves smell like honey toffee

I didn’t mention ‘The Genus Rosa’ for a reason—I can’t write about it briefly. It is a great work, and possibly Ellen Willmott’s finest legacy to the world. Beyond that, it is a work of tender and devoted love, and this from the woman who has become more identified with a ghostly thistle.

What is it?
Called “the first great color-printed flower book of the 20th century… It stands unrivaled, both as an account of the species and as a source of illustrations of wild roses” (Rix, The Art of the Botanist, 215).

“The Genus Rosa was the masterpiece of Ellen Willmott and the culmination of a lifetimes’ study of the species. It ranks with Redoute’s Les Roses as one of the definitive and most beautiful works on roses and remains an important reference for rosarians today.” http://www.darvillsrareprints.com/ellen%20Willmott%20The%20Genus%20Rosa%201910.htm

Last I checked there was a copy available at the link here and it goes without saying that I desperately want this set;

Beyond the very expensive and rare original editions, with the color illustrations, there has been a facsimile edition made available in the early 1990’s. If you are interested in just reading the text (and do not find rough black and white photocopies of fine botanical art an abomination) then you may be able to track down a copy. I did. :o)

*most of my information about Ellen Willmott, and any direct quotes, are from this book

3 thoughts on “Heart of a Gardener

  1. Did you know she often slept on the floor of the RHS entry hall when she no longer had a better place to spend the night before a show in London? The thought haunted me everytime I went up to the Lindley Library. Is it true?

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