Despite truly vile weather, our November meeting was a hugely entertaining success – and it was well attended, too. Mike Dunnett, a retired professional horticulturalist whose garden in Worcestershire is open under the NGS, came to talk to us about ‘plants with attitude, interest and history’.
It was truly fascinating and, occasionally, alarming…
We started with apples and pears, not surprisingly given that Mike gardens in the heartland of British Fruit cultivation. They’re two familiar fruits, but we all learned something, from modern day (that people propagating fruit trees by budding can do 800 to 1000 in a day) to historic events (that the Worcester Black Pear – now on the city’s coat of arms – was apparently taken as provisions to France by the bowmen who fought at Agincourt). We were told that the pear would probably have been more effective as a weapon, though: ‘you have to pick it in October, store it until April, boil, boil, boil and by about July you can eat it’…
We passed through the link between beetroot and the abolition of slavery in the West Indies (breeding a sweeter beet gave Europe a source of sugar and led to the decline of cane plantations) to the strange worlds of competitive carrot growing and (briefly) using vegetables as musical instruments.
Then came something rather more serious: the value of sphagnum moss in dressings on the Western Front. Moss can absorb up to seven times its own weight in fluids; cotton was in short supply, and by 1915/16 wound dressings packed with sphagnum were in use. Most came from Dartmoor; it was dried, picked over to remove things like twigs and packed into muslin bags, 10 x 14 inches in size. They saved thousands of lives.
Nettles have been used in some surprising and alarming ways too (encouraging breed bulls, allegedly, and in eating contests) but none were quite as surprising as one use for pineapple: to tenderise human flesh. On a more, er, acceptable level, pineapples were such a status symbol in the eighteenth century that they could be hired out to adorn dinner tables.The hire fee was a guinea, which doubled if – shock, horror – one of your guests had the temerity to actually eat the fruit.
Finally, and as a bit of light relief after cannibalism and encouraging bulls by beating them with stinging nettles, came something we might want to try: a selection of Mike Dunnett’s favourite RHS plants with the AGM (Award of Garden Merit). Here’s a gallery. Click on an image for a caption, and for a slideshow.
Most photographs courtesy of the RHS; others impossible to track down