Mark Griffiths: Why gardening is vastly richer, wider and deeper than in Gertrude Jekyll’s day

Gertrude Jekyll loved bergenais, but she'd be the first to agree that the variety around today far outshines what was available to her as Mark Griffiths explains.

Inspired by Country Life’s Lutyens celebrations, I’ve been re-reading Gertrude Jekyll’s Wood and Garden of 1899. My copy brings me strangely close to her. It was a gift from my friend and colleague Edward Wilson, the pre-eminent scholar of English, who made Worcester College’s gardens the finest in Oxford. It came to him from his great-uncle Dick, who received it from the author herself, his neighbour in Surrey.

Whenever his wife and daughters went up to town, Dick liked nothing better than to wander over to Munstead Wood to see Miss Jekyll. ‘They used to make pictures from seashells together,’ Edward tells me, ‘and before they settled down to their work, they’d gleefully chorus “Another happy day with loved ones far away”.’

It’s tempting to peruse this classic wistfully, as a guide to paradise lost, to a peak of artistic perfection not scaled before or since. Read critically, however, it brings one to a very different realisation: British gardening is vastly richer, wider and deeper than it was in Miss Jekyll’s day, embracing ever more followers, styles, techniques and materials.

The most vivid evidence of this progress is the increase in our range of cultivated plants. Consider Bergenia, hardy and mostly evergreen, low-growing perennials with large leathery leaves and clear-stalked trusses of bell-shaped flowers in late winter and spring. Miss Jekyll knew them by the now-defunct name Megasea and loved them.

In Wood and Garden, she declares: ‘I am never tired of admiring the fine solid foliage… remaining, as it does, in beauty both winter and summer, and taking on a splendid winter colouring of warm red bronze.’

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Although she finds the blooms of Bergenia cordifolia and B. crassifolia ‘coarse-looking’ and ‘of a strong and rank’ pink, ‘the persistent beauty of the leaves more than compensates; and in the rather tenderer kind M. ligulata [B. pacumbis] and its varieties, the colour of the flower is delightful, of a delicate good pink’.

Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood - photographed in 1912 (©Country Life Picture Library)

Gertrude Jekyll’s garden at Munstead Wood – photographed in 1912 (©Country Life Picture Library)

She recommends all for edging borders, carpeting the edges of shrubberies and juxtaposing with stonework: ‘There is nothing flimsy or temporary looking about the Megaseas, but rather a sort of grave and monumental look that specially fits them for association with masonry, or for any place where a solid-looking edging or full-stop is wanted.’

In a Jekyll scheme or similar, Bergenias that were available to her still look splendid and right. Elsewhere, they tend to disappoint or dismay, having been surpassed by more recent arrivals. Her favourite attribute of these plants, the ‘warm red bronze’ that exposure to cold and sun produces in the leaves, is stronger and more reliable in B. Sunningdale, a cultivar of 1964, than in any of the kinds at her disposal.

Stronger still are the shimmering dark chocolate and semi-lucent beetroot red that enrobe the foliage of cultivars such as B. Abendglut and B. Bressingham Ruby and of two plants found in the wild, neat B. stracheyi and noble B. purpurascens var. delavayi.

These Bergenias have transformed the British winter garden, bringing drama and substance to the dance of snowdrops, hellebores, dogwoods and silver-caned brambles. They’re also ideal for more formal schemes.

We’ve a narrow border filled with B. Bressingham Ruby, Adrian Bloom’s superb 1984 introduction, and fronted with the evergreen Iris Cruella. All winter, one of the best things in the garden is the contrast between the former’s lustrous maroon paddles and the latter’s white-striped silver swords.

Close up of the individual flowers in the scape of Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’. Pic: Alamy

Whether Miss Jekyll would have agreed is another matter, but I suspect she would have approved of this Bergenia’s flower colour, which, as with most cold-painted kinds, is rich, a warm magenta rather than stark bubblegum pink.

And I’m sure she would have adored several cultivars whose foliage seldom flushes strongly in winter, but which bloom liberally, long into spring, and in enchanting shades of white (Beethoven, Bressingham White, Silberlicht) and blush (Baby Doll, Bach, Harzkristall, Pink Ice).

To this last group, we might add two desirable species that prefer sheltered conditions: B. ciliata, a Nepalese giant with downy dinner-plate leaves and apple-blossom posies, and B. emeiensis, a Chinese miniature with sleek oval foliage and sprays of nodding white bells.

Neither, alas, was available to Miss Jekyll. Had they been, come April, great-uncle Dick might well have heard her warbling a different refrain: a happy day with loved ones from faraway.

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