Whilst life seems to be on hold, static, plant life moves on as usual, ignoring social distancing, responding to the seasons and imparting a sense of relief with its rhythm in a chaotic world. In the interim between the early spring daffodils and the flowering of herbaceous planting, gardens can look devoid of much colour – blossom has yet to appear on the fruit trees, Anenome blanda is in flower, and perhaps the Euphorbias too, but it is all very contained, very restrained. This is the time for tulips!

As the 16th century advanced, plant hunters explored, the science of botany developed, and Renaissance artists rendered plants more naturally and in greater botanic detail. Printing created a wider audience and flowers, began to be valued for their ornamental, as well as their culinary or medicinal use. Introduced to England at this time, Tulips became, almost literally, worth their weight in gold in the seventeenth century, when Tulipmania took over in Holland and England. Originating from the Levant, from Persia and from Turkey, where, as John Parkinson, the seventeenth century ‘King’s First Botanist’ commented, ‘it is said they grow naturally wild in the fields’, (a), they are said to be named after their turban like shape ‘tulipband‘. He titles his chapter on them ‘Tulipa, The Turks Cap’, and delights ‘in this one plant no end of diversity to be expected’ (b). He even tried eating the roots, preserved in sugar (c), and found them ‘almost as pleasant as the Eringus roots’. Today, this would be advised against – better to look at and enjoy!

Leafing through a few garden books, I came across a magical description in Charles Skinner’s book, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruit and Plants: a Devon folk tale which tells of pixies, who, lacking a cradle for their children, used the tulips to rock them to sleep at night, ‘cradled by the winds’,(d). A woman, discovering the tiny babies asleep by the light of her lantern, was so enchanted she planted more and more, enough for all the fairy children! And the fairies in their gratitude, granted the flowers bright colours and scent. The story goes that when the woman died, a grasping ‘worldling’ destroyed the garden, and her grave, adorned with beautiful tulips, was trodden down, so the tulips lost their scent and size but were allowed to retain their colours for future generations.

Tulips, almost a status symbol, a demonstration of the wealth of their owners, were the seventeenth century bling equivalent ostentatiously displayed in special vases, made of Delftware, such as the one below, or planted carefully to display their merits, five single tulips to a square, the rarest specimens kept for the central pots. Plantsmen such as Sir Thomas Hanmer, planted regimental ranks of tulips, which he prized as the ‘Queene of Bulbous plants’, (e), in his walled Great Garden at Bettisfield.

The tulip was to prove a rich source of imagery for interiors in the 16th and 17th century appearing on tiles, and household objects, and taken up again in the Arts and Crafts period by William Morris amongst others, who used them as a motif for his wallpaper and furnishings, and by Tiffany in the early 20th century in their glass lamps.

In Holland the fields full of tulips are a wonderful sight, and definitely worth a visit, as is Keukenhof, where rivers of bulbs and blocks of colour suggest mass planting ideas, on a scale not usually available. For clients I pick a peak time and chose two or three varieties that will flower together in one space at that time, followed by others in different space, experimenting with both complimentary and contrasting colours. I particularly like the combination of purple, orange and lime green for its zing. I have used Peter Nyssen for years, ordering in quantity, for planting usually in November. De Jager, Bloms Bulbs and Avon Bulbs are other specialist suppliers. I try to plant rhythmically through a border, knowing that, in time, herbaceous planting will cover the unsightly leaves as the flowers fade. Bulbs should be planted about 15cm deep, and at least 13cm apart.

As for varieties, the choice is immense from the single flowered Flaming Purissima whose raspberry pink flushed white petals open wide out, to reveal their yellow centre, to double tulips such as La Belle Epoque, a lovely washed apricot, to Green Star, an extraordinary green and white lily flowered tulip, whose pointed petals twist in wonderful ways, to the full paeony-style double flower of Aveyron, and the exotic fringed parrot tulip, Rococco, to name a few illustrated below. Whichever you chose, be generous in your quantities – impossible to add more another year without digging up the ones you planted in the first place! I find mine do last for years – I don’t bother to lift them, but I do make sure I plant them deep. Think about photographing your garden now to record where you might put them next year, and when you are lazing in the garden, leaf through the catalogues and plan ahead!

REFERENCES: a few books and sites to follow up if you like:

Everett, Diana, The Genus Tulipa, Tulips of the World, (London: Kew Publishing, 2013)

Parkinson, John, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, 1629, (a) p. 65, (b) p. 45, (c) p. 67

Pavord, Anna, The Tulip, (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1999)

Jacques, David, and Arend Jan van der Horst, The Gardens of William and Mary (Christopher Helm, 1988)

Skinner, Charles, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants, (Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott, 1925), (d) p. 277

Hobhouse, Penelope, Plants in Garden History, (London: Pavilion Books, 1994) (e) p. 130 quoting Sir Thomas Hanmer in The Garden Book

Hanmer, Sir Thomas, The Garden Book of Sir Thomas Hanmer, Bart. With an Introduction by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, (London: Gerald Howe, 1933)


Beyond the pale

As part of my first year of study, I had to research a garden. I chose one on the edge of the Ashdown Forest near where I live in Sussex. I had to begin with the history of the Forest itself, which I really enjoyed. Having lived within ten minutes of it for nearly twenty years, understanding its evolvement to the present day makes me see it with new eyes. The ditches, the mounds, the pine trees, the brush and the bracken, they all describe the past.

in the seventh century Ashdown Forest was part of the Forest of Anderida and by 1086 the Weald of Kent, Surrey and Sussex had been divided into rapes, with the forest part of the Rape of the Honor of Pevensey, under the lordship of Count Robert of Mortain – a half-brother of William the Conqueror. He had manorial rights to graze his cattle, collect bedding and fodder and material for building.

Part of a map of Sussex by Robert Morden, dated 1695, showing Ashdown Forest, from Sussex Records Society, .

By 1268 the free ‘chase’, a mix of heathland and woodland providing cover for game, where anyone could hunt, subject to common law, had become a royal hunting Forest, protected by Forest Law, and only the Crown had the right to the quarry. A ‘pale’, a high fence of cleft poles marked the boundary protecting the pigs, cattle and deer within it. ‘Beyond the pale’ were the commons, whose tenants were permitted to access the forest to graze stock, collect firewood, brushwood litter and cut turf. Names of many villages surrounding the forest recall the thirty-three entrances to the forest – Chelwood or Shepherd’s Gate, provided access for cart or horse, whereas Coleman’s Hatch, was an entrance for those on foot.

Renamed Lancaster Great Park when owned by John of Gaunt, in 1372, the park covered some 13,477 acres. In the 16th century parcels of land were sold off or given as thanks for the owner’s part in the defence of the 1588 Spanish Invasion. Ditches marking boundaries are still visible today, as are the Scots pines, planted to replace the lost game cover, resulting from the Commoners’ bracken and litter removal.

An old ditch in Forest Row, marking an original boundary, shown on the 1693 Survey of Ashdown Forest (East Sussex Records Office AMS 4084)

By the end of the Civil War the enclosure fences had been pulled down, and a Parliamentary Survey in 1658 re-assessed Commoners rights to ‘Herbage, or Pawnage, Turbary, or Estovers’. Attempts to re-enclose the Forest met fierce resistance, and eventually over 6,000 acres were allocated as common land, mostly near villages and farms , with the remainder belonging to the Manor of Duddleswell, owned by Sackville, Earl of Dorset. Through the 18th and 19th century disputes rumbled on and by 1875, Ashdown Forest had passed through marriage to George Sackville-West, the fifth Earl de la Warr.

Today the common land, grazed by cattle and sheep, is predominantly heathland, and is overseen by the Conservators fo the Forest. Those properties that border the forest, sometimes within the original pale, still retain their rights for grazing and firewood, according to their landholding, and deer, now wild, still roam.

I continued my research, following the history of the Arts and Crafts house and garden that was my subject. Peering over old maps at the Barbican House Museum, the home of the Sussex Archeological Society, was a joy, as was reading interviews of the Commoners, conducted by William Raper in 1878 for evidence in their dispute with the Earl de la Warr over their rights (Raper, William, Residents of Ashdown Forest: 1878, Sussex Archaeological Society, Susex Room, 201412).

If you want to find out more about Ashdown Forest, I can recommend the following: East Sussex Records Office, especially for old maps including tithe maps,, The Weald of Kent, Surrey adn Sussex database, and, for links to many ancient maps, and information about the Forest,


Walking along the beach at Tidemills, near Newhaven, the remains of the mills powered by the tide drew me back to the intensely moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, by New York architect Peter Eisenman, opened in 2005. The 2711 concrete slabs of differing sizes are set on a slope near the Reichstag. Identical in two dimensions, they vary in their third dimension, their height, and, as you walk between the Field of Stelae, you find yourself disappearing from view. Elements of life exist – small trees.

The Tidemills, completed in 1788, at one time producing up to 190 tonnes of flour a week, employed 60 men and supported the life of the village surrounding it. Rail lines were built to take the flour to Newhaven and from there to London, but by 1936 the mills had long been stopped and the village was condemned. The picture shows the mill race sluice in the distance and the foundations of the Chailey Marine Hospital, a second residence built for children with disabilities to take advantage of the sea air – the original residential school, Chailey Heritage in North Chailey, still offers a wonderful environment for severely physically challenged children and young adults.

Two entirely different tributes – swimming against the tide.