The Telegraph
Sunday , February 9 , 2014
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- Wild gardens and weeping willows

In a somewhat provocative comment on the British character, the American historian, Eugenia Herbert, says that “there seems to be a horticultural response to just about every British historical contingency”. She feels that “by the nineteenth century if not earlier, gardens and gardening seemed bred in the English bone”. These views find full expression in Flora’s Empire — British Gardens in India, where Herbert observes that the years — or decades — that the British spent in metamorphosing themselves from traders and compradors into rulers and imperialists were also the times when they were confidently moving into new garden and indeed architectural styles.

The English garden, Herbert writes, “along with clubs, cricket and hunting, reflected an understandable need on the part of the expatriate to replicate ‘home’ as much as possible in an alien environment”. The dominant leitmotif of imperial design was governance — but in order to keep the bureaucratic and political behemoth going it was essential to ensure that the rulers and their families felt ‘at home’. Domestic architecture in the form of the bungalow — a unique blend of Western-style bedrooms, attached dressing rooms and bathrooms with the verandas and courtyards of the East all neatly contained within a compound — could hardly be complete without a garden with neatly laid out beds and borders. The herbaceous border, together with British law, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Lord Byron, was “one of our great contributions to the world”, wrote author and barrister John Mortimer (quoted by Herbert). If this sounds a tad facetious, one needs only to look at the history of the 19th- century garden to understand the importance of beddings and borders — and the rapid influx of exotics brought back from the colonies and elsewhere by enterprising plant collectors to be sold by a growing network of nurseries and firms such as Suttons and Thompson and Morgan.

At the same time, there was a subtle resistance growing to this arrival by ship-loads of exotics and, not unexpectedly, a book named The Gentlewoman’s Book of Gardening (1892) refused to acknowledge the hyacinth — a relative of the English bluebell because “its smell is not an English one — it is too rich and heavy”. It went on rather prudishly to comment that “its breathe (sic) reminiscences of its Eastern home, and we associate it more readily with the song of the bulbul... It is one of the harem of night flowers”. Though the book went on to protest “against this terrible invasion of foreigners” like the dahlia, abutilon, gladioli and begonia, these soon became staples of the English cottage garden and its heirs in India.

The English flower bed, however, was not given easy acceptance. Author of books on gardens and garden design, like William Robinson, was opposed to beds and had little time for the growing art of topiary which he likened to “barber gardening”. Soon enough, the mid-century style of neat beds was quickly displaced by Gertude Jekyll’s ‘naturalism’ that experimented with the wild garden look where hardy perennials, grasses and rock gardens combined natives with exotics that could survive without coddling. During her collaboration with Edward Lutyens in re-doing the grounds of many stately homes, Jekyll used many new varieties devised by plant breeders such as asters, lupins, phlox as well as wildflowers and grasses from all parts of the world. The wild garden was soon valorized in lithographs, paintings and photographs such as the present image of cow parsley and ears of wheat.

For his part, Lutyens innovated in garden architecture, using brick, tiles and stone work extensively. The two had at least 20 years of imaginative collaboration and by the time Lutyens came to work towards what is today Rashtrapati Bhawan, the aging Gertrude Jekyll was universally recognized as the doyenne of garden design. Though one had truly arrived to have an Edwardian home designed by Lutyens and the garden patterned by Jekyll, when it came to the grand plan of Delhi, things were somewhat different. Jekyll was almost blind and the plantings that had her hallmark in the extensive gardens had to be overseen by William Robertson Mustoe, a horticulturist trained at Kew Gardens. He supervised the laying out of the famed Mughal garden with its channels, fountains and well-planned flowerbeds as well as the ‘secret’ sunken butterfly garden.

Though Gertrude Jekyll did not come to India, her influence in bungalow gardens was quite evident. Her emphasis on the need to blend exotics — in the colony, flowers of the traditional English garden — with natives found expression in the garden and home culture of the rulers in India. To carve out a private space was essential for physical and emotional survival in a land where it was not unusual for a man to die in his twenties, swept off by some mysterious malaise. The bungalow served this end very well, with its veranda and garden spaces where the sahib and the memsahib met the munshi or the darzi and negotiated with or ordered and hectored the mali: often, for the memsahibs, bored to distraction in this strange land, gardening was an interesting diversion; many concentrated on re-creating little English cottage gardens, others, like Charlotte Canning, enjoyed the “jungly outside” as she called it, as much as the grand scale of Government House and its gardens.

Garden manuals, DIY books as well as nurseries mushroomed and there was a proliferation of manuals on gardens in the tropics with detailed information; the perennial — if somewhat school marmish — classic, Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner’s The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, though dismissive of “native gardeners” were all for hanging baskets and gardens reminiscent of those back home. Of course it was in the proliferating hill stations where the English cottage garden reached its acme: in a discerning aside in her otherwise not always empathetic memoir, Emily Eden (Up the country) commented that the dahlia took possession of Simla in the same year — 1830 — that the government of India claimed the hill station; her tongue-in-cheek comment is worth quoting: the flower, she wrote, “mixes itself up with finance and foreign relations”.

Palates yearned for familiar tastes and as the botanist, Robert Wight, noted, “expatriates still pined for strawberries and lettuce”. If the peepul was tolerated in the plains, hill gardens accommodated weeping willows of English river banks in shady and damp nooks. The need to grow ‘English’ flowers and vegetables as reminders of home were an abiding passion with many. Several memsahibs studied local flora as well as made pertinent observations on what to grow where. It was generally accepted that while zinnias, coreopsis, phlox and petunias did well in the south, to grow roses in Madras was foolhardy, a waste of money and good plants. On the other hand, in Delhi, the English rose could compete with the best in England. And the further north one went, the easier it was to grow good roses. In 1916, Lady Rosamund Lawrence, wife of the civil servant, Henry Lawrence, wrote of the bunches of roses that she sent to the matron at Dufferin Hospital in Karachi. In summer, cottages in the hill stations were awash with the gay abandon of climbing roses while the tea and standard varieties were more strictly monitored and pruned.

At the same time, many realized that it would be short-sighted to ignore the hardy natives in the many bungalows and compounds of British India. In spite of her longing for the flowers of home, Lady Beatrix Stanley, the wife of a governor of Madras, admitted that unless one grew the indigenes, “one misses many lovely and interesting plants”. Yet, it would not do to forget that the manicured garden within compound walls served to maintain identity in a racially and class divided society. Like the much-loved culinary variants of curries, mulligatawnies, fish molee and that staple invalid-cum-nursery Bengali comfort food, pish-pash, such gardens ended up increasingly as creoles (Herbert), not quite Indian and not quite English or even European.