Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

I walked through Hyde Park the other morning and passed the big, spreading, pendulous beech tree there. It is only 20 feet high but 50 feet across and its branches reach down and sweep the ground. As time goes by it may get higher if a new stem ever manages to hoist itself up and take the lead, but, imperceptibly, it will certainly spread further. It has taken 60 years to reach this stage, but in another 30 or so it will enter into a long decline, start to feel rheumatic and react against cold winds in the spring and droughts in the summer, both of which are troublesome to old trees. The current buzz among management consultants is succession planning. Without an adequate flow of words like these the profession would die and rob the world of a valued source of irony, but it is an old practice in gardening. New trees should be in place before the old ones have started to fade, because they take so long to grow and punch their weight in the landscape. This beech is so big, it forms a cavern made of glossy leaves and strong, thick stems. Inside is a pool of darkness, cut off, contained; a private place in a busy public world. As I passed, children were popping in and out between the branches, running round its perimeter and then, with shouts and laughter, disappearing inside again. It was a very satisfactory playground. By the evening it had changed, its patrons had jumped a generation and were engaged in succession planning themselves. The tree had become a busy pre-antenatal facility. Courting couples are better than police at maintaining law and order in the space around them, and on a mild summer evening in Hyde Park there are many, many more of them.

The same morning I met an acquaintance admiring a plant. He asked me its name. I unthinkingly said it was syringa. I could just as easily have said mock orange, and I did when incomprehension glazed his eyes. The trouble with the everyday names for plants is the confusion they cause. Syringa is the botanical name for lilac, though it doubles as the common name for the mock orange too. Other plants have more than one English name. Bishop weed in Scotland is ground elder in England, furze and gorse are the same plant and so are whin and broom, rowan and mountain ash, bluebell and harebell, ling and heather. The names can also create a false impression. With the exception of Lily Langtry, the Guernsey lily originated in the Cape Province of South Africa and in nature is found nowhere else. French marigolds are natives of Mexico. Virginia stock is a south European. Candytuft is not a reference to the white clumps formed by the flowers in bloom but refers to Candia, the ancient name for Crete, where it came from. London pride was introduced here from the Pyrenees by a firm headed by a Mr London, soon, no doubt, to be the name of an elected official. But botanists are inconstant nomenclaturists and every now and then they knock a few old, familiar, hardlearnt names on the head. That humble denizen of the cottage garden, the marguerite, is now Argyranthemum frutescens, having once been a chrysanthemum; cheerful, familiar, humdrum Senecio greyi has become Brachyglottis greyi; Orchis elata is now a Dactylorhiza. In verbal contrivance, botanists beat management consultants hands down.

A reporter from a garden journal telephoned wanting me to comment on what he felt was a brand-new horticultural idea called veganic gardening. …

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