The Greenhouse Effect

By Tennant, Emma | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Greenhouse Effect


Tennant, Emma, The Spectator


CONSERVATORY AND INDOOR PLANTS, VOLUME I

by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix Macmillan, 19.99, pp. 286

The British Isles are famous for their gardens. They are made possible by a mild, maritime climate which enables us to grow an extraordinary range of plants from many parts of the world. But the grass is always greener, and English gardeners have always longed to grow an even wider range of plants, particularly those which flourish in Mediterranean climates and curl up at the first touch of frost. The current craze for conservatories, symbolic of a certain way of life in late 20th-century Britain, is the latest manifestation of an old urge. No conservatory- or greenhouse-owner should be without this remarkable book.

Goethe said that the south is where oranges grow in the ground. Like most northern Europeans, he thought that citrus fruits symbolise the romance and glamour of the Mediterranean. The earliest orangeries - most delightful of garden buildings - were built in England in the 17th century. The well-off connoisseur of plants would go to enormous lengths to bring the sight, the flavour, and perhaps above all the very scent of the south to his grey-skied domain. So it is a surprise to find that the genus Citrus, though long domiciled on the shores of the Mediterranean, did not originate there. The first citrus to reach the region, C. medica, the citron, is thought to have been introduced by the armies of Alexander the Great on their return from the east in 300 BC. The lemon, which like the citron is of unknown origin, was brought in by the Arabs some time before 1200 AD and the sweet orange, thought to be a native of southern China and Vietnam, was introduced to Europe by sailors about 1500 AD.

Phillips and Rix treat the genus Citrus according to their well-tried formula. A scholarly text, which includes advice on cultivation, is accompanied by photographs showing mature specimens in their setting, wild or cultivated as the case may be, as well as pages of individual fruit and flowers arranged together on a plain background for ease of identification. Roger Phillips's photographs have set a new standard of botanical illustration - is it possible that his spreads were inspired by the best of the old herbals and florilegia? They certainly combine cutting-edge technology with a high degree of artistry. And the photographs taken further afield inspire the armchair traveller as much as the armchair gardener. The avenue of huge old potted lemons at the Villa Camberaia near Florence, for instance, is an image to set the pulse racing.

The genus Camellia is another native of the Far East which is now very much at home in the west. A memorable photograph shows an ancient, gnarled C. …

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