Gingerly does it

24 February 2017

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THE winter weather has forced me to work indoors recently, and I used the opportunity to plan a summer border to celebrate the life of William Roscoe, the founder of the Liverpool Botanic Gardens. What a lovely mental escape this has proved to be: the resultant scheme has taken on a distinctly lush and exotic feel.

Roscoe’s father included market gardening in his business interests, and, on leaving school at the age of 12, William assisted in growing early potatoes cultivated “entirely by the spade”, and carrying them to market in a basket on his head.

He spent several years on this and other “laborious occupations”, in­­clud­ing caring for a garden. Much later, he said: “If I were now asked whom I consider to be the happiest of the human race, I should answer: those who cultivate the earth by their own hands.”

He led a full and varied life as a lawyer, writer, historian, and art col­lec­tor. It was privileged, but not with­out difficulty: he narrowly escaped financial ruin during one phase. He was, at heart, a philanthropist, and was outspoken against the slave trade in a town where it generated consid­er­able wealth.

But it was Roscoe’s botanical inter­ests that I needed to focus on. His standing in Liverpool society meant that he could encourage ships’ cap­tains who followed trade routes around the world to donate horti­cultural specimens to the botanic gardens he had instigated at the be­­ginning of the 19th century. It is not surprising that the group of plants he chose to write a paper on have many culinary and medicinal uses.

In 1828, he published Monandrian Plants of the Order Scitamineae: Chiefly drawn from living specimens in the Botanical Gardens at Liverpool. To simplify: the plants in his study are all related to the gingers, which
were to become the height of gardening fa­shion during Queen Victoria’s reign. Most were assumed by Vic-torians to be tender and grown in glasshouses.

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Luckily for me, as I plan an out­door border in north-west England, although most gingers hail from the tropics many originate in temperate zones, or grow at high altitude in China and the Himalayas. And some species from warmer climes are ad­­apt­able enough to cope in a temperate garden with a little extra care, such as a winter mulch.

The stars of the new border will be various hedychiums, commonly known as “Ginger lilies”. These are wonderfully scented exotic-looking flowers. Hedychium gardnerianum, named by Roscoe after Edward Gardner, a respected collector for the Calcutta Botanic Garden, is perhaps the most glorious of the hardy gingers. It reaches 1.5m tall and has huge canary-yellow flowers and bright red stamens.

Hedychium x moorei “Tara”, from Nepal, is another superb hardy plant, with orange-red flowers. For nearer the front of the border there is one-metre-tall Hedychium densiflorum “Assam Orange”, from India, which has the bonus of colourful fruits in autumn. These two were collected in this century, so I am using artistic licence, but I think that if Roscoe were around he would look forward to their blooming as much as I am.

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