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Have you ever wondered about the stories behind your favourite garden flowers? How and why they came to be there or why some cultivars go in and out of favour?

During February and March, garden historian and presenter Advolly Richmond will be visiting venues around the UK as part of the Society’s Regional Theatres Programme sharing the intriguing and surprising tales behind our garden flowers. From stories of exploration and unrequited love to excessive hybridisation and botanical piracy, Advolly will bring the histories of our most-loved flowers to life.

We spoke to Advolly to find out about her inspiration, the unexpected stories her research has uncovered, and what audiences can expect from her tour.


What sparked your passion for garden history?

It was the realisation that gardens actually have a history, and in turn harbour plants with histories of their own. While I was studying for my Royal Horticultural Society qualifications, at weekly plant identification sessions our lecturer would tell us who ‘discovered’ each plant, when and where, and I thought “plants have histories?”. This really sparked my interest. Particularly as flowers have always been such an important feature in our society – there to mark the milestones in our lives as we celebrate births, deaths, marriages and anniversaries. I then discovered the writings of plant historian Alice M. Coats (1905-1978) which opened up a whole new world for me.


What inspired you to research the stories behind the discovery and cultivation of some of our favourite garden flowers?

The majority of the plants we think so fondly of in our gardens first appeared in early writings as cures for a range of ailments. From the humblest cottage or urban garden to the sweeping professionally designed gardens and landscapes on country estates, the same plants can be found. But how often do we stop and think about how these plants came to be here and why? What is their story? Exploring the history of plants helped me to understand the changes that have occurred over the years since their introduction into cultivation. The diversity in our garden flowers is a celebration of the endeavours and, in some cases, sacrifices of the people who located and recorded them.  As empires waxed and waned, plants were gathered and transported back to various countries and the spoils shared among the victors and colonisers alike. These were the stories that I wanted to tease out.


While undertaking your research, did you come across anything surprising or unexpected?

There were many unexpected stories among the flowers I chose. But what struck me most was how the plants we grow and admire each day lost their identity and purpose the further they travelled from their homelands. They received new names often commemorating people known only to a handful of privileged people. Plants which had fed, clothed and medicated indigenous populations for centuries became mere ornaments displayed in glasshouses and herbaceous borders. 


What can audiences expect from your talk?

Someone once said that a garden should be full of old faces, sights and scents. Many of the flowers covered in my talk are old garden favourites, some of which would have been first encountered in our childhoods. Others may be associated with memories of holidays or honeymoons and form lasting impressions – each time we encounter their unique characteristics or a whiff of their scent, it immediately transports us back to these precious moments. The uses of some of the plants in history may surprise, especially since many of them are now grown solely for ornamental purposes. If people in the audience grow or are familiar with any of the flowers I feature, I am certain they will begin to see them in a completely different light which will broaden their understanding of these plants.


What overarching message would you like people to come away with?

Rapidly changing plant trends – seen at flower shows each year – can cause the original species or cultivars to become increasingly hard to come by as they fall out of favour. These are often only to be found in dedicated gardens or specialist nurseries, many of which are already in serious decline. The fleeting nature of our gardens, and in turn the plants within them, make them vulnerable. If people grow any of the plants included in A short history of flowers, I would very much like them to discover and hopefully marvel at the plant’s journey into their corner of the world.


Advolly’s talk is based on her upcoming book, A short history of flowers, which will be published in February.

You can hear Advolly's talk in Stamford (29 February) Penrith (15 March), and Powys (21 April). Visit our events page to find out more and book your tickets.

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