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Brethren of the Spade

DR. CHARLES NELSON

 

Peter Dale’s recent musing on the spade prompts this digression, although there are no veritable spades in it.

The phrase ‘Brethren of the spade’, invoking the fraternity of gardeners, appeared in a number of contributions to John Claudius Loudon’s The Gardener’s Magazine during the late 1830s. One ‘A. C.’, in May 1835, commented that ‘If I feel disposed to question and rebuke the brethren of the spade and pruning-knife, for having allowed those fine fruits to perish through carelessness or neglect, I feel a desire equally strong to praise them for the improvements which they have made, in forcing this cold and sterile climate to furnish us with fruits and with flowers of foreign descent’. John Scott, in the May 1841 issue, remarked: ‘Bred in some of the best plant gardens of Europe, I have had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with thousands of species little known to some of my brethren of the spade.’ The phrase occurs in only a sprinkling of other printed sources during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (The earliest instance of it in print, in the form ‘Fraternity of the Spade’, occurs, perhaps surprisingly, in The Marches Day: A Dramatic Entertainment of Three Acts by John Finlayson, a Scot, first published in 1771.)

In 1949 Dr Earl Gregg Swem, librarian emeritus of William and Mary College at Williamsburg, Virginia, published an account of the correspondence between the English plantsman Peter Collinson (1694–1764) and the American politician John Custis (1678–1749) of Williamsburg, under the title Brothers of the Spade. Swem took this from a letter that Collinson had penned on 15 December 1735: ‘. . . for Wee Brothers of the Spade find it very necessary to share amongst us the seeds that come annually from Abroad. It not only preserves a Friendly Society but secures our Collections . . .’. Collinson’s correspondence with Custis had not been published in the 1830s, so the nineteenth-century authors who employed the phrase cannot have known that letter as a source.

Mark Catesby’s etching of Cornus florida, Eastern flowering dogwood, in flower and fruit, with the Northern mockingbird, from his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Volume I, Plate 27, published in January 1730.

The original watercolour on which he based the etching (now in the Royal Library, Windsor) has all the flowers coloured white (actually a whitish grey-green), but in some of the published copies one or more of the flowers may be pink. As Catesby hand-coloured the published plates himself this was clearly deliberate. The depiction of the prostrate, broken branch from which two shoots arise, as well as the text accompanying it, suggest that Catesby has based this finished design on sketches made at different seasons, spring and autumn, of the fallen tree near the French Ordinary tavern in Virginia, before 1719: ‘In Virginia I found one of these Dogwood Trees with Flowers of a rose-colour, which was luckily blown down, and many of its Branches had taken Root, which I transplanted into a Garden.’

Yet it must be remarked that Collinson is not the earliest individual to have used the phrase in a letter. Twelve years before he wrote to Custis at Williamsburg, Collinson had received a letter from another friend, the naturalist and artist Mark Catesby (1682/83 –1749), then collecting and painting the flora and fauna of Carolina, in which Catesby deliberately used the same phrase. On 5 January 1723/24, from Alexander Skene’s house on the Ashley River near present-day Summerville in South Carolina, Catesby sent Collinson a selection of seeds that, Mark commented, had been collected with difficulty. Given that Collinson was an avid plantsman, Catesby had made a special effort to send him something different. Thus, he included seeds of a plant that he had named the ‘olive-leaved bay’, which he had discovered ‘three days since’. Because he was being duplicitous, Mark urged his friend to burn or conceal this letter, at the same time promising to send direct to him larger amounts of seed so that these could be shared with the likes of Thomas Fairchild, a mutual friend who was an extraordinary nurseryman in Hoxton, north-east of London. The reason for this subterfuge is clear – Catesby was obliged to his wealthy ‘Encouragers’, who had sponsored his journey to Carolina, and neither Collinson nor Fairchild were in that elite coterie. However, Catesby was very anxious to please his specially valued friends who were skilful plantsmen, ‘us Bretheren of the Spade’ he dubbed them.

Of course, writing down a phrase like this does not mean that an author devised it, and it is possible that Catesby was only repeating something he had picked up, perhaps in London in conversation with like-minded friends such as Fairchild and Collinson. ‘Bretheren of the spade’, Catesby’s form of the expression, could have been current among the keen horticulturists of that period.

Catesby, Collinson, Custis: a remarkably interesting triangle. Sometime after he had himself arrived at Williamsburg in April 1712, Catesby had met Custis and thereafter it seems he frequently visited Custis’s four-acre garden giving him unusual plants to add to his collection. A letter dated 20 February 1737/38 from Collinson to Custis reveals a rather special link:

Mr Catesby Gives his Humble service and is und’r Great Concerne for fear the race of that Curious peach colour’d Dogwood is lost without you have One in your Garden. He says most of them that He had Transplanted from the Mother Tree into Mr Jones Garden was Destroyed by Fire, but He Thinks One or Two was saved & He brought and planted in your Garden. There is many flowers when In Decaye in particular the White thorn with us will Turn Redish but He says this open’d of a Red Colour att First.

Custis was to send Collinson two saplings of the dogwood in the care of Captain Cant ‘but it was his fate and ours to have the ship overset the voyage; and so lost all . . . ’. That was the second time Custis had tried to send the pink-blossomed dogwood to his English friends. Writing to Catesby in June 1730, Custis reported that ‘I have given Mrs. Holloway [Mark’s eldest sister] some catbirds for you; and send some young dogwoods from the old stump at the French ordinary the tree is dead therefore are cyons [sic] that sprung from the old root . . .’. The ‘peach colour’d’ dogwood had come from the vicinity of a tavern called the French Ordinary on the road from Williamsburg to Yorktown.

What did Catesby and Collinson mean by welcoming somebody as one of the ‘Brethren of the spade’? To translate into modern parlance, they joined that informal network that still operates among keen gardeners for exchanging plants, and swapping seeds, without seeking payment. Such a network or fraternity will have as its motto: ‘The best way to keep a plant is to give it away!’

John Custis was exemplary, and tried to follow that principle but evidently failed twice through no fault of his own.

Acknowledgements

Collinson’s letters to Custis, as well as Custis’s one to Catesby, are quoted from E. G. Swem’s Brothers of the Spade (1957 reprint); Catesby’s manuscript letter to Collinson is in the Natural History Museum, London: my thanks to Dr Charlie Jarvis for access to it.

Reproduced from HORTUS, A GARDENING JOURNAL by courtesy of David Wheeler, Proprietor, Publisher & Editor; Herefordshire, United Kingdom http://www.hortus.co.uk/acatalog/Current-Issue.html

 


Catalpah - Called so by the Indians

DR. CHARLES NELSON

 

I spent a day, late in June, walking in London on a botanical pilgrimage. The weather was beautiful and the out-of-the-way places were peaceful and sunny. From the bustle of King's Cross I went east following the Regent's Canal towpath, with a necessary diversion for the Islington Tunnel, as far as Shoreditch. Then I struck south into Shoreditch Park to take up my purposeful trail. Three centuries ago this part of London was famous for its nurseries, and one especially was to give the city one of its finest sights. I was following Michael Leapman's 'directions', seeking the place where Thomas Fairchild raised the first documented artificial plant hybrid, dubbed Fairchild's mule, a cross between the sweet William and the carnation (for the pedantic, Dianthus barbatus x caryophyllus). His nursery, Leapman says, was in the south-eastern corner of the present Shoreditch Park. A stone bench there now honours Dorothy Thurtle, the contraception and abortion rights campaigner. Fairchild and his associates go unremembered in this place.

In the summer of 1729, the year Fairchild died, you would have come here to inspect an advance copy of 'the most magnificent Work I know of, since the Art of Printing has been discover'd': Mark Catesby's sumptuous book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Catesby had recently presented the first part to the Queen Regent, Queen Caroline, and was seeking subscribers for his remarkable enterprise. He had engraved the twenty copper-plates and also undertook to colour them by hand himself He advertised that potential buyers could see the original paintings at 'Mr Fairchild's in Hoxton'. Those watercolours that have survived are now under lock and key in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, while the nursery ground where you could have inspected them almost three centuries ago is given over to lawns, an adventure playground and football pitches. A far cry from the busy little nursery where the 'catalpah', one of Catesby's discoveries, had raised its cotyledons into the sunlight for the first time outside its native habitats 'by River Sides very remote from the Settlements in rich land' in South Carolina.

My trail then wound through the streets and lanes of Hoxton to the junction of Columbia Road, famous for its Sunday flower-market, and Hackney Street. A small park, formerly a cemetery, shaded by some tall London planes contains a rather neglected, moss-encrusted stone 'Sacred to the memory of Thomas Fairchild ... ' It does not, sadly, mark the grave that he was to share with his successor, Stephen Bacon, but it is at least a substantial memorial for a remarkable man who was the pioneer of plant hybridisation and left money for a Vegetable Sermon to be preached in Shoreditch Church every year at Whitsun. That Fairchild and Catesby were 'brethren of the spade' is left in no doubt by the bequest of one guinea 'for a Ring ... to my friend Mr Catesby' in Fairchild's will, which Catesby had witnessed.

Mark Catesby, who hailed from Sudbury in Suffolk, continued his great project for another seventeen years by which time two hundred and twenty plates had been engraved by him, and hundreds of the printed images individually coloured. The whole work in eleven parts cost subscribers twenty-two guineas (equivalent to perhaps £3,200 today). There is no memorial for Catesby in Shoreditch or Hoxton, although this was where he lived after his adventures in Carolina and where he died: 'On Saturday Morning died at his House behind St Luke's Church, aged seventy the ingenious Mr Mark Catesby ... '. Yet, as for his near-contemporary Sir Christopher Wren, 'Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice'.

Catesby's monument is not a church nor even a gravestone - there probably never was such a memorial - but living trees, dozens of them, one of London's finest sights when they are in bloom at midsummer. So, I went on my way, passing Old Spitalfields Market, down Bishopsgate, to Southwark Bridge and then along the northern Embankment passing Sir Christopher Wren's monumental cathedral, which Catesby knew. Indeed, he and his father owned properties in Fleet Street in the parish of St Dunstan in the West, within sight of the cathedral.

The first catalpah (Catalpa bignonioides) to which I paid respects is the one in the Inner Temple garden, where once the Royal Horticultural Society's spring flower shows were staged before they moved to Chelsea in 1911. It was not in bloom but full of buds. In complete contrast the next tree was well past its prime, having been glorious a week earlier, covered in white spikes, but the heat and thunderstorms had shattered the flowers. This particular tree was planted to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 - I wonder, does it always bloom a fortnight and more ahead of the others? I have not observed it for long enough to know.

When Mark Catesby wrote a label for a leaf that he had pressed and dried as a scientific specimen, he recorded that the name which the native Indians used for the tree from which the leaf had come was Catalpah. The most recent opinion about the origin of this is that it is a Creek Indian (Muskogean) term literally meaning 'head-wing'. Catesby was impressed by it: 'The flower is white with a mixture of Yellow and purple and resembled in Shape and bigness that of Cumbulu in Hortus Malabaricus. The flowers hang in bunches after the manner of the Hors chesnut which at a distance it resembles tho' much more beautiful'. He was not wrong, for Catalpah does resemble a horse-chestnut and is more beautiful! (By chance, I saw an Indian horse-chestnut (Aesculus indica) in full bloom at the end of my walk at the corner of St James's Park next to Horse Guards Parade, its spires a white froth flashed with yellow and scarlet.)

Mark Catesby, a 'gentleman of small fortune', was in Carolina then, in the middle of a collecting expedition financed by a dozen eminent men including the Duke of Chandos, Handel's patron, and half a dozen Fellows of the Royal Society of London. They had contributed to a fund that augmented an annual salary of £20 to Catesby paid out of the colonial governor's budget. He had arrived from England in May 1722 and settled into Charles Town (modern Charleston, South Carolina), making the town his base until he left the colony for the Bahamas around two and a half years later, probably in January 1725. Collecting trips into the hinterland as far west as Fort Moore on the Savannah River (Augusta, Georgia, stands on the opposite bank nowadays), furnished Catesby with plants and animals, sometimes as subjects for his paintings, sometimes as preserved specimens that were sent to London for his patrons' cabinets of curiosities. He was especially mindful also to obtain seeds for Thomas Fairchild and other 'brethren of the spade'. Indeed, Mark Catesby was already well known in gardening circles in London as a provider of new North American plants. Instructions he wrote from Carolina to Fairchild about how to pack plants so that they had a better chance of surviving transport across the north Atlantic Ocean were quickly published by Richard Bradley. In the 1710s, during a lengthy stay in Virginia, Catesby had collected seeds which he sent, packed in gourds, to a number of contacts including the Bishop of London, the Hon. Henry Compton, who had an insatiable desire to acquire uncommon plants for the garden of the episcopal palace in Fulham. From these sendings, Fairchild had raised 'Mr. Catesby's new Virginian Starwort', one of the 'curious flowers' blooming in October. (This is probably the same as 'Mr Catesby's fine blue Starwort' that could be seen in flower at Fairchild's nursery in November and December.) Its modern name is Aster grandijlorus (wild blue aster) or Symphyotrichum grandijlorum (now that the old genus Aster has been taken apart by DNA studies), although you won't find it in British nurseries (according to the RHS plant Finder). By 1715, seeds from that 'curious Botanist Mr Mark Catesby of Virginia' had also yielded thriving plants of 'Fairchild's broad Bobart' (now Echinacea purpurea, the eastern purple coneflower), 'Herman's Virginia yellow Basil' (Manarda punctata, spotted beebalm), 'Munting's yellow Maracoc' (Passiflara lutea, yellow passionflower) and a 'White Virginia Bind-weed, with a blackish bottomed Flower' as well as rabbit-tobacco (Pseudagnaphalium abtusifolium).

No less acquisitive were the Sherard brothers, William and James. James had a garden at Eltham, with a very fine collection of exotic plants which, in the early 1730s, formed the basis for the handsome book Hortus Elthamensis, written and illustrated by Dr Johann Jacob Dillenius. Dillenius used the same printer for Hortus Elthamensis as Mark Catesby used for his book. Among the plants in James Sherard's garden, and illustrated by Dillenius, was Catesby's starwort. Dr William Sherard, formerly British consul in Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey) and often still formally addressed (as indeed by Catesby) as Consul Sherard, was the principal patron of Catesby's Carolina expedition and we gain interesting details about it from the letters he received from Catesby. William Sherard, as well as Sir Hans Sloane and Charles du Bois, received a set of the dried plant specimens prepared by Catesby from material gathered in the colony. Du Bois's and Sherard's sets are now re-united in the herbarium at the University of Oxford, while Sloane's is in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, London.

Let's resume the walk, passing under Hungerford Bridge. There are three old 'Catalpah' trees planted in the lawns in the Whitehall Garden, as well as some youngsters. It seems to be a characteristic of this tree in cultivation in Europe that as it ages its lower branches contort. Mature specimens in open situations have a very broad umbrella-shaped crown, wider in diameter than high, so lower branches extend outwards, and perhaps this is why they sag and convulse. One of the trio has been propped up with steel supports presumably in an attempt to prolong its life - or maybe just to keep the branches from lolloping over the lawn. These gangling, crooked trees at first sight seem to be 'ancient' denizens of the garden (and are so described by English Heritage), but of course they cannot be more than a hundred and forty years old, given that this section of the Victoria Embankment gardens was only created in 1874. So, crookedness cannot be a reliable indication of age, although the older trees certainly are crooked. Photographs of two young Methuselahs - at least sesquicentenarians - show they had long lower branches until these were removed. One inhabits the precincts of Rochester Cathedral in Kent; it was pruned in 2010*. The second which stands in the graveyard of St Mary's Minster in The Butts, Reading, Berkshire, lost its branches in a storm in 2007. How old they are is anyone's guess for they cannot be aged just by their habit or the girth of their main trunk. Only verifiable planting records could yield the trees' true ages.

Yet again I have been diverted. Walk on through the Whitehall Garden direct towards the Elizabeth Tower, housing Big Ben, at the north-western corner of the Palace of Westminster, and then continue into Parliament Square. Here you find an unequalled plantation of Catalpahs. A line of five old trees, at least a hundred years a-growing, marches along Bridge Street inside the New Palace Yard's fence, and there is a sixth tree on the Parliament Square boundary. Two fine trees stand in the precincts of St Margaret's Church, Westminster, with a third near the North Tower door. Across the Square, behind the statue of Sir Winston Churchill are two young trees of Catalpa x erubescens 'Purpurea', and there is a rather pathetic, scrubby tree of C. bignonioides 'Aurea' nearby in front of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. These trees, like those in the Embankment Gardens, have slightly different flowering times and on the day of my walk those in St Margaret's graveyard were spectacular.

Herbarium specimens are invaluable. A dried and pressed piece of a plant can tell us a lot, especially when it has been carefully labelled. Not least, it precisely indicates the species the collector, whether Catesby or someone else, had found. Nowadays, botanists ensure every specimen bears a label with the date of collection, the exact locality where it was gathered, with as much other relevant ecological and morphological data as possible: the fuller the label, the better. Catesby's labels, alas, are rarely so detailed. For example, he never added a precise locality or a date of collection - we are left to deduce, if we can, the origin of the pressed specimen.

This is the case with his several specimens of Catalpah, although the labels do allow us to reconstruct part of their story. While lacking dates, there is enough in the phrasing to enable their general chronological sequence to be inferred, providing an insight into the history of his 'discovery' of the tree.

One specimen comprising a single leaf and one seed pod, an autumnal gathering without flowers, received by William Sherard (now in Oxford), has the following admission: 'I never Saw this tree in flower But I'm told it provides large white Bell flowers It's leaves are Shaped like those of Syringa (of which it seems to be a kind) only they are 4 or 6 times as broad'. A variation in wording can be found on another label: 'The long pods amongst the Seeds are the Seed vessels of this Tree which seems to me to a kind of pipe or Syringa I am told it produces large Bell shaped white flowers'.

So, to start with, Catesby had a few leaves as well as a handful of pods but he had not seen the flowers. He had been told the blooms were white and shaped like bells. His phasing is ambiguous: had he actually seen the tree before he wrote the labels? Probably not - it seems someone else gathered the leaves and pods and gave them to Catesby.

Another label, this time on a sheet sent to Sir Hans Sloane, has slightly different information, but again with the tell-tale phrase 'I am told ... ': 'This Tree seems to be of the Syringa kind it produces as I am told large white Bell flowers the seed I have sent contained in a long pod not unlike Cassia fistula'. Then, the succeeding summer, we can imagine Catesby eager to see this beautiful tree for himself so he goes in search of it. He was probably directed to 'River Sides very remote from the Settlements' - in other words a long trudge from Charleston - where at last he found the Catalpah in bloom. He collected the flowers with more leaves, pressed and dried them, and sent them to Sloane and William Sherard.

Of considerable interest is his interpretation of the identity of Catalpah. At first, with only the leaves and pods, he had decided it was like a 'Syringa' (lilac). Having obtained some flowers he changed his opinion and considered the flower 'resembles in shape and bigness that of Cumbulu', portrayed in Figure 41 of Hortus Indicus Malabaricus. The leaves of Catalpah and Cumbulu are indeed similar, and there are also some similarities in the flowers but they belong to unrelated plant families: Cumbulu is Gmelina arborea, a member of Lamiaceae (nettle family), and a common tree in India and south-east Asia.

My pilgrimage ended in Parliament Square among the crowds of tourists intent on the incomprehensible fad of taking selfies with Big Ben in the background. The Catalpahs of New Palace Yard must be the most photographed trees in the world. Very few in that international throng can have known that the trees they could not help capturing in their souvenir selfies would not be there but for Mark Catesby, an intrepid, curious and very ingenious gentleman, who trudged to a river bank remote from the settlements around Charleston just for the privilege of seeing and collecting the flowers of a tree the hospitable and friendly Muskogee Indians called Catalpah. Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

* www.rochestercatalpatree.co.uk/gallery#web_ribbon

Reproduced from HORTUS, A GARDENING JOURNAL by courtesy of David Wheeler, Proprietor, Publisher & Editor; Herefordshire, United Kingdom

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