The Natural Order of Things

Family History

Horticulture is a pursuit of such breadth and all-encompassing habit, that many of those who practice it may seem as distant from one another as those of different professions altogether. Winterbourne was conceived at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement. Inspired by the movement’s chief protagonist, Gertrude Jekyll, the cult of the herbaceous border is writ large across the suburban villa landscape. Yet, although Jekyll’s ideas have long since endured, between the first and second world wars, some gardeners began to reject her artistic prescriptions in favour of a more pragmatic palette of design.

The Sunken Garden c. 1930s, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
The Sunken Garden c. 1930s

Winterbourne’s third and final private owner, John Macdonald Nicolson, made substantial changes to the garden in the 1920s and 30s. With the discovery of new species abroad, and increasingly successful hybridisation at home, the range of plants available to the horticulturalist surged. Nicolson’s was an era of plantsmanship. Border planning was no longer the missive of an artist’s eye and plants were once again valued for their individual charm. It seems fitting then that Nicolson’s love of plants gave rise to the most connoisseurial of all of Winterbourne’s collections.

Nicolson was particularly concerned with the cultivation of roses and several of the material alterations he made to the garden were done so in order to facilitate their cultivation. Perhaps the most important was a sunken shrubbery at the eastern end of the terrace which he quickly re-designed, creating six beds, intersected by crazy-paved pathways, each representing the petals of a rose and terminating in the centre at a bed of tufa planted with alpines.

The Sunken Garden was re-planted with hybrid tea and floribunda roses in 1975, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
The Sunken Garden was re-planted with hybrid tea and floribunda roses in 1975

However, it is not the enduring popularity of roses, but rather their propensity to wander, which has resulted in the ‘Family Beds’ planted in the Sunken Garden today. It is not uncommon to visit a Victorian or Edwardian garden and find that its rose collection has moved location several times since its inception. Impulsive owners are often the culprit, but more frequently it is rose sickness, which probably occurs as harmful pathogens build up in the soil over time. The result is that large rose collections often have a finite life-span in any one location.

Our own rose collection vacated the Sunken Garden long after Nicolson had bequeathed his estate to the University of Birmingham. It was replaced first with a summer display of tender, tropical looking plants, and latterly, ‘Family Beds’, which still remain today. Family beds, or order beds, are as common a sight in botanic gardens as rose gardens are elsewhere. The first appeared in the earliest botanical gardens of mid-16th century Italy where they were used to illustrate the physical relationships between plants.

Classified Information

Tropical style planting in the Sunken Garden c. 1990s, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Tropical style planting in the Sunken Garden c. 1990s. The obelisk at the centre was installed in 1990 replacing Nicolson’s alpine planted tufa.

Like all sciences the classification of plants, or plant taxonomy, is subject to constant revision as scientific and technological advances further our understanding of how one plant is related to another. The particular arrangement of order beds presented by any one botanical garden reflects not only the beliefs of those responsible for their design but also the historical context in which they were realised. Social, cultural and philosophical tensions converge on competing schools of classification resulting in a discordant tradition divided by both space and time.

“The most basic units of taxonomic classification are the genus and the specific epithet. The genus is always capitalised and written first whilst the specific epithet follows in lower case. A silver birch tree is therefore known as Betula pendula. There can be many different species within a single genus. The paper bark birch, for example, is known as Betula papyrifera. Above the genus and species sits the plant family which usually ends in aceae, in this instance Betulaceae. There can also be many different genera within a single plant family. Alders, hazels and hornbeams all appear in the Betulaceae together. This may seem complicated but it could be worse. Prior to the establishment of the binomial system we use today, the humble tomato plant was known only as Solanum caule inermi herbaceo foliis pinnatis incises racemis simplicibus!” Stephen Haines, Head Gardener, Winterbourne House and Garden

Restoration of the Sunken Garden, 2004, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Restoration of the Sunken Garden, 2004

Perhaps the most primitive system of classification resulted from the Doctrine of Signatures whereby plants were arranged according to their perceived medicinal properties. Early herbalists believed that a benevolent God imprinted upon certain plants ‘signatures’ pertaining to their potential use by man thus rendering the physical properties of plants legible to those wishing to avert the infirmities inflicted upon humankind by the devil. In this view, spotted leaves may be used in the treatment of tumors or growths, yellow flowers abate jaundice, and heart shaped leaves prevent arterial failure. Despite the potential for hazardous interpretations, the doctrine of signatures emerged with almost universal acceptance in the Middle Ages; being practiced in geographically distant and often isolated communities ranging from the apothecaries of Rome to the native tribes of North America. Of course, the doctrine of signatures wrongly conflates correlation with causation. Any resemblance between a plants leaves or flowers with the parts of the body it is used to treat is nothing more than coincidence.

“Species can sometimes be split further into smaller units. A variety usually has a distinctly different botanical structure to the species, subspecies occur when minor variations are present in different geographical locations, and forms can result in slightly different shaped leaves, coloured flowers or berries. These subtle variations can prove very useful to the gardener. Lots of plants have a white flowered form, such as the small white periwinkle, or Vinca minor f. alba, useful for avoiding colour clashes in the border.” Stephen Haines, Head Gardener, Winterbourne House and Garden

The Sunken Garden following successful restoration in 2004, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
The Sunken Garden following successful restoration in 2004

The sexual system of classifying plants devised by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century represented a significant advancement in understanding. Motivated by a desire to arrange the entire natural world into logically coherent groups, Linnaeus classified the plant kingdom based upon the number of stigma and stamen present within an individual flower. Such an intimate portrait of a plant’s sexuality proved too much for some; Johann Siegesbeck, director of the Botanical Gardens of St. Petersburg, branded the revolutionary developments: “loathsome harlotry”, but Linnaeus had the final word, with a less than immediate rebuke, naming a particularly ugly weed species Siegesbeckia orientalis.

“Learning which plants belong to which family can help to increase yields on your vegetable plot. Just like our rose gardens which developed rose sickness after years of growing in the same soil, vegetables will also become more susceptible to a build up of pests and disease if they are not rotated on a yearly basis. Simply planting a different vegetable every year may not be enough alone as many superficially different vegetables are actually very closely related. Don’t plant tomatoes on last year’s potato patch. They are both in the same family: the Solonaceae!” Stephen Haines, Head Gardener, Winterbourne House and Garden

Madge Weil, Beryl Beaumont and Margaret Whitehouse working in the natural order beds in the Walled Garden in 1947, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Madge Weil, Beryl Beaumont and Margaret Whitehouse working on the natural order beds in the Walled Garden in 1947

The first of Winterbourne’s order beds were installed in the Walled Garden in 1947 and were designed to reflect the ‘natural order system’ proposed by George Bentham and Joseph Hooker. Although Bentham and Hooker’s ideas were first presented after the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ (1859), they were essentially free from the influence of evolutionary theory being largely derived from the much earlier work of Augustin Pyramus de Candolle. The similarities between plants upon which Bentham and Hooker based their groupings continued to be interpreted in a theological context. Many believed it was divinity and not evolutionary pressure that was responsible for the commonalities binding certain plants together. Those plants which were most alike were grouped into plant families. Linnaeus and others had already developed the concept of plant families but whilst Linnaeus accounted for less than 100, Bentham and Hooker described over 400.

The Order of the Day

Today, the future of plant classification is being radically re-shaped by phylogenetic research, explicitly evolutionary in nature. Phylogeny maps the connections between living species and their extinct ancestral relatives. As all living things are descended from a common ancestor, the degrees of these relationships are necessarily sequential in form. This chronological element represents a significant departure from the ‘natural order’ system proposed by Bentham and Hooker which identified commonalities between plants regardless of their place within the historical process of evolution. Despite this, many of the classifications made by Bentham and Hooker remain suggesting that in some cases analogous physical characteristics do indeed indicate a phylogenetic relationship. However, many more have been revised resulting in the discontinuation of several of the plant families most familiar to the gardener. Such revisions are the work of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG), a group of botanists from around the world who, in 1998, led research into the first major re-classification of plants based on DNA data. There have since been two further revisions known as APG II and APG III published in 2003 and 2009 respectively.

To the horticulturalist the word taxonomy is often a dirty one. As one genus merges with another, taxonomists the world over are held responsible for the resultant plant name changes which dog the gardener’s already Latin weary brain. Each successive revision appears uncannily more difficult to remember than the last, rendering well-thumbed reference books instantly out of date. So far reaching are the implications of phylogentic research, that although APG III has been largely accepted by most major botanical institutions, it may never be fully accepted by a generation of gardeners schooled in a different set of rules altogether.

Nevertheless classification is an essential part of our everyday lives. It allows us to accurately differentiate one thing from another and communicate this distinction to other people in a common language. There are roughly 400, 000 different species of plant on the planet with new species discovered every day. Memorising the individual qualities of each species alone is clearly not possible. Instead, classification allows us to group different plants together into hierarchical structures dividing information into more easily consumable proportions and giving order to the chaos. To abandon taxonomy would be to abandon the natural world, and our understanding of it, to anarchy.

Click here to find out how you too can visit Winterbourne and discover ‘the natural order of things’ for yourself.


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14 thoughts on “The Natural Order of Things

  1. Another fascinating blog, thank you. As a fan of fungi, I can very much relate to the taxonomic nightmare of reclassification. Fungi seem to be changing their names almost daily!

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  2. Reblogged this on lifeoftheoriginalhortbabe and commented:
    I have always loved botanical gardens. One day it is my hope to visit this amazing garden, as it is so beautiful, historic, educational, and from what I have observed from following their blog…always moving, learning, and growing with the future. Enjoy this read, I certainly did!

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  3. “Formerly known as”–the three most dreaded words in horticulture. For those who try (but not necessarily me), it is a terrible headache. I like to look at it another way, though. I just took my own DNA test and am waiting for the results. Wouldn’t it be exciting to discover I belong to a group that doesn’t look like me?!!

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