The 12 Days of Christmas: A Horticultural Conundrum

As I continue to expand my knowledge of the world and what grows in it, some observations have caught me unawares. I, perhaps foolishly, have started to question basic concepts and precepts that have always been a part of my lived experience through this lens.

Take Christmas carols for example.  I was listening to the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ when, like a shock, something struck me as odd.  On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… a ‘Partridge in a Pear tree’. 

Now first, I’ve always assumed that the partridge was living. You wouldn’t give someone taxidermy for Christmas, would you? An initial search online revealed that there were three centuries of the history of taxidermy to explore, but I thought this particular rabbit hole was too much of a detour, so I continued my reflections.

The carol never makes it explicitly clear whether the partridge was alive or stuffed, and as I’ve always presumed it’s a lovely live Partridge, in a golden cage, or perhaps silver, something festive anyway, given the season, nestled amongst the leafy green… wait a minute.  It’s December isn’t it? The first day of Christmas.  Pear trees are deciduous!  How could it have leaves??

Am I to understand this gift of a partridge in a sparkly cage is clinging to the skeletal form of a well, let’s see, presumably a variety of Pyrus communis … Conference pear?  Concorde? 

pear tree

Or is the origin of the carol referring to gift-giving in sunnier climes?  Australia? Southern Florida? Tenerife?  Further investigation – and why not, now that I have this silly idea in my head – leads me to discover that the song was actually first published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, though thought to be French in origin. The standard tune now associated with the carol is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin. 

Okay, so that blows the warm climate origin theory. They didn’t have plant passports the way we do today in the late 19th and early twentieth century, so I’m going to go with greenhouse cultivation. Okay Alice – now we’re going to follow you down this particular rabbit hole. 

History shows us that the first true greenhouse, called ‘the botanical garden’, was built in Italy, in the 13th century. A protected space where plants and trees could grow regardless of the climate and the time of year?  What a fantastic idea! It was so attractive that it quickly spread all over Europe, first to the Netherlands and then to England and France.

Developments throughout the 17th century wrestled with the problem of maintaining constant heat and ventilation, working to develop angled glass walls and heating flues. Up until the 19th century, greenhouses, or conservatories, as they were then called, were a symbol of prestige for the rich and powerful.  

In the 19th century public conservatories became popular places in which to study plant life and botany. The world-famous Crystal Palace, built in 1851 in Hyde Park in London to house the Great Exhibition, ran to 1,848 feet long by 456 feet wide.  Its cast-iron and glass structure was made of 900,000 square feet of glass and had full-size mature elm trees growing inside it. What an incredible sight that must have been.


Only a few short years before the extraordinary achievement of the Crystal Palace, the Glass tax was abolished in 1845.  Introduced in 1745, this punitive tax sought to exploit the wealthy by making glass a taxable luxury item.  Three years later plate glass was invented, and not long after that the Window tax was also abolished.  The cost of glass fell, and with new innovations, and at a more affordable cost, greenhouses began to become increasingly popular in the latter half of the century. 

By 1909, with music by Frederic Austin, it would have been perfectly reasonable to receive – though still an extravagance – the gift of a partridge in a pear tree, in December, as sung in the carol that we still enjoy today, thanks to the invention of the greenhouse!  

A seed sown – setting out on a horticultural journey.

Gertrude Jekyll, the influential garden designer, plants woman and artist, once said that ‘The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.’ For myself, like many gardeners, this is profoundly true. 

Over the years, that love has almost become an obsession that shows no sign of abating. Not only does the time I spend in the garden bring many beneficial hours of physical exertion, mood enhanced well-being and satisfaction, I’ve also begun to see the world differently.

Cottage garden border

©Shutterstock – Jekyll’s cottage garden style borders still influence our gardens today.

Jekyll’s dedication to observation and working with plants is evidenced in her extensive writings on horticulture and in the hundreds of gardens she designed.

The study of plants in their habitat is the beginning of a journey that can take you in a seemingly infinite variety of directions, with some surprising destinations.


An early start…

I suppose I’ve always been a garden designer, to a degree. According to my mother my first word was ‘flower’ – this possibly explains the bullying I would later receive as a young man with a sensitive soul.

From the age of six my parents encouraged my sister and I to design our own garden spaces within our suburban ‘back yard’, as they are referred to in Canada where I grew up.

Canna, Peony and Salvia

©Newey Plants (Canna), ©Shutterstock (Peony and Salvia). From a young age I could appreciate a dramatic mix of colour and foliage!

I chose Cannas, Salvia’s, and Peony’s for mine – pastel pink, hot orange and red. Even then, as I do now, I loved the contrast of their foliage, the drama and generosity of their blooms. 

Looking back, if I could say anything to my younger self on these early forays into garden design, I would say ‘Don’t worry, one day you’ll be taught colour theory, and discover the colour wheel.  ‘A’ for effort though.’ 


Viewing plants in a different way…

That old adage, the more you learn, the more there is to learn, is true when you begin a study of horticulture.  I look to try and increase my knowledge day by day with the names of new plants, varieties, and study of their habits, health and conditions.

Much of my day is spent doing research and making observations of the plants in my own garden – approximately 900 and counting, and in the gardens and landscapes that I visit.

garden borders with greenhouse

©Phillipa Lambert – Visiting other gardens offers research opportunities.


Observation and identification…

The increased time observing my environment in more detail, has meant that I have begun to see the world in a different way. 

During my walk to the local shops to buy a pint of milk – or bottle of wine for dinner, the more likely scenario – I’m reflecting upon the weeds in the pavement, and the shrubs and trees and gardening efforts of my neighbours. 


Smart Plant identification app

©Smart Plant – Apps such as Smart Plant can help with identification.

The plant app on my phone helps me identify the things I don’t already know (it’s not a weed, it’s a wildflower!).  If that fails, desk research, accompanied by the pictures I’ve taken (I’ve had a few strange looks from neighbours, crouched down to take a close-up photo of the Helminthotheca echioides – Bristly oxtongue – protruding from the edge of their drive), enables me to feed this hunger for naming my surroundings. 


A constant search for new knowledge…

My goal with each of these trips is to identify something that I don’t know, learn about it and remember it the next time I’m passing.  ‘No, it’s not a dandelion, it’s called Bristly oxtongue – but you’re right, it is like a dandelion.

Helminthotheca echioides

©Shutterstock – Helminthotheca echioides is often identified incorrectly as a Dandelion.

Traditionally it was used to treat internal parasites, (bemused, or slightly horrified look on neighbour’s face, tells me it’s time to beat a hasty retreat). Enjoy your tea!’  I offer and quickly move on.


What’s in a name?..

I love being able to name all the trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials and wildflowers in my neighbourhood throughout the seasons – and this obsession follows me now on all my travels. 

More than once I’ve been shouted at to keep my eyes on the road, as I spot a tree with foliage I don’t recognise.  I don’t want my eulogy to read, ‘Cause of death, he drove headlong into a Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’. The silvery sheen of its spring leaves drawing him towards it like a siren song’.

Whitebeam leaves

©Shutterstock – The silvery sheen of Whitebeam leaves can be mesmerising!

A Whitebeam in spring is a glorious thing to behold, but I do make a concerted effort now when I’m driving not to be too easily distracted by everything that catches my eye.

Indeed, the seeds of any horticultural quest for knowledge can be be found scattered amongst the cracks in the pavement around us. Thanks Gertrude Jekyll; off to the shops now!


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