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?
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!
My day job is as an Arts Council England Visual Arts funding advisor, advising artists and arts organisations on funding and business development. I’m also a part-time garden designer and designed the ‘Pop Street Garden’ at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021. In my other life I practice horticulture and continue to expand my knowledge. I have an RHS Level 2 in horticulture and a Level 3 Diploma in Garden Design from Plumpton College. I am interested in the intersectionality between cultural experience and expression, horticulture, it’s history and development in response to environmental and social change. Also a bit of comedy, for light relief. You can find me at my website Happy Gardens.