Friday 24 July 2015

Old lady plants

Let’s get something straight at the outset. I have no desire to disparage old ladies. Civilisation, in my opinion, has been built, sustained, and will long survive largely due to the influence of old ladies. Sadly though, and for reasons unfathmomable to me, old ladies don’t, on the whole, get to write history books, and so their part in the shaping of the modern world remains, for the most part, unacknowledged.

However, having thusly tabled my preemptive defence against a charge of disrespect towards the elderly and female, I find myself unable to deny that I have, on more than once occasion, sought to impugn the reputation of a group of ornamental annuals, perennials and shrubs by applying to them the soubriquet ‘Old Lady Plants’ – albeit a pattern of behaviour not seriously indulged in since childhood.

What qualifies as an Old Lady Plant? Anything with large blooms, the blousy, the frou-frou. The mophead hydrangea is an archetype, though the hollyhock and paeony fall comfortably into the same group. Somewhat confusingly, smaller flowered specimens are not excluded, so brightly coloured fuchsias, trailing dwarf campanulas and the charteuse splash of Alchemilla mollis would be equally welcome, as would any flower that you might find scenting soap, or drawer liners. Lavender, and Lily-of-the-valley, then.

But the characteristic possessed of the most excellent recommendation to my childish sense of logic, was that the plant should be found growing in the garden of the old lady who lived on the corner of the street in which I grew up. Old lady? She was probably sixty, if that. You have to hang around a bit longer to be an old lady these days. You can be a mad cat woman as soon as you like, though, unless you’re a feller. In which case, should you find yourself living on your own, you’d best get a dog if you want to avoid suspicion and abuse from the local ragamuffinry.

Looking back, I wonder if it was possible that I was trying to define cottage garden style, while never having heard of the concept? Or perhaps, at the very least, making some effort to distinguish this particular garden aesthetic from the other fashionable look of the seventies and eighties, the one heavily reliant upon bedding plants and pampas grass. I remember proudly tending rows of alyssum and african marigolds along the front edge of the narrow flower beds which edged our back lawn. I don’t remember anything except bare soil between those rows and the fence behind, except a deep red paeony at one end, and a choisya at the other, the latter of which, mum would say, wrinkling her nose, “smells of cats”.

The thing is, having looked with disdain upon these plants in my youth, I now love each and every one. Perhaps I’m slowly transforming into and old lady?

I think I probably flatter myself.