A Day in May, with Max
I’ve been here since 8 this morning, a Saturday in May. Biking across the meadows to work the mizzle was cold and clammy on my cheeks, but I had been told often before to have faith that the sun would sear away the grey and make a perfect Cambridge day. The cuckoo’s declarations and lapwing’s cries by the wild river were still ringing as I finished my first round of watering in the pits (the sky still grey).
The weekend duty supervisor comes to inspect. I’ve overdone the reserve orchid collection, but likely no harm done. I move on to the prop houses, where thousands of young plants pricked out into 9cm pots combine into a composite eye and meet me with a challenging stare as I slide apart the polytunnel doors. These serried rows of plants are the product of days and days the preceding autumn spent collecting, drying, extracting the chaff and funnelling these myriad-shaped time capsules into named, brown envelopes, some even refrigerated, and then, for reward, settling down to make long wish lists from seed catalogues. Early in spring, the envelopes were unsealed; the hard seed shells of sweet peas nicked and pushed a perfect knuckle-depth down; some seed was smoked, some others soaked to swell (some were forgotten and still stand in their watery graves on windowsills); pinches of minuscule seed powder were profligately released from thumb and forefinger; some sorts were left exposed on the surface for the radical to corkscrew the plant down into the compost; some others barely covered with finely sieved loam; a seeming alchemy coaxed desiccated and wrinkled berries and drupes from dormancy. Weeks later, the strongest have been selected, loosened and eased out (a pencil is best) from the hustle of germination, potted on and watered just enough to float the soil around the root filaments. The survivors are now barcoded, the label the umbilical cord to data. They are official, part of the collection.
I take my time. I don’t want the stems to bend open to disease under the weight of water. This host of hope will be planted out later in the week on the Systematic Beds, if the soil could just warm up a touch more. It’ll be all hands on deck with trainees borrowed back from the other six sections to effect the great re-shuffle, as plants brought into being by the horticulturalist’s hand-me-down wisdom and timeworn calendar are re-sorted into the systematic order which dictates that relatives from far-flung corners of the globe should be planted out together in an unnatural reunion photo.
I have an unusual task for this weekend duty. I must go around the Garden to cut flowers for jamjars to decorate the tea tables for the spring meeting of CUBGA, the Cambridge University Botanic Garden Association. It is a tradition to overlook the cultivated plants from the collections in favour of the wildflowers in the long meadows. A watery yellow sun glimmers in the gloom; I take a cup of tea, and a circuitous route.
Walking across the boardwalk of the fen plantings, I see the smooth dark bodies of newts swimming up through the dank water to take a breath and the padded feet of pond skaters pressing tiny, elastic dents into the filmy meniscus. Fringing the open pool are the lances of bulrush, fen reed and flag iris, slicing easily up through the fireweed and meadowsweet. From the banked slopes I pick some red campion and a lovely deep blue meadow cranesbill. I spurn the very last primroses of the limestone mound, their pale yellow petals browning and holed, and do not wish to disturb the huddles of pasque flowers, bells of amethyst vellum with golden centres cradled in silver, filigree foliage. Later there’ll be the lipstick pink, finely striated flowers of the sand catchfly, and we’ll be on the lookout for an elusive, unidentified eyebright noted as parasitising the breck grasses three years ago, but not seen since. On the beech-shaded west slopes, mounds of white-bracted wood melick shine out. These were Max’s idea in the 70s, to display natural communities of plants together rather than following the taxonomy of the old Garden.
I cross the Fairway and begin to gather up great frothy armfuls of cow parsley and have to abandon my cup of tea on a bench. There’s a pink cranesbill too and some dark, velvety bluebells. The trunk of the great Judas trees, noted a century ago by Curator Lynch as one of the country’s finest, long ago cleaved in three to lower to eye height the startling, bright mauve flowers that arise like blisters in welts along the leafless, fissured branches. Underneath is a fine and thickening stand of pheasant eye, dug into the hard earth several autumns ago. The two interlocking three-sailed wheels of twisted, laundry-white petals are pinned together by a crimped corona, an intense gaze of mustard yellow and burnt orange. The light, sugary scent is delightful, and completes my CUBGA bunch.
But I’ve taken too long and hurry back through the Malus collection, a sudden gust bringing a snow shower of satiny petals down from the wild pear. I wonder again what might be behind the incongruous triangle of brick wall patched into its trunk, where the wound of a lost limb was staunched by this long abandoned practice. It makes me think of dark fairytales. I skirt round the Lake edge, bare but for a tangled mat of rhizomes through which rise tall, fleshy, silver-bristled stems topped with rounded cymes of pale flowers with bubblegum pink centres, looking just like old-fashioned ladies’ swimming caps. This extraordinary thing is Darmera peltata, the umbrella plant or Indian rhubarb. Everything can be in a name.
I am trailing the musty pollen of the cow parsley as I barge into the Classroom where CUBGA will meet. Their President, Mike, is already there and pulls ready secateurs from his pocket to shorten stems and help me loosely arrange the wild interlopers into their jamjars. He tells me how he’d come down on the train with another student from Askham Bryan, both to be interviewed for the one remaining place on the horticultural trainee scheme. He didn’t want to leave home, leave Yorkshire where he was settled, and had told Julie he’d only come to keep their college course tutor happy – the place was hers. But then he walked in, was compelled by the spreading cedars to lie down under their thick thatched domes, fell in love and all deals were off. He bought up all the photocopied pamphlets in the shop and madly boned up on another of Max’s loves, the Glasshouse cycads, scooping the final spot by declaring his recent conversion to these primitive plants. He still feels badly about Julie. She missed out.
I recognise this ardent Damascene conversion, which underpins too my time as a horticultural trainee some forty years later. It propelled both of us around the sections to learn our science and craft alongside the supervisors; we both were enthusiastic bystanders at the annual round the Garden race, when the broad minty stripes of the Main Lawn were exposed to sprint starts, wheelbarrow races, tug of war, croquet hoops were sacrilegiously banged in one year; and, we both always came second in the highly competitive weekly identification tests to the ‘once in a generation’ student. (I had clocked James this morning strolling around with his white metal vasculum, the hatched door swallowing up the sprigs of what’s in flower to test us on genus, species, family and distribution – the Judas tree will surely be in this week as the easy warm up.) But some of Mike’s tales speak of a different time: I have not ever flogged duck eggs pilfered from the Lake down the Panton or lamped for rabbits after closing, fumed the Glasshouses with DDT or lit coned piles of nicotine shreds to see off the cockroaches.
Mike looks out of the Classroom windows across Brookside Lawn to the impressive Caucasian wingnut. Lynch wrote in his 1915 tree record how the original specimens, planted to straddle the inlet tapped from Hobson’s Conduit that feeds the Lake, had both blown out but that they wanted to observe what the suckers might develop into. The pinnate leaflets knit together to form a fresh Granny Smith green canopy over this thicket of suckers, now all over thirty metres, from which the long plaited catkins are beginning to extend. Without harness or hard hat, Mike’s only reassurance at the top of the triple extension ladder was that at least Tony would be holding things steady at the base as Mike started gingerly pulling the liane from the branches. But glancing down, he saw Tony ten yards away leaning against Isaac Newton’s apple tree to finish a smoke before pulling out a wooden fishing float from his pocket to work at it, sanding it, shaping it. He was an expert angler, a regional champion, says Mike. And another extraordinary thing about Tony was that he could tame robins. All down the Lynch Walk their territorial stretches are still marked out by the Titian richness of the peonies – vermillion, burgundy, the rich butter yellow of the tree peonies, fuchsia pink – and the robins would hop out onto the barrow, then onto Tony’s shoulder, then his palm and then finally into his jacket pocket. The trick, Tony told Mike, was to use very, very fine breadcrumbs. If the crumb was too big the redbreast will just say thank you very much and fly off with it. Mike invites us back for tea when we’re finished the duty rota.
Boss radios to say we’re going to make a start on Systematics while it’s still overcast and try to get the Solanaceae annuals in ahead of the rest. We load up the trolleys with the whole of the potato family spectrum from edibles to poisons. We plant the tomatoes, from cherry size to beefsteak, tomatillo, Cape gooseberry, aubergine, chillis from coral orange to deep purple, and bell peppers all in a cordon sanitaire encircling the Hogarthian hallucinogens like jimsonweed and the eye-widening, palpitating belladonnas to keep their juicily tempting fruits out of arm’s reach and harm’s way.
It’s now a mantra: there’s only ever one family in a bed, but extensive families like the daisies or mints are spread over several beds. The dicots waltz about the central oval of monocots, rather lording their 80% majority over the more restrained diversity of grasses and geophytes. We’ve made good progress on the Solanaceae, and go back for the evening-scented Nicotiana that will occupy the adjacent smooth-curved bed. The sylvestris now are knots of puckered, muscular green leaves from which rocket stems will shoot up, topped with long, slender, white trumpets dispensing an intoxicating fragrance to hang heavy over the pink and white shoals of starfish-shaped blooms belonging to bedding tobacco. I can almost hear the moths rejoice at the advent of their midnight nectar bar (and the bats stretch out their leathery wings).
I am too early for the cake. As I come alongside the Classroom I see thirty or forty people all with their heads bowed in silence. Mike has asked that we remember the friends lost this year. Ernie, former Glasshouse Supervisor, who planted the jade vine over thirty years ago. As if in tribute, it’s been a belter this year, producing hundreds of metre long racemes dangling down from the east tropics canopy to form a thick curtain. Each purple, rope-like flower stem is covered in a dusty farina and supports many cartwheels of sensational, neon blue-green, crab-claw shaped flowers. The heavy, mango-like fruits are starting to swell. Jill, a land girl, who came to train just after the war and who unfailingly made an annual pilgrimage to admire the magnolias. Max, our last Director but two now, who would take the trainees botanising at Wicken Fen and Devil’s Dyke, and who, right up until the end, steered his tall, angular frame into the Library every Wednesday both to help Sylvia and to delve for more on the remarkable John Henslow, founder of this Garden. We always had an exchange, Max patriarchal, kind, not meaning to expose my many knowledge gaps. Max’s research collection of lady’s mantle, Alchemilla, is looking fine now on the edge of the Rock Garden, the dense domes of rough, kidney-shaped leaves topped with curdy froths of lime green flower.
The tiny petals of the cow parsley have dropped in a perfect circle of lace around the jamjars, studded with the gem-coloured hearts of fallen cranesbill petals. Awash with tea, I escape to do a final check on the watering, electing to dampen just a touch more the sand around the terracotta pots sunk to their brims in the alpine plunge beds and to trickle a waterfall down the tufa rockwork. The spidery rootruns strain imperceptibly for moisture, and tighten the anchorage. Then, finally, in the boot room, I change back into trainers and let my mud-encrusted boots clatter to the bottom of the locker. I scrape half-heartedly at the dirt under my fingernails, stow away my secateurs and collect up my bag. There’s a suggestion of the Panton, but I don’t want the company of the living. The low light is golden, and with the Garden now closed the laughter of children racing around the grass maze dissipates. The still air is saturated with the steady solace of the redwoods and pines – all day visitors have been steeped in their balm and left uplifted. Orange tips, tortoiseshells and holly blues are dancing about to an inaudible music and there’s a honeyed scent on the air. Overhead the sturdy scimitars of the swifts are back, wheeling, whistling. I sit down, lean back against the trunk of the Cambridge oak and look up to the vaulted dome of rich coppery-red new leaf and golden-yellow catkins. Then I open my book, Gilbert Carter’s A Guide to the University Botanic Garden, second edition, published 1947. In a steady hand of some panache, the blue ink enlivening the parchment page, the inscription reads: ‘To Juliet, to help her studies. Max Walters, 19.05.05’.