Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dialectic of the polyanthus

So much of human life is a forwards and backwards process. Hemlines famously go up and down. Politicians react against policy A by adopting its opposite, position B, the next lot then compromise on position C, and so on. The German philosopher Georg  Hegel called this the 'dialectic' arguing that this is how the human spirit drives history forward. Karl Marx adopted it as the driving force of history, but in a materialist, as opposed to spiritual way. (That's enough philosophy for today - Ed.)

I am glad to see that the humble polyanthus obeys the dialectic. Indeed it illustrates it perfectly.

I've always loathed the lurid colours of the little pot plants that every filling station in the land seems to sell, never mind the garden centres. Jo always sneakily buys some. Every year I am sure the flowers get bigger - to the extent that I wonder when the physiological limit of flower size will be reached. For years now the colours are not only bright but very flat. This year however, they are getting a wee bit more subtle - see picture above.
 In the past, lovers of cottage garden plants grew named polyanthus varieties, but they have to be propagated from division and many are slow to bulk up and over several centuries of cultivation, most have been lost. I remember when i first came across Carol Klein (she of UK garden TV fame) it was as someone who grew old double polyanthus. Then along came microprop and they were everywhere, but now they seemed to have disappeared again.

What is interesting now is that the big breeders are producing seed strain for mass production in the 'older' colours and so much more subtle. An example above - which is just a big-flowered primrose really (more yellow than in the pic).

This is the old variety 'Garryade Guinevere' (not sure of spelling) which has clearly been genetically souped up for seed production and sold as 'Woodland Walk'. I must say i really like them, the dark leaves and flower colours of the old variety, but probably more vigorous.

The reaction against bold brassy polyanthus (thinking of Hegelian dialectic now) often involved growing the Barnhaven strains, bred on Vancouver Island in the 1950s, and now grown by a British couple in Brittany. I've grown them for years as they were so much nicer than the mass-produced ones, and some of the colours and combinations have incredible depth, One strain they did was a sort of denim look with a stripey look. Now it appears as if one of the big commercial breeders has got hold of it and enlarged the flowers to produce varieties like this above.
And of course the ultimate example is of the gold-laced polys, which have now been mass-produced too, for several years, when once they were really special - the only way you could get them was growing your own from Barnhaven seed. In Victorian times, these were the most widely grown of all flowers, there were thousands of named varieties, all now lost, but still represented in the wide range of flower colours.

So, the to and fro of fashion in commercial production of polyanthus illustrates well this basic see-sawing in human affairs.

Finally, if you are a glutton for intellectual punishment, you can read up on Hegel here. If you have ever had to struggle with academic German, or its equivalents as produced by east Europeans during the communist era, you have Hegel to thank.

Check out the world's first gardening soap opera - Dig, Plant, Bitch.


Jilly said...

We need more gardening in philosophy and vice versa. Make Hegel while the sun shines, etc...

However, I've gone all Grazia Magazine and just posted this, which is kinda the polar opposite of your thoughts...ah well :-)

How I ditched taste and learned to love the pansy

Kathy Fitzgerald said...

No such thing as too much philosophy in this shallow, egocentric, reality-tv-dominated age.
Is "polyantha" a common name? On the western side of the pond, we call all the flashy hybrid Primula "primroses," although there's not much primness about them.
Where can I get my hands on Barnhaven seed?
Cheers, Kathy

Mark and Gaz said...

Agreed the bright zingy colours look rather naff, but the 'old' colours and species plants that are starting to be more available now are a vast improvement.