Christopher Stocks


Naming of Names | Independent on Sunday

Much as I enjoyed Diarmuid Gavin’s attack, in the run-up to the Chelsea Flower Show, on the snootier aspects of the Royal Horticultural Society, I can’t help feeling his comments were a little wide of the mark. For the RHS is a broad church. Despite the odd thicket of toffs in its upper echelons (stand up, please, Sir Richard Carew Pole Bt, Princess Sturdza, Viscountess Boyd and, yes, really, Count de Kerchove de Denterghem), it does a sterling job in representing the tastes of the less, shall we say, refined gardener, as some of the bedding schemes at the Society’s own gardens amply demonstrate.

Pink dahlia, GivernyBut Diarmuid Gavin’s criticisms show that the RHS needs, perhaps, to correct some unfortunate public misapprehensions with a bit of well-targeted PR. So in a spirit of promoting public vulgarity in the face an oppressive hegemony of good taste, may I suggest that the RHS sponsor my own White Trash Garden at Chelsea next year?

You might think that designing a truly tasteless garden, in these design-conscious days, would be something of an uphill task, but fortunately generations of nurserymen have given us a rich heritage of tacky plant cultivars to choose from. Choosing names from the RHS’s invaluable Plant Finder is a fascinating, and occasionally surreal exercise in social history. For the people who think up the names of plant cultivars evidently live on a different (and surprisingly filthy-minded) planet to the snooty types who are supposed to run British gardening.

So, on to my White Trash Garden. Roses, I feel, should form an important element in any English design, but you can forget your poncy French varieties. What’s wrong, I hear you say, with Rosa “Madge”? “Felicity Kendal”, for her part, might not have the poetic sonority of “Félicité Parmentier”, but we can’t hold that against her, now can we? Round the edge I thought we could have the ever-popular “Golden Showers” – mixed, perhaps, with “Freddie Mercury”; or maybe “Doctor Dick” twinned with “Disco Dancer”. In the centre, round the bird bath, I envisage a thespian quartet composed of “Susan Hampshire”, “Jane Asher”, “Penelope Keith” and “Judi Dench”, possibly topped off with the sprightly “Little Muff”.

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to suspect that nurserymen spend more time than they should tittering behind their polytunnels. How else to explain crocus “Big Boy”, campanula “White Poufe”, the African violet “Rob’s Sticky Wicket” and the geranium “Pink Gay Baby”? Admittedly, some names survive from an earlier, allegedly more innocent age (“Golden Showers” for example, dates from 1956), but frankly there’s no earthly excuse for clematis “Willy” or lily “Bums”, now is there?

Roses are easily the most commercialised contemporary garden plant, so I guess it’s not surprising that their hundreds of cultivars should include some offensive, daft or just plain stupid names among them. But you’d think that a more aristocratic species – such as the rhododendron, whose larger varieties look more at home on a ducal estate than in a suburban back garden – would glory in suitably supercilious titles. Not so, if rhododendron “Wombat”, “Youthful Sin” and the deliciously Francophonic “Souvenir of W.C. Slocock” are anything to go by.

Still, if rhodies can’t be trusted to keep their standards up, what’s surprising is how sensible some of the blowsier old favourites can be in the naming stakes. Chrysanthemums, for example, may be the horticultural equivalent of UPVC windows, but their names, on the whole, are disappointingly dull. Begonias, too, without which no White Trash Garden would be complete, have nothing on roses in the naff names department, though at least they try with “Douglas Nisbet” and “Flaming Queen”. Dahlias, however, deserve a border of their own, if only for “Doris Bacon”, “Orange Mullet”, “Top Totty”, the nasty-sounding “Harvest Inflammation” and the celestially meaningless “Wicky Woo”.

In the introduction to this year’s Plant Finder, Tony Lord writes “The naming of your plant might be a cause for concern”, which strikes me as an understatement in a book which contains peony “Angel Cheeks”, geranium “Rimfire” and sedum “Stewed Rhubarb Mountain” (I’m not making this up). Hands up anyone who still thinks gardening is only for the toffs? Auricula “David Beckham” to you.