Potentilla Nepalensis ‘Miss Willmott’

Nick Stanley, holder of the Ellen Willmott National Plant Collection, has a theory about the plants named for her. Nick suggests that anything named ‘Ellen Willmott’ was named by a close friend; anything called ‘Miss Willmott’ was more formal; an honour from someone who admired her but was, perhaps, a little more ‘awed’. Of course it’s unlikely she’d have bred it herself – naming a plant after oneself is really not done (though she did once ask if a plant Wilson brought back from China might be named after her or Warley…)

It’s now hard to tell what things were originally called, especially since plants named after her have, over the past century or so, got muddled up – hell, I muddle them up myself – but I reckon Nick might be onto something.

I’ve never been able to grow anything named for or by Miss Willmott. It’s as though she’s been somehow passing judgement. I couldn’t even grow the ‘invasive’ sea holly Eryngium giganteum Miss Willmott’s Ghost that she (supposedly)* sprinkled seeds of in other people’s gardens. Yet this morning she finally smiled on me and I was rewarded by Potentilla nepalensis ‘Miss Willmott’. A single open bloom in dainty rose pink, accompanied by a cheeky bud. Thank you, Ellen…

Image: (c) Sandra Lawrence

This got me to thinking – where did this rather pretty little plant actually come from? Some plants named after Miss Willmott were named after her death – did she ever know this one?

Ah, the joys of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, introduced to me by the lovely Paula Sewell many moons ago. This superb resource is a little fiddly to get used to but is fantastic for published garden history.

Spoiler: I’ve not been able to discover exactly when Potentilla nepalensis ‘Miss Willmott’ was introduced or who by, but I’ve been able to narrow it down – and she most definitely would have known it.

This introduces the fascinating possibility at some point of finding a letter from someone asking to name the plant after her, which would have been customary in the day (and I assume still is; sadly there is no Insert latin plant name here ‘Sandra Lawrence’ yet.) It’s not in her complete list of plants at Warley, 1908 – and I am sure that whoever named it for her would have given her some samples – so I’m thinking it may have been first introduced in that year, too late for inclusion.

The earliest reference I’ve found is from 1909, in William Robinson’s magazine The Garden, by this point being edited by Gertrude Jekyll. Willmott and Jekyll, after some initial wariness had become good friends.

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

The article describes some highlights of the annual RHS Show in Temple Place, which preceded RHS Chelsea:

“Mr M. Prichard of Christchurch, Hants, set up a rock garden in the open and arranged many choice plants therein. Among the choicer things were…Potentilla Miss Willmott”.

It does not say that the plant is new, but from then on, the mentions come thick and fast, not least from Miss Jekyll herself. Often described as ideal for a herbaceous border, Jekyll suggested it for rock gardens – and specifically this one – in her 1912 book Gardens for Small Country Houses

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

…though I can’t see the plant in this image…

The first mention I’ve found of the plant for sale commercially is actually in an American catalogue:

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Potentilla Miss Willmott is described as “A superb single variety of cinquefoil, producing large, bright, deep rose-coloured flowers from July to September. 35 cents each, $3.50 per dozen”.

Could the plant have been bred in America? Certainly Ellen knew a lot of Americans, not least Professor Charles Sprague Sargent at the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard. She had been a member of the Garden Club of America for several years by this point. It’s absolutely possible. On the other hand, this is not described as a ‘new’ plant suggests it may have been in cultivation for some time.

We also have to remember where we’re finding this material. Although worldwide, the Biodiversity Heritage Library is a US-based project and many of the publications scanned so far are from American institutions, even if they are originally British. Many British publications have not yet made it to the project. Frankly Potentilla Miss Willmott could come from anywhere.

The first British catalogue I’ve found it listed in is Veitch & Sons, so it is possible (ish) that they bred it. Certainly Ellen Willmott and Veitch go back all the way to the early 1890s and possibly beyond, but they were not so very close that they would have presumed to have called a plant ‘Ellen Willmott’ which makes the ‘Miss Willmott’ bit work. But they did sell plants bred by others, so that’s by no means a certain thing either.

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Potentilla ‘Miss Willmott’, “Deep, clear red, a grand plant for border or rock garden,” would set back a 1912 customer a shilling each.

In 1913, The Gardeners Chronicle, describing another annual show at Temple Place, talks of a garden made by Messrs Whitelegg and Page, of Chiselhurst, who ‘staged a good collection of herbaceous and rock plants. The clumps of Nepeta Mussinii, Potentilla Miss WIllmott, Saxifraga pyramidalis and Wahlengergia vincaeflora were fine”.

After around 1913 P. Miss Willmott appears a lot, though never as a ‘featured’ plant which describes who bred it, merely as a lovely addition to a garden. The brochures are gorgeous – colour up to 1914:

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

when P. Miss W had gone up to $2.50 per plant, $15 per dozen

black and white during wartime:

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

but they never, sadly, feature images of P. Miss Willmott.

Sales continued after the war with growers such as Carl Purdy of California.

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Purdy actually dealt directly with Willmott, who sold him her plants (usually bulbs): could I be wrong and she named a plant after herself? Somehow my gut tells me not. Ellen grew hundreds of Potentilla, but it wasn’t one of her passions, as far as I can see.

None of the gardening magazines ever gives us any idea of who actually bred this plant either; the usual caveat ‘more research needed’ applies. But I leave you today with a strange article from the Gardeners Chronicle, January 16th, 1915, under the heading ‘Unseasonable Flowering’ when Potentilla Miss Willmott, which is usually listed as blooming from July to September, is noted by a Mr A C Aztell of Llandudno Urban District Council as being in flower in early January.

Well, climate change is a thing…but I’m just grateful to see my single bloom a month early…

Image: Sandra Lawrence

*she didn’t.

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