She who Laughs Last

As Willmott admirers went, there were few more ardent than her mentor, Swiss alpinist Henry Correvon. Rarely does he seem to go into print without some form of raving about Warley’s 65-metre ravine, its rocks, its pools, its nooks, its plants – and its creator. Privately, however, he was rather more stern with his young charge.

Correvon was a brilliant character, and someday I’ll talk about him at length, but today I want to focus on a little act of defiance on Ellen’s part that we can enjoy right now.

We can enjoy it because we can also enjoy him. Correvon was an avuncular, cheery man (in his youth, at least), deeply enamoured of the botanical marvels around his native slopes at Geneva. He wrote several books about them…

He loved that the rest of the world adored his beloved alpines too, but hated the underhand ways commercial plant collectors went about supplying them.

The rarest plants fetched the highest prices, so shady characters would strip the mountainsides of the best examples, then torch the rest, ruining anyone else’s chances of finding anything – and, far worse, destroying entire swathes of already-scarce plants’ natural habitat. Correvon saw the damage first hand as he lived right in the middle of the pirates’ hunting grounds.

He was understandably horrified but realised the problem was too difficult to police.

He decided the best way to fight the plant poachers was to set up his own nursery, breeding rare plants in bulk, ensuring they were cheaply, readily available – and no longer rare enough for the vandals to bother with.

What started out as a nursery…

…became a beautiful garden, Floraire:

Image: Bibiloteque de Geneve

Incidentally, his fabulous chalet at Floraire, built in 1905, is currently the subject of a preservation project though, alas, I can’t see that the garden is included in the spruce-up.

What does still exist is La Linnea, a botanical research charity Correvon founded in 1915 and which still seeks ways to preserve alpine plants in an ever-more challenging climate:

Image: Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de Geneve

Correvon often wrote about Ellen’s garden in glowing terms, even including engravings of her gardens at Warley in his books:

They’re quite difficult to mentally place today, thanks to a troop of enthusiastic badgers:

There were, however, some things of which he did not approve. These mainly involved Ellen’s habit of including non-alpines in her plantings:

You will, I am sure, quite agree with me when I say that Mahonias have nothing to do there in an alpine garden

he admonished, adding that

Cotoneasters must be put away“.

Correvon sighed that if she must break up the scene she should use “dwarf conifers/juniperus Sabina and nana, Pinus Pumilis etc“.

He was equally rude about double flowers being ‘not dans l’esprit de la chose‘ and even ganged up with Ellen’s head gardener, announcing that

Mr Preece was quite of my opinion”.

Now, I don’t know when the above was written. It is a quote from Audrey and alas, undated. Whenever it was sent, however, we have living proof today that Ellen cared not a jot what her mentor thought was tasteful.

I can’t speak for the cotoneasters; there are 25 varieties of the hated plant in Ellen’s 1908 plant list but no situations mentioned. Here’s an illustration of one of those 25, C. simmonsii, just to torment poor Henry’s ghost:

Image: Creative Commons

There are, however, plenty of double flowers in her photographs and, most delicious of all, 120-odd years after Correvon’s ticking-off, his mentee has the last laugh with something else…

Not a single one of Ellen’s delicate little alpines remains at Warley but…

…that mahonia*, Henry Correvon’s nemesis, is nigh-on rampant at the top of her alpine garden. She didn’t ‘put it away’, she encouraged it.

It’s at its best right now, flicking a bright yellow, two-fingered-salute to taste, just past the bridge.

And long may it continue to do so.

*Almost certainly M. aquifolium as it is definitely not the only other Mahonia logged in 1908, M. rotundifolia

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