Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962), was born at Knole House, Kent, the largest remaining mansion in England, the only child of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, third Baron Sackville, and his wife Victoria. As a female, she was not entitled to inherit Knole upon the death of her father and the property fell to her uncle, Charles Sackville-West; the loss of Knole was to be a source of anguish for the rest of her life.
Vita Sackville-West in her twenties, by painter William Strang
She was primarily a poet and novelist but is perhaps better known today for her garden writing, contributing columns to daily newspapers for many years. These articles were immensely popular and have been excerpted into a series of books that were amalgamated into a single volume, “V. Sackville-West’s Garden Book” in 1968. I’m still looking for that one in local used book stores. Her garden writing is a joy to read and her garden advice is solid.
She was married to Harold Nicolson in 1913 and they had two sons. Shortly after, they bought a cottage, Long Barn, near Knole (enlisting the aid of the architect Edwin Lutyens to help design the garden) and in 1930 they purchased nearby Sissinghurst Castle. This was a castle in name only, parts of it dating back to the reign of Henry VIII, and all that was left standing were the main tower and a collection of ancient outbuildings.
Harold and Vita immediately began a two year clean-up campaign, clearing away centuries of accumulated household garbage and agricultural debris, and set about creating a garden that has become perhaps the most famous in Britain and the most visited. Harold laid out the main formal structures of the garden, for which he is seldom given credit, and Vita contributed the planting. It was very much a joint effort and few adjustments were made by one without consulting the other. Sissinghurst is now owned by The National Trust and is open to visitors.
Much has been made of their unusual open marriage and their cross-gender sexual adventures that has detracted from appreciation for both of their writings and overshadowed the beautiful garden that they created at Sissinghurst.
First published in 1937, ‘Some Flowers’ is a short collection of profiles of some of Vita’s favourite plants – as she called them her ‘painter’s flowers’. My edition (Pavilion Books / National Trust) contains wonderful illustrations of Vita’s favourite plants by the artist Graham Rust, reproduced here. I’ve chosen two excerpts, Fritillaria imperialis (Crown Imperial) and Fritillaria meleagris (Snake’s Head Fritillary).
Like the other members of its family, the stateliest of them all has the habit of hanging its head, so that you have to turn it up towards you before you can see into it at all Then and then only will you be able to observe the delicate veining on the pointed petals. It is worth looking into these yellow depths for the sake of the veining alone, especially if you hold it up against the light, when it is revealed in a complete system of veins and capillaries. You will, however, have to pull the petals right back, turning the secretive bell into something like a starry dahlia, before you can see the six little cups, so neatly filled to the brim, not overflowing, with rather watery honey at the base of each petal, against their background of dull purple and bright green. Luckily it does not seem to resent this treatment at all and allows itself to be closed up again into the bell-like shape which is natural to it, with the creamy pollened clapper of its stamens handing down the middle.
Perhaps some people may hold me wrong for including the Crown Imperial among my so-called ‘painter’s flowers’. The reason I thus include it, is that it always reminds me of the stiff, Gothic-looking flowers one sometimes sees growing along the bottom of a mediaeval tapestry, together with irises and lilies in a fine disregard for season. Grown in a long narrow border, especially at the foot of an old wall of brick or stone, they curiously reproduce this effect. It is worth noting also how well the orange of the flower marries with really rosy brick, far better than any of the pink shades which one might more naturally incline to put against it. It is worth noting also that you had better handle the bulbs in gloves for they smell stronger than garlic.
It was once my good fortune to come unexpectedly across the Crown Imperial in its native home. A dark, damp ravine in one of the wildest parts of Persia, a river rushed among boulders at the bottom, the overhanging trees turned the greenery almost black, ferns sprouted from every crevice of the mossy rocks, water dripped everywhere, and in the midst of this moist lavishness I suddenly discerned a group of the noble flowers. Its coronet of orange bells glowed like lanterns in the shadows in the mysterious place. The narrow track led me downwards towards the river, so that presently the banks were towering above me, and now the Crown Imperials stood up like torches between the wet rocks, as they had stood April after April in wasteful solitude beside that unfrequented path. The merest chance that I had lost my way had brought me into their retreat; otherwise I should never have surprised them thus. How noble they looked! How well-deserving of their name! Crown Imperial – they did indeed suggest an orange diadem fit to set on the brows of the ruler of an empire.
That was a strange experience, and one which I shall never forget. Since then, I have grown Crown Imperials in my own garden. They are very handsome, very sturdy, very Gothic. But somehow that Persian ravine has spoiled me for the more sophisticated interpretation which I used to associate with the Crown Imperial. Somehow I can no longer think of them solely as the flowers one sees growing along the bottom of a mediaeval tapestry. I think of them as the imperial wildings I found by chance in a dark ravine in their native hills.
Our native fritillary is one of those strange flowers which does not seem indigenous to our innocent pastures at all. There are some such flowers – the wild arum, for instance, and many of the orchises, whom nobody would take for anything but exotics. The fritillary looks like something exceedingly choice and delicate and expensive, which ought to spring from a pan in a hot-house, rather than share the fresh grass with buttercups and cowslips. Its very nick-names have something sinister about them: Snakeshead, the Sullen Lady, and sometimes The Leper’s Bell. Yet it is as much of a native as the blue-bell or the ragged robin.
Some people mistake it for a kind of wild tulip, others for a daffodil; Gilbert White of Selborne is one of those who fell into the latter error. Miss Mitford does even worse, in calling it ‘the tinted wood anemone’. It belongs in fact to the liliaceae and so might accurately be called our own private English lily of the fields. Its curious square markings explain several of its various names: fritillus, for instance, is the Latin for dice-box, which in its turn had been named from a chess or chequer-board; and meleagris derives from the Latin for the guinea-fowl, whose speckled feathers so vividly reminded our ancestors of the fritillary that Gerard in his Herbal (1597) frankly calls it the Ginny-Hen flower.
It is unfortunately becoming rarer every year, and is extremely local in its distribution. That is to say, where you find it at all, you find it generously by the acre, and where you do not find it you simply have to go without. Unlike the orchises, there is no chance of coming across a few here and there although the supply may not be lavish: the fritillary knows no half measures. When you have once seen it by the acre, however, it is a sight not likely to be forgotten. Less showy than the buttercup, less spectacular than the foxglove, it seems to put a damask shadow over the grass, as though dusk were falling under a thunder-cloud that veiled the setting sun. For when it grows at all, it can grow as thick as the blue-bell, sombre and fuscous, singularly unsuitable to the water-meadows and the willows of an Oxfordshire or a Hampshire stream. In wine-making countries one has seen the musty heaps of crushed discarded grape-skins after the juice has been pressed from them. Their colour is then almost exactly that of the meadow fritillary.
In its native state the bulb grows very deep down, so taking a hint from nature we ought to plant it in our own gardens at a depth of at least six to eight inches. There is another good reason for doing this: pheasants are fond of it, and are liable to scratch it up if planted too shallow. Apart from its troubles with pheasants, it is an extremely obliging bulb and will flourish almost anywhere in good ordinary soil, either in grass or in beds. It looks best in grass, of course, where it is naturally meant to be, but I do not think it much matters where you put it, since you are unlikely to plant the million bulbs which would be necessary in order to reproduce anything like the natural effect, and are much more likely to plant just the few which will give you enough flowers for picking. For the fritillary, unless you are prepared to grow it on the enormous scale to which it naturally inclines, is a flower to put in a glass on your table. It is a flower to peer into. In order to appreciate its true beauty, you will have to learn to know it intimately. You must look closely at all its little squares, and also turn its bell up towards you so that you can look right down into its depths, and see the queer semi-transparency of the strangely foreign, wine-coloured chalice. It is a sinister little flower, sinister in its mournful colours of decay.