Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, it is interesting to see a plant that is actually in the process of escaping the garden and becoming ‘wild’. This little pink flower, a variety of hardy geranium known as Wargrave Pink (Geranium x oxonianum), is all over the entrance to Cherry Tree Wood, and can be found quite happily growing among the commoner ‘weeds’ such as dock and annual mercury. It has largely finished flowering but fortunately I got a few photos after a rain storm a few weeks ago. It seems to thrive in the dry, semi-shaded areas at the feet of the hornbeams and oaks, much as the blue hardy geraniums are happy at the feet of my whitebeam tree.
Like Montbretia, Geranium x oxonianum is a hybrid of two species: Geranium endressi, or Endre’s Cranesbill….
and Geranium versicolour (Pencilled Cranesbill)
If you look at the picture below, you can see both the pink colour and the faint veining of the plant’s ‘parents’.Apparently, the plant was ‘found’ in the greenhouses of Waterer, Sons and Crisp in 1930, which implies that it came about accidentally. Waterer, Sons and Crisp was a company of nurserymen which was formed in 1676. In 1914 the company got into financial difficulties (probably not unrelated to the war, and the call-up of many of the staff), and so it merged with the Wargrave Plant Farm in Buckinghamshire, which is probably the reason for name ‘Wargrave Pink’. The nursery still continues today, specialising in azaleas and rhododendrons.
The name ‘Geranium’ comes from the Greek word for crane, geranos, and this also gives us the English name ‘cranesbill’. Both titles come from the appearance of the fruit capsule of some species, such as the bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) seen below. The fruit capsule springs open and the five seeds are thrown some considerable distance.
Incidentally, although those bright red flowers that adorn the window boxes of Austrian chalets are also known as geraniums, they are more correctly pelargoniums (although they are members of the same family as ‘our’ plant). Pelargonium flowers have a different structure – while geraniums have five equal petals, pelargoniums have two upper petals and three lower petals that are different.
Hardy geraniums seem like very demure little plants to me, unlikely to inspire passion. And yet, in my search for interesting links to the plant, what do I come across but the poem ‘The Geranium’ by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It tells of dalliance in a woodland where geraniums bloom (species unspecified, but if you read the poem you will see that botanical accuracy is the last thing on the poet’s mind). Be warned that it is very explicit, so please don’t read on if you’re likely to be offended (though I also found it very funny). I can guarantee that you will never have read a flower poem quite like it. Here it is.
So, now that you’ve recovered, let me tell you a little about Mr Sheridan.
Sheridan was born in Ireland in 1751, and made his name as a playwright – his plays include ‘The Rivals’ and ‘School for Scandal’, both comedies of manners. ‘The Rivals’ includes the character of Mrs Malaprop, a woman forever using the wrong words in her attempts to sound more intellectual than she actually is, and a mainstay of comedy ever since. I have a distinct memory of a very similar character invented by the estimable Les Dawson.
Anyway, back to Sheridan. His private life was eventful. In 1772 he fought two duels with the same man, Captain Thomas Matthews, who had written an article defaming the character of his wife-to-be. The first duel was bloodless and Matthews was forced to beg for his life and sign a retraction. However, Matthews then challenged Sheridan to a second duel. Sheridan wasn’t obliged to agree but, well, his honour was now in question. In this second duel, both parties were injured, Sheridan seriously – he ended it with a sword sticking out of his breastbone, and his face beaten to a pulp. Matthews (who I think we can agree is the villain of the piece) fled in a carriage. Sheridan was not expected to survive, but somehow pulled through,
No sooner was Sheridan recovered than he married the lady in question, Elizabeth Ann Linley. Sheridan had no money of his own, and so they lived on the dowry in some style, entertaining their fashionable friends and generally making something of a splash. Mrs Sheridan was painted by Gainsborough, no less, some ten years after the marriage.
In 1778 Sheridan bought out David Garrick’s share of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. In 1809 the theatre burned down. On being encountered in the street watching the fire with a glass of wine in his hand, Sheridan is reported to have said ‘A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine at his own fireside’
Sheridan also had a long career as a Whig politician. He sympathised with the French and American revolutionaries, and was said by William Pitt and Edmund Burke to have made ‘the greatest speech ever made, ancient or modern’ when he called for the impeachment of the Governor of India, Warren Hastings, for corruption. Clearly his eloquence in persuading ‘the lovely Susan’ in ‘The Geranium’ could be put to many uses.
Domestic bliss was elusive, however: Elizabeth had a son with Sheridan, and a daughter with her lover, Lord Fitzgerald. Elizabeth died soon after the birth of her second child, and Sheridan continued to care for both children. The child herself died, aged eighteen months in 1793. Sheridan married again, but died in 1815, heavily in debt. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The Prince of Wales himself is said to have lamented ‘Poor Sherry!’ on hearing of his death.
So, what is the relationship between the witty Sheridan of ‘School for Scandal’, a man who was said to have never been coarse in his speech, and the author of’ The Geranium’? The poem was never published in his lifetime, but Sheridan certainly had a reputation as a man who could scarcely be alone in a room with a woman without trying to ‘seduce’ her (and I wonder exactly what ‘seducing’ involved in the 18th Century, especially if the woman was a servant and the man was a Member of Parliament). He seems to have been a lustful, rambunctious man, determined to drain life’s wine to the lees.
Incidentally a line from the poem, ‘All my body glows with flame’ turns up in a Bob Dylan song, the theme to a film called ‘Tell Ol’ Bill‘. Rather than a song of desire fulfilled, it’s a song of desolate loneliness and despair.
I know which one I prefer.
Photo One (Endre’s Cranesbill) – By Meneerke bloem – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7105945
Photo Two (Pencilled Cranesbill) – By Meneerke bloem – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7105945
Photo Three (Cranesbill Seedhead) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=256121