Words by Jessica Peace
She drew her plants like a draughtsman, made scientific breakthroughs about fungi in her bedroom and essentially bought the Lake District up so it wouldn’t get trashed... Most of us know Beatrix Potter through her characters such as Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle Duck and Old Tiggy Winkle but here are a few more reasons why Potter is a true Plant Hero...
BEATING THE BLOKES AT FUNGI
Eccentric, unafraid, nerdy, single and a woman - what a wonderful life Potter would have had in the 21st century (perhaps!?). But alas, the 19th century blokes were not ready for her jelly, or her scientific findings on lichens and fungi.
With a microscope in her bedroom, some scavenging in the woods and a frowned upon friendship with her Scottish postman, Charlie McIntosh the ‘Perthshire Naturalist’ (that’s not the naked thing), Beatrix was finding out new stuff about the formation of lichens that wouldn’t be confirmed until years later. Apparently, due to the sexist board of old botanists at Kew rejecting her attempts over and over, Potter gave up her research.
PLANTS THAT MADE IT INTO POTTER’S WORLD
Potter’s knowledge of flora was massive and she certainly liked to shove a few into her books. Her illustrated wildernesses and vegetable patches provide the backdrop to many of her tales, but perhaps her most famous flowers flourish in The Tailor of Gloucester, where Potter illuminates each stitch and thread of the Tailor’s embroidered cornflowers, pansies, poppies and roses.
Common names of British flora lend themselves to the folklore of Potter’s world, in her stories you’ll stumble across: ‘ragged robin’, ‘pignut’, ‘larkspur’, ‘bracken fern’, ‘lords-and-ladies’, ‘forget-me-not’, ‘fair-maids-of-France’, ‘lady’s slipper’, ‘lamb’s smock’, ‘lamb’s toes’, ‘eyebright’…
Potter wasn’t afraid of her creatures knockin’ back the herbal remedies either, you’ll find Peter Rabbit’s mum mixing a chamomile tea over the stove.
Potter gardened in the ‘cottage’ tradition, cottage gardening stemmed from the late 18th century, taking the idea from the poor labourers who stuffed their small patches of land with plants that could be plated up or made into potions, the upper classes incorporated herbs and edibles into their bustling flower beds.
Potter’s Victorian cottage garden teemed with fruits, herbs and vegetables familiar to British tables like peas, beans, carrots, onions; fruit trees and berries trailed over ferns and wildflowers including foxgloves, forget-me-nots, honeysuckle and hollyhocks; all this stuffed amongst popular Victorian bedding plants such as nasturtiums, sweet william, pinks, primroses and zinnia.
SAVIOUR OF THE LAKES
Potter was in love with The Lake District, she holidayed there as a child and found sanctuary (and romance…) on top of the same hills as an adult. When The Lakes got themselves into trouble, Potter stepped in with all her dosh from her book sales and bought up 4000 acres and 14 farms, giving all of this over to the safe grasp of The National Trust when she kicked the bucket.
Potter, we salute you.