Derek – Saturday 25th February 2023

On Saturday, we had the culmination of Learn Draw Grow – an artistic exploration of Dr John Fothergill’s legacy. He lived from 1712 to 1780, and in 1762 he bought Upton House, now West Ham Park. There, he amassed a large plant collection, said at the time to be second only to Kew’s. Fothergill employed a number of artists to paint his collection.

On a chilly day, Mary Edmondson and Lyndsay Jones, from Friends of West Ham Park, came to talk to us about Fothergill and his plants. Mary told us about the life of the busy Quaker doctor and philanthropist. Lyndsay showed us artwork from some of the artists he employed. Not his actual artwork, as sadly that is in Russia. Some 1200 illustrations were bought by Catherine the Great when Fothergill died in 1780. She donated them to the Russian Academy of Science. With the political situation as it is, there is no chance in the foreseeable future of gaining access to them. They lie unseen in the archives. The Friends of West Ham Park would like them to be seen by the world, but admit defeat in these days of war.

Over the past year, Eleanor Pearce has been running arts workshops in West Ham Park and the Garden to illustrate some of the plants in the park and the Garden, inspired by Fothergill. There is an exhibition currently in the library of their artwork, not just painting but embroidery too. At the end of Saturday’s talk, a large information board was unveiled, giving information on Fothergill, the plant collector and his times. The board is over a raised bed which will be filled with plants in keeping with Fothergill in the next few weeks.

I don’t recommend the end of February for an outdoor talk, but well done to the speakers and those who attended the talk and unveiling.

I have been collecting wild flowers from around the garden to go on the sleepers, where we will have a display of wild flowers in the spring. Apart from these, on the sleepers, are pots of our compost. I am waiting to see what germinates in them, as they are always full of seeds, and will keep any wildflowers of interest.

Flowering plants belong to the major plant group Angiosperms, which came quite late in the evolution of plants, dating back just 130 million years in the early Cretaceous, the peak era of the dinosaurs. Much of our food comes from these plants (rice, wheat, maize, barley, sugar, coffee, tea, potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, apples, citrus, bananas etc). From the seed, from the fruit, from the leaves, the roots and stems. How poor our diet would be without these angiosperms. No longer as the wild plant but from gradual improvement over the millennia.

There is a tendency to disparage wild plants as weeds. But this does them a disservice. A weed is simply a plant you don’t want. It might be grass in a rose bed, or an accidental rose growing on a lawn. Wild flowers should be appreciated as the successful plants they are. Take the dandelion, pulled out in fistfuls by overzealous gardeners. But are its yellow blooms any less beautiful than other cultivars of the compositae? Or is it simply that once given a bad name, some can’t see beyond it.

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