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City's secret gardens come up smelling of roses (and orchids)

Rare, hidden plants scoop major prize. Let's have them out for all to see, says Laz

Written by . Published on July 25th 2011.

City's secret gardens come up smelling of roses (and orchids)

LIVERPOOL has collected a botanical “Oscar” at the prestigious RHS show at Tatton Park, in a week that has also seen Sefron Park named as one of England’s most important.

 The RHS award was given to plants in the city’s national collection (did you even know we had one?) thanks to a team whose civic pride deserves a Gold Award for tenacity and hope.
The decision was taken to close the site at Calderstones Park and place the collection
in the equivalent of a faraway Siberia. 
was, to my mind, an act of spite
The team consists of green-fingered people who care for one of the city’s best kept secrets, its amazing collection of plants.
In their municipal secret garden, closed to the public,  they carefully nurture a collection that dates back over 200 years.

What Hitler’s German bombers failed to achieve in the 1940s, the city’s Militant-led council pulled off. Namely closing and demolishing the home of the largest plant collection in municipal hands, anywhere on these islands. It was the biggest own-goal of the century.

But is there any hope, in these times of financial constraints, that Liverpool could again rival Kew Gardens as a home to the best nature can offer?

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The answer would seem to be a resounding No. Yet in the days when Liverpool was growing into the greatest port in the Empire, the rulers of Georgian and Victorian Liverpool seemed to think that little two-letter word did not exist. “No”, they reasoned, was not an option.

Still, hope sprang eternal when plants from the city featured in the exhibit by National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens at  last week’s RHS show, winning a  silver-gilt medal.

“This is something the city can be proud of,“ said Councillor Tim Moore, cabinet member for the environment. “The RHS does not give out awards lightly.

“Our national collection provides nearly half of the exhibit, so has played a significant part in its success.  The people who look after the collection can feel rightly proud of their achievement.”

Some of the city’s botanical wonders are on display in the greenhouses at Croxteth Hall and others are on show in the Palm House at Sefton Park.

The majority, though, are hidden from the public in council-owned greenhouses.

They were put under house-arrest in the 1980s, at the height of a dispute surrounding a group of council workers known as the Harthill Six. They wouldn’t support a council strike because walking off the job could  have posed a threat to the rare and wonderful collection of orchids.

Rather than grant dispensation to enable the six to look after the world-class botanical wonders, the decision was taken to close the site at Calderstones Park and place the collection in the equivalent of a faraway Siberia.

It was, to my mind, an act of spite and the city continues to pay the price for this reckless folly. Officially, health and safety was cited as the reason for this sudden closure in 1984.

It was slave abolitionist William Roscoe who started to assemble the collection, becoming known as the father of Liverpool culture.

Roscoe worked with John Shepherd who became the first curator of Liverpool Botanic Gardens in Mount Pleasant, built entirely by public subscription. Sea captains returned from their travels across the world bringing back rare and exiting plants.  In 1836 the collection moved out of the increasingly polluted city to a grand exhibition hall in Edge Lane, opposite Botanic Road.

In November 1941, a bomb dropped close by and the glass palace was no more. Staff salvaged as many plants as possible.  The botanical gardens were rebuilt, in a more modest style at Calderstones, opening in 1964. Civic horticulturalists showed their prized collection in Vienna, Cologne, Paris and Chelsea.

Artist Jyll Bradley produced a booklet to celebrate culture year in 2008, writing: “Liverpool’s botanical story is one of the most extraordinary in British botanic history, a story of glory and tragedy, survival and adaptation. Yet, like a secret garden, it is virtually unknown. No one knows what the future holds for this remarkable collection.”

Isn’t it about time Liverpool started to think of a new permanent and public home for this flora – regarding the project as a botanical phoenix raising the city out of its doldrums?


Liverpool’s  national collections consist of:

  • Codiaeum (Croton)  a tropical plant of the Spurge family which grows mainly in South-east Asia and the Pacific 
  • Dracaena –the Dragon Tree plant  which  is related to Agave (Century Plant) and is a member of the Agavaceae family.
  • Solenostemon (formerly Coleus) which come from Africa, Asia and Australasia and belong to the mint family There are more than 60 different varieties displayed in the greenhouses at Croxteth Park.

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AnonymousJuly 27th 2011.

The impact of the Militants still being felt in Liverpool. They may have built houses and protrected jobs, but they wrecked more than they created, places like the magnificent Harthill Gardens. If they had wanted to they could have mothballed them and restoed them gradually. No matter what they say, the majority of people in this city, considered this punishment because the Harthill Six wanted to stay at work to look after this rare collection. Why or why is Liverpool so good at kicking itself in the teeth?

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