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A GREAT green book, whose broad pages are illuminated with flowers, lies open at the feet of Londoners. This volume, without further preface, lies ever open at Kew Gardens, and is most easily accessible from every part of the metropolis. A short walk from Kew station brings the visitor to Cumberland Gate. Resting for a moment upon the first seat that presents itself, it is hard to realise that London has but just been quitted.
Green foliage around, green grass beneath, a pleasant sensation not silence, but absence of jarring sound blue sky overhead, streaks and patches of sunshine where the branches admit the rays, wide, cool shadows, and clear, sweet atmosphere. High in a lime tree, hidden from view by the leaves, a chiffchaff sings continually, and from the distance comes the softer note of a thrush. On the close-mown grass a hedge-sparrow is searching about within a few yards, and idle insects float to and fro, visible against the background of a dark yew tree they could not be seen in the glare of the sunshine. The peace of green things reigns.
It is not necessary to go farther in; this spot at the very entrance is equally calm and still, for there is no margin of partial disturbance repose begins at the edge. Perhaps it is best to be at once content, and to move no farther; to remain, like the lime tree, in one spot, with the sunshine and the sky, to close the eyes and listen to the thrush. Something, however, urges exploration.
The majority of visitors naturally follow the path, and go round into the general expanse; but I will turn from here sharply to the right, and crossing the sward there is, after a few steps only, another enclosing wall. Within this enclosure, called the Herbaceous Ground, heedlessly passed and perhaps never heard of by the thousands who go to see the Palm Houses, lies to me the real and truest interest of Kew. For here is a living dictionary of English wild flowers.
The meadow and the cornfield, the river, the mountain and the woodland, the seashore, the very waste place by the roadside, each has sent its peculiar representatives, and glancing for the moment, at large, over the beds, noting their number and extent, remembering that the specimens are not in the mass but individual, the first conclusion is that our own country is the true Flowery Land.
But the immediate value of this wonderful garden is in the clue it gives to the most ignorant, enabling any one, no matter how unlearned, to identify the flower that delighted him or her, it may be, years ago, in faraway field or copse. Walking up and down the green paths between the beds, you are sure to come upon it presently, with its scientific name duly attached and its natural order labelled at the end of the patch.
Had I only known of this place in former days, how gladly I would have walked the hundred miles hither! For the old folk, aged men and countrywomen, have for the most part forgotten, if they ever knew, the plants and herbs in the hedges they had frequented from childhood. Some few, of course, they can tell you; but the majority are as unknown to them, except by sight, as the ferns of New Zealand or the heaths of the Cape.
Since books came about, since the railways and science destroyed superstition, the lore of herbs has in great measure decayed and been lost. The names of many of the commonest herbs are quite forgotten they are weeds, and nothing more. But here these things are preserved; in London, the centre of civilisation and science, is a garden which restores the ancient knowledge of the monks and the witches of the villages.
Thus, on entering to-day, the first plant which I observed is hellebore a not very common wild herb perhaps, but found in places, and a traditionary use of which is still talked of in the country, a use which I must forbear to mention. What would the sturdy mowers whom I once watched cutting their way steadily through the tall grass in June say, could they see here the black knapweed cultivated as a garden treasure? Its hard woody head with purple florets lifted high above the ground, was greatly disliked by them, as, too, the blue scabious, and indeed most other flowers. The stalks of such plants were so much harder to mow than the grass.
Feathery yarrow sprays, which spring up by the wayside and wherever the foot of man passes, as at the gateway, are here. White and lilac-tinted yarrow flowers grow so thickly along the roads round London as often to form a border between the footpath and the bushes of the hedge. Dandelions lift their yellow heads, classified and cultivated the same dandelions whose brilliant colour is admired and imitated by artists, and whose prepared roots are still in use in country places to improve the flavour of coffee.
Groundsel, despised groundsel the weed which cumbers the garden patch, and is hastily destroyed, is! here fully recognised. These harebells they have flowered a little earlier than in their wild state how many scenes they recall to memory! We found them on the tops of the glorious Downs when the wheat was ripe in the plains and the earth beneath seemed all golden. Some, too, concealed themselves on the pastures behind those bunches of tough grass the cattle left untouched. And even in cold November, when the mist lifted, while the dewdrops clustered thickly on the grass, one or two hung their heads under the furze.
Hawkweeds, which many mistake for dandelions; cowslips, in seed now, and primroses, with foreign primulas around them and enclosed by small hurdles, foxgloves, some with white and some with red flowers, all these have their story and are intensely English. Rough-leaved comfrey of the side of the river and brook, one species of which is so much talked of as better forage than grass, is here, its bells opening.
Borage, whose leaves float in the claret-cup ladled out to thirsty travellers at the London railway stations in the hot weather; knotted figwort, common in ditches; Aaron's rod, found in old gardens; lovely veronicas; mints and calamints whose leaves, if touched, scent the fingers, and which grow everywhere by cornfield and hedgerow.
This bunch of wild thyme once again calls up a vision of the Downs; it is not so thick and strong, and it lacks that cushion of herbage which so often marks the site of its growth on the noble slopes of the hills, and along the sward-grown fosse of ancient earthworks, but it is wild thyme, and that is enough. From this bed of varieties of thyme there rises up a pleasant odour which attracts the bees. Bees and humble-bees, indeed, buzz everywhere, but they are much too busily occupied to notice you or me.
Is there any difference in the taste of London honey and in that of the country? From the immense quantity of garden flowers about the metropolis it would seem possible for a distinct flavour, not perhaps preferable, to be imparted. Lavender, of which old housewives were so fond, and which is still the best of preservatives, comes next, and self-heal is just coming out in flower; the reapers have, I believe, forgotten its former use in curing the gashes sometimes inflicted by the reap-hook. The reaping-machine has banished such memories from the stubble. Nightshades border on the potato, the flowers of both almost exactly alike; poison and food growing side by side and of the same species.
There are tales still told in the villages of this deadly and enchanted mandragora; the lads sometimes go to the churchyards to search for it. Plantains and docks, wild spurge, hops climbing up a dead fir tree, a well-chosen pole for them nothing is omitted. Even the silver weed, the dusty-looking foliage which is thrust aside as you walk on the footpath by the road, is here labelled with truth as "cosmopolitan" of habit.
Bird's-foot lotus, another Downside plant, lights up the stones put to represent rockwork with its yellow. Saxifrage, and stone-crop and house-leek are here in variety. Buttercups occupy a whole patch a little garden to themselves. What would the haymakers say to such a sight? Little, too, does the mower reck of the number, variety, and beauty of the grasses in a single armful of swathe, such as he gathers up to cover his jar of ale with and keep it cool by the hedge. The bennets, the flower of the grass, on their tall stalks, go down in numbers as countless as the sand of the seashore before his scythe.
But here the bennets are watched and tended, the weeds removed from around them, and all the grasses of the field cultivated as affectionately as the finest rose. There is something cool and pleasant in this green after the colours of the herbs in flower, though each grass is but a bunch, yet it has with it something of the sweetness of the meadows by the brooks. Juncus, the rush, is here, a sign often welcome to cattle, for they know that water must be near; the bunch is cut down, and the white pith shows, but it will speedily be up again; horse-tails, too, so thick in marshy places one small species is abundant in the ploughed fields of Surrey, and must be a great trouble to the farmers, for the land is sometimes quite hidden by it.
In the adjoining water tank are the principal flowers and plants which flourish in brook, river, and pond. This yellow iris flowers in many streams about London, and the water-parsnip's pale green foliage waves at the very bottom, for it will grow with the current right over it as well as at the side. Water-plantain grows in every pond near the metropolis; there is some just outside these gardens, in a wet ha-ha.
The huge water-docks in the centre here flourish at the verge of the adjacent Thames; the marsh marigold, now in seed, blooms in April in the damp furrows of meadows close up to town. But in this flower-pot, sunk so as to be in the water, and yet so that the rim may prevent it from spreading and coating the entire tank with green, is the strangest of all, actually duckweed. The still ponds always found close to cattle yards, are in summer green from end to end with this weed. I recommend all country folk who come up to town in summer time to run down here just to see duckweed cultivated once in their lives.
In front of an ivy-grown museum there is a kind of bowling-green, sunk somewhat below the general surface, where in similar beds may be found the most of those curious old herbs which, for seasoning or salad, or some use of superstition, were famous in ancient English households. Not one of them but has its associations. "There's rue for you," to begin with; we all know who that herb is for ever connected with.
There is marjoram and sage, clary, spearmint, peppermint, salsify, elecampane, tansy, assafcetida, coriander, angelica, caper spurge, lamb's lettuce, and sorrel. Mug-wort, southernwood, and wormwood are still to be found in old gardens: they stand here side by side. Monkshood, horehound, henbane, vervain (good against the spells of witches), feverfew, dog's mercury, bistort, woad, and so on, all seem like relics of the days of black-letter books. All the while greenfinches are singing happily in the trees without the wall.
This is but the briefest resume; for many long summer afternoons would be needed even to glance at all the wild flowers that bloom in June. Then you must come once at least a month, from March to September, as the flowers succeed each other, to read the place aright. It is an index to every meadow and cornfield, wood, heath, and river in the country, and by means of the plants of the same species to the flowers of the world. Therefore, the Herbaceous Ground seems to me a place that should on no account be passed by. And the next place is the Wilderness that is, the Forest.
On the way thither an old-fashioned yew hedge may be seen round about a vast glasshouse. Outside, on the sward, there are fewer wild flowers growing wild than might perhaps be expected, owing in some degree, no doubt, to the frequent mowing, except under the trees, where again the constant shadow does not suit all. By the ponds, in the midst of trees, and near the river, there is a little grass, however, left to itself, in which in June there were some bird's-foot lotus, veronica, hawkweeds, ox-eye daisy, knapweed, and buttercups. Standing by these ponds, I heard a cuckoo call, and saw a rook sail over them; there was no other sound but that of the birds and the merry laugh of children rolling down the slopes.
The midsummer hum was audible above; the honeydew glistened on the leaves of the limes. There is a sense of repose in the mere aspect of large trees in groups and masses of quiet foliage. Their breadth of form steadies the roving eye; the rounded slopes, the wide sweeping outline of these hills of green boughs, induce an inclination, like them, to rest. To recline upon the grass and with half-closed eyes gaze upon them is enough.
The delicious silence is not the silence of night, of lifelessness; it is the lack of jarring, mechanical noise; it is not silence but the sound of leaf and grass gently stroked by the soft and tender touch of the summer air. It is the sound of happy finches, of the slow buzz of humble-bees, of the occasional splash of a fish, or the call of a moorhen. Invisible in the brilliant beams above, vast legions of insects crowd the sky, but the product of their restless motion is a slumberous hum.
These sounds are the real silence; just as a tiny ripple of the water and the swinging of the shadows as the' boughs stoop are the real stillness. If they were absent, if it was the soundlessness and stillness of stone, the mind would crave for something. But these fill and content it. Thus reclining, the storm and stress of life dissolve there is no thought, no care, no desire. Somewhat of the Nirvana of the earth beneath the earth which for ever produces and receives back again and yet is for ever at rest enters into and soothes the heart.
The time slips by, a rook emerges from yonder mass of foliage, and idly floats across, and is hidden in another tree. A white-throat rises from a bush and nervously discourses, gesticulating with wings and tail, for a few moments. But this is not possible for long; the immense magnetism of London, as I have said before, is too near. There comes the quick short beat of a steam launch shooting down the river hard by, and the dream is over. I rise and go on again.
Already one of the willows planted about the pond is showing the yellow leaf, before midsummer. It reminds me of the inevitable autumn. In October these ponds, now apparently deserted, will be full of moorhens. I have seen and heard but one to-day, but as the autumn comes on they will be here again, feeding about the island, or searching on the sward by the shore. Then, too, among the beeches that lead from hence towards the fanciful pagoda the squirrels will be busy. There are numbers of them, and their motions may be watched with ease. I turn down by the river; in the ditch at the foot of the ha-ha wall is plenty of duckweed, the Lκmna of the tank.
A little distance away, and almost on the shore, as it seems, of the Thames, is a really noble horse-chestnut, whose boughs, untouched by cattle, come sweeping down to the ground, and then, continuing, seem to lie on and extend themselves along it, yards beyond their contact. Underneath, it reminds one of sketches of encampments in Hindostan beneath banyan trees, where white tent cloths are stretched from branch to branch. Tent cloths might be stretched here in similar manner, and would enclose a goodly space. Or in the boughs above, a savage's tree-hut might be built, and yet scarcely be seen.
My roaming and uncertain steps next bring me under a plane, and I am forced to admire it; I do not like planes, but this is so straight of trunk, so vast of size, and so immense of height that I cannot choose but look up into it. A jackdaw, perched on an upper bough, makes off as I glance up. But the trees constantly afford unexpected pleasure; you wander among the timber of the world, now under the shadow of the trees which the Red Indian haunts, now by those which grow on Himalayan slopes. The interest lies in the fact that they are trees, not shrubs or mere saplings, but timber trees which cast a broad shadow.
So great is their variety and number that it is not always easy to find an oak or an elm; there are plenty, but they are often lost in the foreign forest. Yet every English shrub and bush is here; the hawthorn, the dogwood, the wayfaring tree, gorse and broom, and here is a round plot of heather. Weary at last, I rest again near the Herbaceous Ground, as the sun declines and the shadows lengthen.
As evening draws on, the whistling of blackbirds and the song of thrushes seem to come from everywhere around. The trees are full of them. Every few moments a blackbird passes over, flying at some height, from the villa gardens and the orchards without. The song increases; the mellow whistling is without intermission; but the shadow has nearly reached the wall, and I must go.