Essie Huxley and Me

Essie Huxley's 90th Birthday Essie Huxley gardened on rock. Every grain of soil was hard-won from composting ANYTHING that came her way, including marauding possums and wandering wallabies. She lived on a high ridge at a place called Camp Hill near Lower Longley, south of Hobart all her life. She was 5 foot nothing, always wore a hat, and was generous and direct if she liked you. She had many friends; they and her plants were her family.

She gardened nearly all of her long life, I think she was 92 when she died, and the last words she said to me were, "I'm not going to get that telegram from the Queen". I can speculate that she was brought to gardening by tragedy because at 18 she developed alopecia, all her hair fell out never to return. She locked herself in the house for a year, learnt handicrafts and hoped .... but to no avail. Gardening became her solice, her balm, and gradually her life, but later she blossomed into a bit of a garden celebrity and was feted everywhere she went.

Brian Mathew's The Crocus

She got to enjoy the limelight, dressed up to "the nines" and wore a very extravagant wig. But she never lost her common touch, her straightforward approach and her openess. Her philosophy, "I treat people as I find them and will do until they otherwise change". I must have been one she was suspicious about because when I turned up at thirty with dyed blond hair and an earring, she waited one long year before she invited me into her home, despite many circumnavigations of her garden, accompanied by the chant of Latin names of her plants, which were delivered like a sermon. Sometimes she'd forget one, and stared into the middle distance, as if she was waiting for it to drop like a miracle from the sky. I never interrupted because once when I did, she narrowed me with her gaze and called me "a smart alec". I was suitably chastened. We became good friends and we shared much. She never drove, so I chauffeured her here and there, but she never took it for granted, and despite my protestations, she always managed to slip money in a pocket or turn up with a book, or a plant that I would have died for.

She was not impressed when I "nicked" the State library's only copy of Brian Mathew's, The Crocus, to use as as field guide on my first trip to Greece. I put it back when I returned to my day job there, but not before almost losing it near Omolos in Crete. But that's another story ... . She never said much, but it was what she didn't say that counted. Before the next trip I was summoned and presented with a mint condition copy. She said, "I don't want you running around the place with someone else's things. It's the same as stealing". A good Methodist upbringing coming to the fore. Then an ever so slight crease of a smile. "Lets go in and put the kettle on and I'll sign the blooming thing. Don't want you losing this one".

Blandfordia punicea   Milligania densifolia  Lemon-scented Boronia

My best memories of her are from her garden, just me and her, kneeling over some little treasure, taking in it, and maybe not a word between us. There were the epics, the searches out the back of Scotts Peak for a pure yellow Xmas Bell, Blandfordia punicea, where we walked on a cloud of lemon-scented air, and into the Hartz Mountains, through milky spires of Mountain rocket, to show me where to find Milligania densifolia and how to collect its seed. Clever woman knew that every last stick went into the hungry maws of the roos and the only place we'd find it was where it trailed just above the water, the old roo didn't like getting wet!

Mountain rocket  Cushion Plants -  "Vegetable Sheep" Geum talbotianum

When she got older, she'd still come with me but she couldn't walk it, she'd sit patiently in my car,  reading, or "jawing" some hapless passerby. I was sent out with maps drawn on scraps of paper and shonky directions to do the doings. Trowels were pressed into my palms, if I resisted, I'd get that steely gaze. She was a "digger". She "sooled" me up the broken ridges along Mt Anne, up the sharp pins of Mt Sprent, I was her eyes and her legs, but I saw them in all their glorious, wild abundance, Geum talboltianum, with its great wide bowls of snowy white, the strange, otherworldly maroon stars of Isophysis tasmanica, and that moonscape ridge above the tarn "grazed" by those vegetable sheep.

It's the time now, they're at the peak, and she'd be up there! And we wouldn't need to speak.

 

The image of Essie Huxley on her 90th birthday was kindly lent to me by Lesley Crowden and the Crowden family of Kaydale Lodge at Niietta. They too were great friends of hers.

Comments

What a wonderful woman, I would have loved to have met her. Every time you look at the plants you have come to know through your association with Essie you will think go her.

Hi Michael,

Everything you say is true.  The next post will flesh out some of this in more detail. She was a "bewdie", as we Aussies say,  but never a garden snob. I'm sure you will find her story fascinating. 

Cheers, Marcus

Hi Pat,

Thanks! You may have seen my first draft on the SRGC Forum where we have a dedicated thread to her? 

She was my "Plant Mum" and I loved her dearly. When I read this story to my mother she shed a tear. We all loved her.

 

She was one of a kind.  M

Great article Marcus. I felt privileged to have known Essie in her latter years. A quick wit and lovely sense of humour. I always enjoyed her company. Congratulations on your sensitive tribute to quite a lady. Best wishes. Adrienne Charles

Dear Marcus, Your latest missive on Essie Huxley is a delight and certainly brings back personal memories, long since suppressed to me - of long phone calls and the odd visit to Longley. She was indeed a remarkable woman who possessed a unique body of horticultural knowledge. Thanks for posting your thoughts! She was unique - so generous in kind and spirit - the sort of character that you could only meet in Tasmania. And alas they are a dying breed.

Hi Brett,

Well said. I hope more people who read this will come forward with their experiences or impressions of Essie. She outlived most of her contemporaries but there are many in succeeding generations who she knew or knew of her.

Cheers, Marcus

Hurrah for the vegetable sheep! What a great character, thank you for sharing her story. If you were to lead a little expedition over the same trails in her memory I'm sure you would have dozens of followers. Then annual Essie Huxley Walk?

Hi Jane,

Great suggestion. She had a foot in so many camps it's a wonder she could stand up! Natives, exotics, bulbs, perennials, orchids and trees ... you name it. This story is more a personal one but the next is an unfolding of the enormous contribution she made to gardening in Australia

Thanks Lauree,

Hopefully the next post will bring you an even more vivid knowledge of her.

Cheers, Marcus

Essie was one of those great gardeners I didn't meet but I do treasure a little crocus that carries her name - ESSIE'S BLUE which I am very pleased to say grow, flowers and multiplies. We have a terrific garden history in Australia, a history that ought to do more honour than it does to plantsmen and women. Thank you Marcus for adding to our record of great Australian gardeners.

Hi Trevor,

I agree whole-heartedly. We need our stories. We need to celebrate our culture and our achievemens no matter what the field. If we don't do this for gardening we reduce it all to "Shopping Lists".

I think I can shed some light on Essie's Blue. She was always growing things from seed from the AGS and the SRGC seedlists. This one popped up out of a packet of Crocus biflorus seed from one of them. It was, of course, a pretty hybrid of biflorus, and it multiplied. She probably supplied corms to Rod Barwick of Glenbrook Bulb Farm and he would have listed it. I remember one year Rod telling me that he went down to collect a parcel of bulbs for his list and to his horror she told him a rat had managed to inveigle its way into the porch and ate, yes you guessed it, all the corms of Essie's Blue. Must have been a tasty little number. I didn't ask what became of the rat ... .

Cheers, M

Reading that touching piece on Essie was a great way to start the day and now I have a story to reflect upon when I next get the opportunity to sit down and admire my small clump of Galanthus 'Essie Huxley', which actually did really well for us in 2014. Thank you Marcus. Do you have a story on soldanella montana alba, which Woodbridge apparently sourced from Essie's garden?

Ah Andrew, where have you been?

Lovely to hear from you via a comment. Plants do have that effect on you. As Michael said, it gives you a connection, a link, and sometimes this becomes more important than the plant. There is an interesting discussion about this on the SRGC Forum, in the Archibald Files between Tim Ingram of Compton Ash Nursery and yours truly.

The next post will look at her contributions to gardening but there are just too many plants! The woman was an inveterate collector, she had more itches to scratch than a hapless poison ivy victim!

Stay tuned and be prepared to be amazed, cheers, Marcus

I remember Terry Lockyer (retired Plant Quarantine Officer) from Hobart telling me the story of a well-known Tasmanian radio & TV gardening personality wanting to do a program featuring Essie but there was no way she was having any of that. I don't think she liked him at all!

Hi Peter, she rarely took a ""set" to people but maybe in this case .... . I know she had a "thing" about people not using taxonomic names so that might have been part of the problem. You mention Terry Lockyer. Now there's a blast from the past! One of the best and probably only quarantine officer who understood the word facilitate. A true gentleman and a great help to small business people in Tasmania.

Cheers,  Marcus

Hi Marcus, thank you for your 'Essie' ramblings. Over the years her name has been mentioned in reverent tones so it's lovely to learn about the character she was. Yay for short people! So much better to be remembered by a blue crocus in many gardens than a plaque on a wall. Dyed blond with an earring eh.

Hi Jeanette,

I am glad to have been able to give her a voice.  A lot of people knew her but apart from me, and maybe the Crowdens from Kaydale Lodge, I don't know of anyone writing about her.  I wrote a long piece for 40 Degrees South back in 2003 while she was still alive. Funny, when I rang to tell her the publishers were ready to go and we needed to come and photograph her waratah, as planned, she replied that she had cut all the blooms off and taken them to the Native Plant Exhibition. There was a long pause from my end of the line and I remember saying,  "I am going to hang up now for risk I might say something I might later regret".

Cheers,  M

Thank you Marcus for introducing me to Essie, I would love to have known her. I agree with Trevor Nottle that we have a fascinating garden history and people such as Essie should be honoured more. I am sending this link to the editors of Australian Garden History the journal of the Australian Garden History Society, it would be good if they contacted you. I look forward to the next episode. Helen

Hi Helen, that ain't the half of it! The real story starts next post. 

She was well known in a lot of circles. Rhododendron Society, Lilium Society,  Rock Garden Club, Native Plant Society, just to name a few.  She knew Denny King (Kings Lomatia) down at Melaleuca Inlet, she knew the botanist, Dr. Winifred Cutis and the artist,  Margaret Stones. She befriended Lauren Black and countless others. Unfortunately she wasn't a wiriter. I remember her sweating over a few hundred word piece on Milligania she had been asked to write for the Alpine Garden Society in the UK. It took her ages! It was painful to watch, but I dared not offer to lend a hand. I would have been in for one of those "suitable chastened" moments again.

Cheers,  M 

What an interesting person she must have been-so adventurous! She sounds like a real character and a great subject for a book! Kerry

Hi Kerry,

She didn't drive and she didn't move from her patch but yes she was adventurous. The next post will reveal how she came to the world. Her family lived on a clapped out raspberry farm and things went pear-shaped when Henry Jones, the jam manufacturer, pulled out and left small farm holders in the the lurch. They couldn't afford to leave so they set up a shop on the side of the road. In those days it was the only road from the Huon Valley to Hobart. Her uncle, Taffy, was a beekeeper and he was murdered just down the road from her place.

Its a very colourful story in an era that will never be repeated.

Cheers, Marcus

I really enjoyed this article, thank you so much. It is so good to know of such people who love Tassie plants. She sounds amazing, thank you for letting us know about this eccentric and wonderful lady.

Hi Vivienne,

Thanks! More to come yet .... . Cheers, Marcus

Hello dear fortunate Marcus, A mainlander i may be but I had the good fortune to meet Essie twice. Whats more I was in the company of our dear Otto Fauser. Enjoying Essie and Otto together there was no sense a strait separated them. They were kindred souls. As we rambled through the garden they both became impatient with words that failed to keep up with their thoughts and so they just fell into that connecting silence. It was a privilege to be with them. Remember her table piled high with books , seed packets and notes! I shall look forward to your future writings of Essie huzza from the mainland Cathy

Dear Cathy, you were indeed blessed to have both for company.  That's about as good as it gets in Australia.  It reminds me for some silly reason of that lovely photo of Otto, Michael(s), Beth Chatto, Christo and others on Otto's sideboard. Gardening Royalty!

I'll tell you a funny story about that table. Essie had promised me some seeds of Cardiocrinum yunnanense and she had them in a big packet on there, along with umpteen other things. When I asked her about them she didn't seem to remember so I started looking around on the table,  shifting a few things about. She shouted at me to stop in no uncertain terms and when I asked her why,  she said,  "if you move them around I won't be able to find anything" Duh! Order from chaos?! Cheers, M x

Hi Marcus, Holly and I were 'fortunate' enough to be able to visit Essie, always bearing gifts of manure and cake (though not together) and have a cup of tea with her on numerous occasions. One time however she invited us in to join her for some pikelets. Out came the dripping tin, along with a plate with a pikelet each. Holly had taken a bite when Essie informed us that she had found the eggs that morning in the paddock and she was "sure that they were ok". My hand froze as I reached out for my pikelet, Holly's chewing slowed and deliberately, followed with a large swallow. They tasted a bit odd apparently and I didn't like the sound of "sure they were ok" so , during my long coat phase, slipped the pikelet into my pocket while Essie's back was turned. Holly was not so fortunate. Essie returned with the cups of tea before she had a chance to dispose of the evidence and had to finish off the pikelet whilst looking a mild shade of green. But we survived to tell the tale and Essie was a dear dear friend and I miss her.

Hi Jenny,

It's great that you have added your stories.  It was my hope that this would happen. Some of us knew her and as others have said we should celebrate our garden heros. She made a life for herself among plants. She could have done far worse. We almost have a responsibility to celebrate that  life. 

I've had a few similar experiences with her poultry. Once when she was getting on,  she asked me if I would kill 4 roosters that she had in her flock.  I agreed to this just to help her out.  Poor things were cooped up in her big chicken shed so off I went chasing them all around the thing to no avail. She came down and looked at me aghast,  and said,  why aren't you using that Crook I left out for you?". Like, sure I do this every day so I know what that thing is! 

So, she said,  "Hook it around their leg and they will fall over and won't try to get away". And it worked,  they just lay there, looking pathetic and awaited their fate.  Clever woman I thought. So things are going (gruesomely) well until the last, who by this stage was worked himself up to a fever-pitch panic,  and I didn't blame him!  So round and round I go trying to catch this poor thing,  when all of a sudden he took to the air.  Now Essie was standing in front of the half open door and this guy saw the opening and made straight for her.  He clattered into her in full flight,  knocking her slight,  5 foot nothing frame flat and in the process unseated her hat.

Unnerved, she picked herself up, hastily replaced her hat, and reached for her trusty four ten shotgun.  The rooster by this stage was pacing up and down the paddock about 30 metres away probably wondering why he had been  unceremoniously "dumped" out of his idyllic life of hens and continuous feeding. She took aim,  and was squeezing the trigger,  when I blurted out,  "Do you need to kill em all?  We got enough meat and he's a fine fellow to have outsmarted us." With that she lowered the barrel ... and pondered aloud, "He'd make a better story than a casserole I guess,  lets leave him and I'll decide later".

When I was down again a couple of weeks later I asked what she had decided.  "Oh,  he still over there  prancing around, eating my grain and carrying on as if he's King of the Castle but he better watch his step,  I can't abide show offs".

 

 

 

Great article Marcus, I sure miss Essie! I have many happy memories of working in her garden and learned so much from her. Never forget the day I was half asleep, weeding the shadehouse when, BOOM, I nearly jumped out of my skin! Essie, broken arm in a sling, gun wedged in her armpit, had just dispatched another of those pesky possums! Then followed a lengthy discussion as to which plant would benefit most from the remains. A great friend and her amazing knowledge is sorely missed.

Hi Marj,

Thanks for joining in.  I think my story to Jenny probably joins yours in the pantheon of shotgun encounters. Today people probably think this is unnecessarily cruel, and maybe things have changed, but they forget that those on the land had a constant battle trying to make a living or just existing. There was no one around to offer assistance and one had to live by their wits.

Essie was a survivor and she had worked out long before that this meant often harsh decisions. 

I miss her terribly. I shed a tear when I was writing this tribute. 

Cheers,  Marcus

Marcus, I'd never heard of Essie Huxley before emailing you about a plant today. What an absolutely inspiring dear lady. Her life sounds like book material to me. Thanks for sharing. Cheers Roy

Hi Roy,

Thanks for commenting. You wonder if people like her turn up once in a generation. Certainly she was unique. Whether it was circumstance or being born that way is hard to fathom. I hope the next installment in a few days time will add to her alure. I agree with many who have commented that her life is worthy of a book but the publishing industry wouldn't think so. If it was some celebrity's weight loss program or how they overcome the terrible blight of being "normal" to become famous then their collective eyes' would light up!

Am I getting cynical in my old age?

Cheers, Marcus

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