Essie and Her Waratah
Essie Huxley never wanted the limelight. In fact, she steadfastly hid from it in her youth. But all that changed with a few simple plants given as a fatherly gift to a daughter. With that the botanical world came to her. It brought her a life different to what she might have expected and most importantly it brought her joy and friendships that endured.
Essie's father was a bushman. He worked on farms, in the forest, snared and trapped, and kept beehives. Even on his days off he'd take to the mountains nearby and ramble all day long, perhaps to shed the taint of working life and for a time be free. From one such trip he returned with a handful of waratah seedlings in his pack and when handing over to Essie, said, that if she looked after them he was sure they'd bring her luck.
The Tasmanian Waratah, Telopea truncata, with its rather spidery flowers, is considered the poor relation to its more showy mainlander relations. But it is much loved for its own quiet elegance and fragile, delicate beauty. It lives in high country, in areas of higher rainfall, usually on sandstones, and flowers in very late spring through early summer. Its flowers are uniformly scarlet to darkish red.
They were commonplace on higher ground in the area so Essie was puzzled by his portent, but she indulged him and said nothing. Dads say that sort of thing. These seedlings were duly planted around the family holding and as they grew she noticed one of them colored differently. Weak maybe? A runt? Diseased? It almost met its end before it began! But Essie, as in life, gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.
The big ones flowered first, rude vigor showing through. Their flowers a ruby hue, and huge too, like the head dress on a cockatoo. Next couple of years it was a procession of red, and the little runt kept on holding back. Then unannounced, a bud began to form, and it looked like nothing that had gone before. It was pale and sickly, not the usual darkening crown. It opened a cool creamy green, then turned, a bright yellow chrome.
Yellow waratahs were the stuff of legends and the subject of campfire yarns and academic debate. There'd always been stories, someone knew someone who saw one near the Overland track, but like the Tassie Tiger, the real thing always stayed just out of reach, hovering like a mirage, that is until this one made a show.
After a bit of local interest, everything went back to pretty much the way it was, but Essie's interest was piqued. She could no longer ask her father where he found it, and why he thought it special enough to bring home, for he had died before the waratah had flowered. But she figured that he had seen a yellow one on that ramble and gathered some of the small seedlings from around its skirts.
So it began as a quest, a search for the father's lost waratah, to solve the puzzle he had left her. For the next few years, each early summer, she'd search the broken ridges and the damp gullies along the Wellington Range looking for that flash of colour among the reds.
At first she tramped the bush tracks and kept to well-worn paths but as her pace quickened she left these well behind, and plunged headlong into the unknown. She slid backside down the rumbly screes, climbed hand over hand through boobiallla, and ran the mossy bank, and while she found no trace of that waratah she drank in all she saw and all she heard.
She delighted in the fat, squat beads of Climbing blueberry, threading through the understory din, and saw the skeins of ice-white Snowy gentian, high up upon the plateau's outer rim. As summer quickened, the flames of Honey Richeas blaze right across the moors and there's an upwards rush of orange yellow bells that bring Xmas to the fore. She heard the raucous "Gotto Gos" of the big Black currawongs, as they stripped red rubies from the mountain sides, and the slow whoop, whoop, of cockatoos alighting in the scrub, and the crunch of their great beaks, as they pulled at it for grubs. She stood and watched the moonstone bark of snow gums, slowly kissed by light, as the sun rose meekly on a hoar frost overnight. And this and more she saw, until she knew the bush as her own, and she was one with it, and it had helped to make her grow.
One day, a woman arrived, unannounced, and introduced herself as Dr. Curtis from the university in town. She explained that she was producing a work on Tasmanian endemic flora and that the word had got to her of Essie's plant. She asked if she might perhaps describe it so it could be included in the latest volume, which was already set to go to print. The woman was indeed Dr. Winifred Curtis and she had teamed up with the acclaimed Australian artist Margaret Stones, who was then working from Kew Gardens, to undertake this ambitious project, known as The Endemic Flora of Tasmania (published 1967-1978). It was conceived and sponsored by Lord Talbot de Malahide,an Irish peer, and hereditary baron.
Lord Talbot was an avid collector and gardener who cultivated many Tasmanian plants on his estate in Ireland. Margaret Stones was based at Kew and used fresh flowering and fruiting material. Some of this material came from Talbot's own estate but much of it was flown in from Tasmania. As the stream of air-freighted specimens continued, Stones created 254 drawings to illustrate the six volume work.
Sadly Lord Talbot died when only four of the volumes were completed and the work was seen to its completion by his sister, the Hon. Rose Talbot. The Endemic Flora of Tasmania proved to be a great success and increased interest in and knowledge of Tasmania's endemic plants all around the world.
Essie's waratah was one of those that made the 50 hour flight from Hobart's Llanherne airport to Wisley; its delicately crimped, spidery flowers probably wrapped in a veil of life supporting sphagnum moss. As an aside, this could never happen today given the alarming "fandango" of biosecurity rules, regulations that have sprouted up ad infinitum in a world largely run by lawyers and bureaucrats.
It was one of those crazy, wonderful moments in botanical research when all the pieces fell into place. A rare legendary color form turns up out of nowhere in a rural backyard, no need for epic treks or years of chasing, just in time to be included as a star, next to its ordinary brethren, in a volume that was virtually on the press. I can't imagine what Margaret Stones must have felt when she unveiled that flower for the very first time. Was it like an archaeologist gazing upon a myth that had suddenly become real? Like Schliemann and Agamemnon's Death Mask? Or is that just too fanciful?
Essie had not counted on visitors. But came they did, from right across the world, they beat a path to her door, academics, researchers, nurserymen, the curious, and the shysters. Some came in person, others via letters dropped through the slot in the front door. Some of them bore gifts, others promises, and a few, bizarre propositions that belonged back in the day of freak shows and midgets.
Sir Harold Hillier, one of the giants of modern day horticulture and owner of the most important nurseries in the United Kingdom, made the journey down to her little stony block on Camp Hill. Over the ensuing years they exchanged seeds and plant material and while Essie's garden was greatly enhanced by this, adding a slew of rock-hugging, flower-studded daphnes, rare pieris and rhododendrons, Hilliers never did list a single yellow waratah on their nursery catalogues.
She began a correspondence with English lily grower Derek Bacon who introduced her to the RHS Lily Group and so began a love affair with these the "Queen among Flowers". From among the cornucopia of delights that have found their home in her garden members of Liliaceae had always had a special place – from the giant Himalayan Lily with its huge elephant ear leaves and creamy-white angel clarions, and those spangled mysteries, the orchid-like nomocharis, to the exquisitely chequered spring-time gems, the elegantly cool fritillaries. Over her long and fruitful life Essie cultivated a wide selection of true lilies from both the Old and the New World in all their forms and in the long days of summer whirling turks-caps, wide-faced orientals and yawning trumpets floated like birds of paradise throughout her garden.
As her circle of contacts widened she was able to add new and rare gems. Many of these were grown from seed sent from points afar, often taking years to flower, like exotic post cards that finally arrive. Over the years some fine and very rare individuals have displayed their tantalising blooms for her, including Lilium japonicum, L. nanum, L. hansonii, L. grayii, L. canadense var. rubrum and L. superbum and, as it is with all hard-core collectors, that “old itch” needs to be scratched every so often, so and up until the end she was still on a quest for the rare Bhutanese lily, L. sherriffiae.
As a natural extension of her life-long passion she contributed a trophy to the local Lilium Society to be presented each year for the best seedling species. She was "paying her dues", for she had won the Grand Champion at their shows on several occasions, each time winning with her Fiesta Hybrids. These sumptuous beauties are derived from Lilium davidii and have always been turned out at their peak as a densely packed pyramid of large, glossy turks-caps in fiery tones from tangerine to vermillion.
The number of sectional wins to her credit was so long it could read like a litany, more than enough to last two or more mere mortals’ lifetimes. As an interesting aside, at the very first lily show held at Claremont House back in 1991 she briefly held the Grand Champion’s shield only to be pipped at the post by yours truly because her Cardiocrinum giganteum exhibit was deemed not a true lilium. We were still learning the rules back then!
There were so many plants in Essie's lifetime of collecting that it would take an eternity to list them all. A collection of snowdrops second to none, one of which bears her name, paeonies, rhododendrons, hellebores, daffodils ..... It's a procession of beauty and achievement with just too many to talk about individually, but I make an exception for the following story.
Some who read this may remember Tinneys Nursery, in England, owned by Gerry Mundey? He was an exceptional nurseryman but a prickly and self opinionated man who put more noses out of joint than he ever encouraged to "stickybeak" into and enjoy the fruits of his labours. Somehow Essie charmed him. Perhaps it was her yellow waratah, but I'd like to think it was her straight forwardness that won him over. She had many fine things from him, including some amazing petiolarid primulas, Shortia uniflora and a unique and extremely rare bigeneric cross called Brigandra caliantha "Salisbury" as well as other gesneriads. I still have Haberlea rhodopensis from her but all the ramondas have gone the way of god including R. serbica, I also have the strain of Cyclamen rhodium ssp peloponnesiacum she obtained from him. Large, bright green lobes so bespattered with cream and white it looked for all the world like someone had shaken a paint tin on it. She'd say, "Oh, he only had the best".
That cyclamen brought the "green eyes" out in every gardener, even the genteel had to turn their gaze away. The clomping thing just grew and grew, and spat out seedlings to and fro. We'd stab 'em while we were digging bulbs and she'd just chuck 'em back as we go. Such nonchalance, such derring do, but they only reached a chosen few!
Like many of her generation Essie was a royalist and an inveterate "royal watcher" so you can imagine her absolute delight when she was told that her waratah was to be used in part of Tasmania's official wedding present to HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. Its image was used to decorate one of a series of six fine porcelain plates, collectively called, Flora Tasmanica. This came to fruition through an artistic collaboration between Lauren Black, who painted the images, and who Essie knew from past visits to her garden, and the master ceramicist, Les Blakeborough, who created the plates. They were presented to Mary when she opened their joint exhibition in the Plimsol Gallery at the University of Tasmania. Essie was officially invited, she curtsied before the Princess, got to have a few words, and take home one of the special plates with her waratah on it, as a memento of this very special occasion.
Not bad for a girl who started out wanting to hide away from the world .... but it wasn't going to be, fate had other plans and beat a path to her door. Long before all this, Essie had named her little place at Camp Hill, Telopea, it's the proper taxonomic name for the Waratah .... it means to be noticed from afar.
A special thank you to Lesley Crowden for the picture of the yellow waratah taken in the family's garden at Kaydale Lodge.
Also a special thank you to Mark Wapstra for supplying the picture of The Snow Gums, Eucalyptus coccifera.