The Horticultural Alice

By —— Bio and Archives--June 24, 2017

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When Lewis Carroll penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, followed six years later with Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There he must never have thought that over 150 years later they would never have been out of print. As most know, ‘Lewis Carroll’ was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician and lecturer at Christ College, Oxford.

Translated into at least 174 languages, they have been enjoyed by both Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde. Presented on the stage, film and television, the two stories are usually blended together. As early as 1886 a musical play was presented in London’s West End. A British silent film followed in 1903, a Broadway play in 1915, a television adaptation in 1937. In evitable there has been a Disney animation, as well as ballets, operas and even, in 1976, a porn-musical.

Skirting strange mushroom properties, Alice’s first horticultural encounter occurs albeit brief in the first book. Entering the Queen’s Croquet Ground, Alice finds herself in a garden where she three living playing cards are painting a rose tree’s white blooms red because the Queen of Hearst hates white roses. This serves as an example of Dodgson’s brilliant ability to work on different levels. On the face of it, this has something of Lear’s celebrated nonsense. Victorians though would have seen in croquet the genteel sport so popular then. Dig deeper and the allusion to Wars of the Roses emerges, despite being a term despised by rose fanciers.

But it is the heroine’s encounters with the talking flowers in her adventures Through the Looking-Glass that really capture plant lovers’ attention. Having climbed through the mantelpiece mirror she finds herself in a garden. There is a willow tree surrounded by a flowerbed, with rose, violet, larkspur and tiger-lily all surrounded by a border of daisies.

“O Tiger-lily,” said Alice, addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind, “I wish you could talk!” “We can talk,” said the Tiger-lily: “when there’s anybody worth talking to.”

So commences Alice’s conversation in the Garden of Talking Flowers. Did a young Prince Charles, like his royal ancestor, enjoy the book? Apart from her ability to move about, the flowers prove opinionated.

The Rose observes, ‘Her face has got some sense in it, though it’s not a clever one!’ Still, you’re the right colour, and that goes a long way.” The Tiger-lily dislikes her colour, while saying, “If only her petals curled up a little more, she’d be all right.”

Alice, disliking being criticized, sought to change the subject. Aren’t the flowers scared, planted all alone with nobody to take care of them? But, explains the Rose, there is the willow tree. “But what could it do, it any danger came?” Alice asked. So we come to one of Dodgson’s appalling puns, beloved by Victorians. The tree could bark, explains the Rose. “It says ‘Bough-wough!’” cried a Daisy: “that’s why it’s branches are called boughs.” “Didn’t you know that?” cried another Daisy, as all commenced shouting at poor Alice. The Tiger-lily attempts to intervene but it is Alice’s suggestion that she could pick the daisies that shocks them into silence. Several of the pink daisies turned white.

Alice then puzzles over why all the flowers can talk. She has been in many gardens before, she says, but never encountered verbose blooms.

“Put your hand down and feel the ground,” said the Tiger-lily. “Then you’ll know why.” Alice did so. “It’s very hard,” she said, “but I don’t see what that has to do with it.” “In most gardens,” the Tiger-lily said, “they make the beds too soft—so that the flowers are always asleep.”

Well, you were warned about puns . . . And so it goes on until Alice moves on with the Red Queen chess piece.

Continued below...

Pun upon pun, layer upon layer Dodgson built his tales. Gardens and flowers were no less popular in Victorian times than today. Poetry was popular too and a short while before Alfred Tennyson had published his first collection. Included was ‘Come into the Garden, Maud,’ soon to be set to music.

Come into the garden, Maud
For the black bat, night has flown
Cone into the garden, Maud
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.

Dodgson took flowers named by the poet, installing them in Alice’s garden and giving them voice.


What became of the ‘Alice’ the pair of volumes were inspired by? Daughter of Henry Liddell, dean of Dodgson’s Oxford college, she was born in 1852. She married cricketeer Reginald Hargreaves, bore three sons by him—the two oldest were killed in World War I—and lived most of her over 70 years in the New Forest village of Lyndhurst.

Dodgson suggested in his introduction for the reader:

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
On Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in a far-off land

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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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