How did an apple tree and a lecture about the history of Chelsea give TL Mogford the idea which his first historical novel grew from? He tells Historia about his route to The Plant Hunter, set in Victorian England and in China.
When I was seven years old, my family left the cosy Oxfordshire village where I grew up and moved to a dilapidated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The house came with a few acres of wind-swept land, giving my parents an opportunity to fulfil a long-held ambition of starting a new garden from scratch.
I remember being baffled by their decision. There were no neighbours to play with. Cooking was done on an ancient coal-fired Aga that left everything covered in black dust. Even the habitable parts of the house were chilly.
But it was the garden that left me particularly cold. I’d thought it would take shape quickly, but the plants that arrived were miniscule – the ‘yew hedges’ mere spindles I could weave between; the ‘herbaceous borders’ mud-packed banks surrounded by chicken wire; the ‘lawn’ a scrubby wasteland.
The one part of the garden that satisfied my childish impatience was the orchard. Though the trees were small, they still bore fruit.
As I walked through the orchard with my mother one afternoon, the label on a newly-planted apple tree caught my eye – ‘Chivers Delight’. My maternal grandmother had been a Chivers, I knew. How cool to have a tree named after your family.
Fast-forward 35 years, and I found myself attending a lecture about Chelsea through the centuries. The slide showing a map of the King’s Road in the mid-19th century drew my interest. The road had been lined with plant nurseries, I saw – enormous premises stretching right the way down to the Thames. Exotic plants had been big business in Victorian Chelsea, it seemed, and the people whose task it was to find them were known as ‘plant hunters’.
Intrigued by the sound of these maverick adventurers, I started to read up on their lives. Soon discovering that many shared a penchant for lending their names to the plants they found, I thought back to my seven-year-old self, standing amidst the fledgling fruit trees of my parents’ orchard. Hadn’t there been a tree named after a member of my distant family? I called home to find out more.
In its late-Victorian heyday, I learnt, Chivers & Sons – the firm established by my mother’s family – was a household name. Fruit-farmers by trade, the Chivers wearied of selling their produce to third-party jam-makers, and resolved to make their own preserves instead. In 1873, they built a jam manufactory in some old farm buildings in Histon, Cambridgeshire.
The enterprise proved so successful that they expanded the operation, going on to make jellies, custards and even Christmas puddings, employing food scientists from Cambridge University to test their products, and providing full-time work to much of the population of Histon.
Baptists by faith, the Chivers built cottages for their workers, as well as schools and a Wesleyan church. They even produced a ‘Temperance Lemonade’, made from lemons imported from Sicily.
The real interest of my great-uncle, John Chivers, however, was horticulture. He became obsessed with developing new varieties of fruit tree, the most successful of which was Malus domestica ‘Chivers Delight’ – a tree producing apples combining the sweetness of a Cox’s with the crunch of a Braemar.
I’d assumed Chivers Delight would be grown these days only by people with a connection to the family, but no – the RHS has a web page dedicated to it, Kew Gardens grow the apple in their kitchen garden, and Raymond Blanc, the celebrity chef, selected it as one of his favourites in his 2019 book, The Lost Orchard.
Perhaps with this in mind, I found my research drifting towards plant hunters known for finding trees. First came David Douglas (1799-1834), the tough, intrepid Scot who undertook three expeditions to North America on behalf of the Horticultural Society of London.
His most famous introduction is the Douglas fir, which he found growing on the banks of the Columbia River, noting that it “exceeds all trees in magnitude.” Unable to reach pinecones on the topmost branches of these massive conifers, he blasted them down with his shotgun. Later, when his camp was attacked by a grizzly bear, he used the same gun to dispatch the unfortunate animal.
The Douglas fir is now found all over the UK, and its timber is widely used for furniture-making, flooring and house-building.
Then came EH Wilson (1876-1930), recipient of the Queen’s Prize for Botany, who was studying for a diploma at Kew when he was approached by wealthy King’s Road nurseryman Harry Veitch. Veitch had been shown some dried plant specimens that had been sent to Kew from China by an amateur botanist named Augustine Henry.
One of these specimens – the dried flower of the fabled ‘handkerchief tree’ – had so much captivated Veitch that he sponsored Wilson to travel to China to bring him back a live tree, instructing him not ‘to dissipate time, energy or money on anything else.’
Arriving in Hong Kong in June 1899, Wilson finally located Augustine Henry in a remote town near the border of what is now Vietnam. Henry gave him a map, sketched on half a page of a notebook, marked with an ‘X’ to denote the position of a single specimen of the handkerchief tree.
Though his rudimentary map covered an area of some 20,000 square miles, Wilson still managed to locate the ‘X’ deep within the hills of Hubei province. To his dismay, however, the precious handkerchief tree had been felled, a newly-built wooden house standing close to its stump.
Forging on, Wilson eventually found a living specimen, and the handkerchief tree – or ‘dove tree’, as it is also known – is now a fixture in parks and gardens throughout the UK.
The tales continued: Robert Fortune and Rhododendron fortunei, George Forrest and Acer forrestii… What if I wrote a novel about a fictional plant hunter in search of a beautiful tree, I began to wonder? What adventures he might have!
It was at this point I decided to pause my crime writing and make a foray into the intoxicating world of historical fiction.
But then I came up against a problem. If I wrote about a real tree, then the chances were that a real-life plant hunter would have already found it.
What I needed was a fictional tree, I realised. And as I started to graft together the distinguishing features of such a tree – ice-white flowers, lacy pinnate leaves – I was struck by an unexpected thought. My great-uncle had created a new type of tree. And here I was, two generations later, trying to do the same.
Perhaps history really does repeat itself, I thought, as I embarked on the first chapter of what was to become The Plant Hunter.
This is TL Mogford’s first historical novel. He has also written a series of crime novels about a lawyer from Gibraltar named Spike Sanguinetti. The first book, Shadow of the Rock, was a Spectator Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger award for best debut.
Flowering branch of Davidia involucrata, the handkerchief tree: Myrabella via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Entrance, Worlds End Nursery, Kings Road: Robin Sones via Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Detail from reconstruction of Basil Jones’s grocer’s shop in Abergavenny Museum: Ethan Doyle White via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Pseudotsuga glauca (Douglas fir) forest in Pike National Forest, Colorado: Forestry Images via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0 US)
David Douglas from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine: Wikipedia (public domain)
Handkerchief tree: Tobias 67 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)