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The Story of the Rhododendron niveum

29th April 2013

As our Rhododendron niveums come into flower, we look into the history of this beautiful spring bloom.

The colour is its downfall, the reason for its misfortune!

For a while, during the later part of the nineteenth century, Rhododendron niveum enjoyed great popularity, and was widely planted in Victorian gardens, but the plants then appeared to lose favour. Many were uprooted and consigned to the bonfire.

So, why this sudden demise, this relegation to the flames? Blame James Hargreaves and his Spinning Jenny, invented in 1764. Machines such as these, enabled the abundant supply of cheap raw material from India and the Americas to be manufactured into relatively inexpensive cotton cloth. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the production of cotton had overtaken wool.

Cheap material required cheap dyes; not for the working classes the product of Mediterranean molluscs. The Victorian version of Tyrian purple that was to prove so successful was the accidental result of a chemical experiment performed by the young William Perkin in 1856. The resulting aniline dye produced a purple colour called mauveine. This colour became very fashionable for a number of years - so much so that Queen Victoria wore a silk gown dyed mauveine to the opening of the International Exhibition in 1862. By the 1870s, however, as the dye became more readily available, it was used in the cheap cotton from which the uniforms of domestic staff and hospital nurses were made - an association that quickly made the colour unacceptable to the fashionable world.

Hence the problem. The Victorian pleasure gardens were to provide enjoyment and leisured and affluent owners, who had no wish to be reminded of their lowly employees, and the pale purple of the niveum now offended the eye - so out came the niveums!

Why was the one at Heligan spared? Was John Tremayne more egalitarian than many of his counterparts, or less concerned with considerations of colour and fashion? Certainly he was a plantsman, an enthusiastic collector of new and exotic plants that were pouring into England from all parts of the expanding Victorian world. It would, no doubt, have been a source of great satisfaction to him to possess a plant from the first introduction of this particular species; a satisfaction more important than class sensibilities. Whatever the explanation, the Rhododendron niveum at Heligan is a rarity.

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