The sweaty secrets behind Britain's gardening fetish
By LEAH McLAREN
Saturday, May 11, 2002
It's no secret that the English are mad about gardening - they practically invented it - but lately the obsession is starting to spiral out of control. After football and beer, the two favourite English pastimes, regardless of class, are as follows: 1) reading celebrity gossip in the tabs, and 2) mucking about in the garden.
Two disparate enough activities, one would think. One is naughty and shameful, the other is earthy and pure. One is nasty in spirit, the other is nurturing. One is composed entirely of new information, the other is as old as the gods.
Given such vast differences, it is amazing, but perhaps not surprising, that the English have now managed to combine the two. The first example of this phenomenon is Charlie Dimmock, co-host of BBC television's Ground Force, and Britain's first gardening sex symbol. If you're not conjuring a clear picture, imagine a composting Nigella.
Dimmock and co-host Alan Titchmarsh (a dextrous Yorkshireman, recently voted the man most Britons would choose as their next-door neighbour), have captivated the British people with their tips on seedling selection and shrubbery pruning. (Canadians can see the show on the BBC Canada digital channel.)
But the thing that really made Dimmock a gardening celeb is, as it happens, another English favourite: her breasts. With her strawberry pre-Raphaelite tresses and real dirty jeans, Dimmock is attractive enough TV-host fare, but it was not until she began filming her potting segments braless that the Ground Force ratings soared.
Now, Dimmock is a bona-fide gardening star. Her personal life is fodder for tabloids and broadsheets alike. When she was recently found to be messing around on her 13-year live-in boyfriend with a BBC technician, the Times of London ran a story declaring that the formerly down-to-earth TV host had soiled her image by "cultivating somebody else's smallholdings."
Mirror columnist Brian Reade mounted a full frontal attack. "If evidence were needed of television's power to take something small and insignificant and then magnify it out of all proportion, it is Charlie Dimmock's breasts," he wrote. "Not only does she possess a rear the size of a garden centre, and looks in need of a good scrub, but she owns possibly the most unattractive pair ever to be thrust into the public eye. They look like a pair of rat's noses scuttling around under an empty compost sack."
Moving on then. Dimmock's front bits are not the biggest English gardening celebrities. That honour goes to the titum arum, an ancient and enormous species of lily, at Kew Garden. When the mighty plant bloomed last week for the first time since 1996, the event was written up in every major newspaper and featured on TV. Hundreds of people queued up to take a look - including me.
If you're envisioning the titum as some sort of great, resplendently perfumed prom corsage, think again. I have never in my life seen a blossom that looked as ugly or smelled as foul. The Princess of Wales Conservatory was transformed into a farting little shop of horrors. And the gardening-mad English came from far and wide to smell the terrible stench for themselves.
The famed plant's family originated in the moist shaded rain forests of Sumatra. The monstrous spadix was first "discovered" by a European botanist, the Italian Odoardo Beccari, who was travelling in the region in 1878. He plucked up some seeds and sent them back to his patron in Italy and one of the young plants that germinated ended up at Kew, where it first flowered on English soil in 1889, generating great public excitement - but keep in mind, that was before Pop Stars. When the titum flowered again in 1926, the crowds were so large the police were called in.
The stench, of course, has a perfectly scientific explanation. "At the base of the spadix, within the protective chamber formed by the spathe, is a band of cream male flowers above a ring of larger pink female flowers," explains the Kew pamphlet. "When the flowers are ready for pollination, the spadix heats up and emits a nauseating smell that attracts the pollinators. This stench, described by some as a mixture of rotting fish and burnt sugar, is so bad that the Indonesians call the plant `the corpse flower.' At one time, it was rumoured that elephants pollinated the flowers, but beetles were generally thought to be responsible. Recent observations suggest that the insects which transfer pollen between the giant inflorescences are sweat bees."
Sweat bees? No wonder. To my nose, the titum smells like the sulphur pits of Hades. Apparently, the Kew gardeners who have come in contact with the plant during the blooming process have scrubbed their skin raw trying to get the wretched scent off.
Common wisdom dictates that the English gardening obsession stems from a urge to control, quantify, contain and generally make a pretty little picture of all the wildness and chaos of nature. And the English are quick to mock themselves for their cultural tendency toward all things "twee" or picturesque. But there is nothing cute, contained or tasteful about Charlie Dimmock's bosom or the evil-smelling titum arum. Throw out your bras and pull up the roses, my friends, the English garden has gone into show biz.
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