I love the drama of big spiky plants. As the summer moves to its later stages, the many garden plants that have a thistly habit reach their peak, and their jagged outlines and often grey-silvery colouring are a good antidote to the mounds and cushions of more vibrantly coloured perennials. The most elaborately formed flowers belong to Eryngium giganteum, commonly known as Miss Willmott’s Ghost.
Green in bud, the whole plant reaches its peak in a blaze of silver, the extravagantly jagged ruff to each flower veined with pale buff as it dries. The flowers are loved by insects, including wasps, and once they are over the plant decays beautifully, holding its structure throughout the winter, the deeply cut and thorny flower heads never better than when frosted on a sunny morning.
The story goes that the Edwardian plantswoman and gardener Ellen Willmott surreptitiously introduced this, her favourite plant, to other gardens by sprinkling the seed as she visited. Who knows how many gardens became haunted with Miss Willmott's Ghost!
The name could equally apply to the plant's luminous appearance, with its ruff of large, prickly, steely-grey bracts that shine a ghostly silver in the sun. The marbled, heart-shaped foliage is attractive and can be shown off to best effect planted in gravel.
The plant will reward you with a glamorous late-summer display to set against daylilies and grasses, with which they associate particularly well. Eryngiums are also perfect for use in dried flower arrangements.
Eryngium giganteum "Miss Willmott's Ghost" was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in 1993.
Sowing: Sow February to July
The seeds may need a period of cold to enable them to germinate. Sow in trays, pots, etc of good seed compost in a propagator or warm place to maintain an optimum temperature of 18 to 20°C (65 to 70°F).
Surface sow and just cover with vermiculite. Do not exclude light. Germination can be slow.
After sowing, seal container in a polythene bag and leave at 15 to 18°C (60 to 65°F) for two weeks, then place in a refrigerator (not freezer) for 3 to 6 weeks. After this return to the recommended germination temperature. If germination does not occur in 6 to 10 weeks return to the fridge for a further 3 to 6 weeks.
Examine regularly whilst in the fridge and remove immediately the seeds show signs of germinating.
Although you can cut back flower stems after flowering the seedheads are a very attractive feature so are usually left over winter. Division in early spring or autumn. Take care since the plant resents root disturbance.
Costal or Gravel Gardens. Cottage/Informal Gardens, Flower Arranging, Borders and Beds, Wildlife Gardens Attractive to Bees and Butterflies. Beloved of flower arrangers for their striking foliage and flower heads.
Simply cut with a knife or secateurs. The difficulty is deciding when the stem is ready for cutting. In general, the flowers on the stem should be turning an appropriate colour. The best time to cut them is perhaps when they change from green to blue. The process can take up to 10 days from the time it is first noticed.
The photographs show Zara Phillips’ wedding in July 2011. The church was decorated with huge floral decorations and added to the Eryngium were beautiful roses and heaps of white hydrangeas. Zara's bouquet contained white calla lilies (Zantedeschias), the lacy, felted leaves of silver cinerarias (Senecio cineraria) and the steely blue sea hollies, Eryngium ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’.
Eryngium is a genus in the family Apiaceae of about 230 species of annuals and perennials with hairless and usually spiny leaves, and dome-shaped umbels of flowers resembling those of thistles.
The genus has a cosmopolitan distribution, with the centre of diversity in South America. Some species are native to rocky and coastal areas, but the majority are grassland plants.
The genus name Eryngium is derived from the Greek hruggion, given by Theophrastus it means 'a spiny leaved plant’.
The species name 'giganteum' is from the Latin meaning ‘like that of the Giants’, referring to the large flower heads.
This variety, Miss Willmott's Ghost is named for the Edwardian plantswoman and gardener Miss Ellen Willmott.
Common names of the genus include Sea-holly and Eryngo, the former typically being applied to coastal species, and the latter to grassland species. Despite its name and appearance, this is unrelated to the more familiar holly and is in fact an umbellifer: one of that large and confusing family which includes the parsleys, carrots and parsnips.
Miss Ellen Willmott:
Willmott, Ellen Ann (1858-1934), horticulturist, was born on 19 August 1858 at Spring Grove, Heston, Middlesex, the eldest of the three children of Frederick Willmott (1825-1892), solicitor, and his wife, Ellen (d. 1898), a member of the prominent Roman Catholic family of Tasker. Ellen, Rose, and Ada were baptized into this faith and educated at a nearby convent school, Gumley House, Isleworth.
In 1872 Ada died from diptheria in London. Frederick wanted to live somewhere healthier and bought Warley Place, near Brentwood in Essex in 1875 and the family moved to Warley Place, probably in 1876.
Warley Place had originally been built in 1702 but Frederick demolished large sections and created a larger home which eventually had 16 bedrooms, a chapel, a music room and a library. One of the few remaining sections is the conservatory. Ellen and Rose here developed gardening skills allegedly inherited from three generations of gardeners on their mother's side.
After the marriage of Rose to Robert Berkeley in 1891 and the deaths of her parents, Ellen Willmott lived alone at Warley, a very rich woman, having inherited wealth both from her parents and from her godmother, Countess Tasker. She never married, and without financial acumen, she spent prodigally: having already bought the château at Tresserve, near Aix-les-Bains in France, in 1890, she acquired Boccanegra near Ventimiglia in 1905. In these gardens she indulged her chief horticultural interests, which lay in acclimatising, propagating, and cultivating plants under differing conditions. She was deeply interested in plant hunting, helping to finance expeditions to China and to the Middle East (notably Ernest Wilson).
In 1894 Ellen Willmott joined the Royal Horticultural Society, and was elected to the narcissus committee (1897), the floral committee (1930), and the lily committee (1933). Over time she received numerous awards for exhibits at the society's shows. She was among the first sixty recipients (only two of them women, the other being Gertrude Jekyll) of the Victoria medal of honour in 1897; one of the first three trustees of the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley (1903); and one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society (1905). The Société d'acclimatation de France awarded her the grande médaille Geoffroi St Hilaire in 1912, while in 1924 she received the Dean Hole medal from the National Rose Society.
Ellen Willmott wrote one landmark book, The Genus Rosa (1912), illustrated with paintings by Alfred Parsons, it is still considered the definitive work on species roses. She published a book of photographs, Warley Garden in Spring and Summer (1909) which includes thirty photogravure plates that reveal the excellence of Ellen's gardens in their heyday before the first world war.
She sometimes advised on garden design and planting, notably on Anne Hathaway's cottage garden at Stratford upon Avon in the early 1920s. Her other interests included music and painting, as well as photography, where her work was of professional standard. She owned a lathe and was skilled in turnery, using wood and ivory.
Ellen Willmott knew everyone of importance in the gardening world. She had friends in high places, including royalty, but had no patience with pretentiousness. She was slight in build, with curly reddish hair and snapping brown eyes. She was a highly intelligent woman: handsome, headstrong, witty, imperious, she did just as she pleased. Famous for her prickly temperament Miss Willmott had a peculiar habit: she carried seeds of the silvery-blue Eryngium giganteum and scattered them in other people's gardens. (The spiny plant was said to match her personality.)
With old age she became eccentric, sometimes almost paranoid, and died on 27 September 1934 of atheroma and embolus of the coronary artery aged seventy-six, in relatively straitened circumstances and alone, but for her faithful butler, Robinson, in her grand Essex home; her French and Italian properties had been sold. She was buried on 1st October in her father's grave in the burial-ground of Brentwood Cathedral.
At one time Miss Willmott had more than 100 gardeners on her pay-roll, who shipped seeds all around the world for other gardeners. Many a garden to this day owes a debt to the hundreds of strains developed at Warley.
Plant-hunters who, as well as bringing her plants, repaid her in the usual way, by naming some of the species they discovered after her. Her legacy is the plants that she introduced. She had over 60 plants named after her or her home Warley Place.
The specific epithets of warleyensis and willmottianum are named for her. Plants associated with these names include: Iris warleyensis, Campanula 'Warleyensis', Epimedium warleyensis 'Ellen Willmott', Rosa warleyensis, Lysionotus warleyensis, Corylopsis warleyensis, Ceratostigma willmotti, and Potentilla nepalensis ‘Miss Willmott’
Warley Place Today:
Clinging to the side of Brentwood Hill and part of the old Pilgrims’ Way, Warley Place was, fleetingly, one of the most extraordinary landscapes in the country, visited by both royalty and the garden luminaries of a crumbling British Empire. Now, like the empire, Warley is no more. The grand house is rubble; the gardens have returned to nature where spectacular exotic specimens run amok in a jumble of British wildflowers. Front and centre is 'Miss Willmott’s Ghost’, happily self-seeding for the past 100 years.
For a woman alleged to dismiss a gardener on the spot for allowing a single weed to appear, the lady herself would be shocked. For the small, steady trickle of visitors, however, the annual drifts of flowers in the woodland that has reclaimed the place have become a reason for pilgrimage. It is fitting for a site that was on the route for travellers going to Canterbury in the Middle Ages.
There are white masses of snowdrops in February, acres of daffodils in March, oceans of bluebells in April, the gaudy splash of rhododendrons in May. And finally in June, most delicate of all, a dapple of foxgloves peeping from lush native ferns heralds the beginning of summer.
Inheriting a fortune from her godmother in 1888 and her parents’ estate ten years later, Ellen Willmott let her wealth slip through her hands like sand. She created glamorous gardens at her properties in France and Italy, but the showpiece she’d been building at Warley went into overdrive as she bought up surrounding land and crammed 90 acres with the best her plant hunters could provide.
Spending freely and thinking nothing of creating a gigantic boating lake on a hill, a hamlet of heated glasshouses or an artificial gorge to display her prized collection of alpines, Willmott soon became a force to be reckoned with in Edwardian horticultural circles. She was noted for replicating plants’ natural habitats as a way to encourage them to grow “naturally”, a radical concept for the day.
By the outbreak of war in 1914, Willmott was broke. She eked out the rest of her life by mortgaging her properties, selling a few seeds, most of her jewelery and her Stradivarius violin. But she never relinquished any land or, indeed, any of her eccentricity. She took to carrying a revolver in her handbag and booby-trapping daffodils to deter bulb thieves. On Willmott’s death in 1934, Warley was sold, and a developer started on plans for a housing estate. The Second World War put a stop to that, and the mansion was demolished in 1939, supposedly to prevent military occupation.
Essex Wildlife Trust has leased the resulting wilderness, frequented by all manner of birds, animals and an army of volunteers, who juggle the often-conflicting agendas of preserving the site’s wildlife and its history. “It is a nature reserve,” says John Cannell, a retired engineer and chairman of the Warley Place Management Committee, “but we have to maintain it so people can imagine how it was in Ellen Willmott’s day.”
Aiming to reveal the shape of the estate without losing its 'secret garden' appeal, the trust has been clearing the foundations of both house and gardens. The delicate moss shroud that cloaks the elderly brickwork has been retained; the remains of nursery beds and forcing frames are revealed while allowing a periwinkle to caress the house’s remaining features. Ferns jostle rusted iron filigree; marsh marigolds tumble over rubble cleared from the glazed wall tiles in the basement kitchens. The conservatory where Willmott spent her final days, now roofless and crumbling, has been stabilised but not renovated, the warren of display glasshouses cleared to their broken mosaic floors, but with no attempt to replant. The old turning circle has been cleared enough to reveal its shape, yet remains a haven for foxgloves. The boating lake has been cleared, though even in the past winter’s wet weather it remains dry as dust. In a recent discovery, the stone steps where water once lapped have turned out to be old milestones, most of which, bizarrely, give directions to Chester.
The effect is an Enid Blyton-esque domain of ruined buildings and architectural mysteries to explore, not to mention a few horticultural puzzles. The crumbling wall of an old greenhouse, still boasting its ornamental pond, supports an overgrown Sabia latiflora: a plant so rare it was rumoured that Willmott was the only person in England who could grow it. When Cannell wrote to the RHS for pruning advice, they had so little experience of it they were able only to make suggestions.
The discoveries keep coming. Cannell was wading through the remnants of the old horse pond and tripped over a wrought-iron gate. Like a rusting Cinderella slipper it was a perfect fit for the rotting remains of some nearby posts. Underground rooms turn up from time to time, many of which have no obvious purpose. The latest has an unusual domed roof but remains, for the moment, unexplored, as is the old passageway leading to the kitchens. Mosaic that once covered the house’s corridors is generally left to the whim of the elements but recently volunteers found a spectacular tiled floor. “The colours are superb,” says Cannell. It’s been recorded and re-covered for protection.
A pub-quiz-worthy fact: Ellen Willmott was crazy about Napoleon Bonaparte. While she was in Switzerland she bought a chalet he had once stayed in, complete with mountain furniture and herdsmen’s gear, had it shipped back to Essex and erected it by the boating lake. No traces yet, but Cannell is optimistic something Napoleonic could still fetch up in a corner of Brentwood.
Another hotspot is Willmott’s pride and joy – the miniature gorge created for her alpine collection. Massive boulders were brought down from the north of England, hauled up the hill and turned into a deep ravine with a stream, bridge and even a cave. It is, nowadays, surrounded by the soft pink of native foxgloves. In its heyday Warley Place numbered Digitalis ambigua, D. ferruginea and D. x sibirica among its cultivated specimens. There is no trace of them now.
Willmott might have hated it, but the simple beauty of Digitalis purpurea, the common foxglove, nestling against ruins and overgrown exotica in the dappled sun of an early summer morning, is an intoxicating experience.
Visiting Warley Place:
Warley Place is now maintained as a nature reserve by Essex Wildlife Trust. Every Monday morning a group of volunteers turn up, rain or shine, to carry out the work necessary to prevent the estate returning to the wilderness it became after Ellen Willmott’s death.
The paths have to be kept clear; nettles, bracken, Japanese knot-weed, Himalayan balsam and giant hogweed have to be kept in check; sycamores have to be pulled up or cut down and sawn into logs; leaf-mould is prepared and bagged for sale, and the repair of brickwork is an ongoing project. Once a month a specialist research group visits the reserve finding, identifying and caring for some of the more unusual species.
If you would like to help just turn up at the reserve at 09:00 on any Monday with a pair of stout boots and some gardening gloves and healthy exercise is almost guaranteed.
Except during special open days visiting the reserve is limited to Wildlife Trust members. However day tickets are available from the E.W.T HQ call 0044 (0)1621 862960. The Reserve is open during daylight hours seven days a week, weather permitting. It is a nature reserve not a public garden so some of the facilities you might otherwise expect, such as a gift shop, toilets or tea room, are not available. Dogs, other than guide dogs, are not allowed. There is no charge for entry, but please remember that even with volunteers giving their time free the maintenance of such a site is still a costly business and your contributions will be welcome and useful.
There is limited parking space on the reserve so ask large groups of people attending to share cars where possible and to contact Fiona Agassiz 0044 (0)1277 230436, John Cannell 0044 (0)1277 217236 or Mick Hedges 0044 (0)1277 231367 to ensure the visit does not clash with another large party.
If you would like someone to give an illustrated talk on Warley Place/Ellen Willmott please contact Olive Baldwin on 0044 (0)1277 373240.
- Additional Information
Average Seed Count 25 Seeds Family Apiaceae Genus Eryngium Species giganteum Cultivar Miss Willmott's Ghost Common Name Aka 'Silver Ghost' Other Common Names Miss Willmott is occasionally incorrect spelt with one 'L' - Miss Wilmott Other Language Names FR: Panicaut gigantesque Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers Silver-Green Natural Flower Time July to September Foliage Glaucous in summer Height 90 to 100cm (36 to 40in). Spread 45cm (18in) Position Full Sun Aspect All aspects, exposed or sheltered Soil Well-drained/light, Moist, Sandy