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Saturday, 14 January 2012


John Salter, a cousin of my great great grandfather’s, was a pioneering horticulturalist. As a prolific breeder of new varieties he was intensely interested in, and acutely sensitive to, variations in leaf and bud (see Part 1). Given his wide reputation, it is unsurprising that another enthusiast for the process of variation should have joined in a correspondence with him.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection was published in 1859 and its impact was no less earth-shaking in botanical circles than in any other sphere of biology. He regarded Origin as merely an abstract of his theories, and immediately began work on a new more detailed book, The Variation Of Animals And Plants Under Domestication. During the research for it, he noted, he “applied to two great authorities on this subject [of bud variation], namely, to Mr. Rivers with respect to fruit-trees, and to Mr. Salter with respect to flowers.” 

Charles and John exchanged ideas about the nature and fixity of variations in botany and the best conditions for maintaining them. Many of John’s observations found their way into Charles’ new book when it was published in 1868. Darwin was interested that Salter mimicked nature in using selection (of the most appropriate buds or stock or soils) to refine and fix new varieties. It was a sort of pro-active, interventionist version of the survival of the fittest, an experimental proof of Darwin’s ideas.

The variegated plants discussed by Salter as reported by Darwin included:
  • Euonymus japonica (golden-striped form liable to revert, silver-striped more stable)
  • Pelargonium “Dandy” (dwarfed with variegation, remains dwarfed even after reverting)
  • Phlox (two varieties variegated from suckers, but could not be repeated by root-joints)
  • Tussilago farfara (can be propagated by root-joints)
  • Berberis vulgaris (seedless variegated form propagated by cuttings, but suckers revert and produce seeded berries)
Darwin also described in some detail the relative merits of different methods of propagation of variegated forms, as practised by Salter. It would be interesting to know how they compare with current techniques. (If you want to check, Darwin’s Variation Of Animals And Plants is available at time of writing as a free download for Kindle!)

Title page of the first volume of The Variation Of Animals And Plants Under Domestication, published in 1868

Salter knew what he was doing: those famous winter chrysanthemum displays were often set in a mosaic of variegated species of Sedum, Sempervirum and Echevaria. In the summer months he staged entire speciality displays of variegated plants at RHS shows in Crystal Palace and elsewhere. This report from The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener and Country Gentlemen describes his show at Kew in early May 1863:

In a house devoted to hardy variegated plants, a variety of Sedum telephium or Orpine, called picturatum, had the leaves beautifully mottled with rose; Oxalis corniculata picturata was also very pretty, the leaves being brown mottled with bright pink, instead of being green. Funkia japonica picta from Dr. Siebold had large yellowish-green leaves with dark-green edges; and in Convallaria angustifolia, another Japanese plant, the leaves were prettily edged with white. Another ornamental-foliaged plant was a variety of the common Comfrey, endowed with a name of formidable length — Symphytum officinale variegatum superbum, in which the leaves had a margin of yellowish-white. Artemisia maritima, Mr. Salter states, forms an excellent cut-leaved plant for bedding-out, the foliage turning quite white when out of doors. We also observed a new Centaurea with woolly leaves, which measured 17 inches long by broad, and which, we are told, become much longer and as white as those of C. candidissima.

Does anyone recognise anything there? A fortnight later, the same journal reports from another RHS exhibition, held on 27th May 1863. The correspondent notes that Mr Salter’s variegated collection was “to my mind as interesting as anything there. … [In it] were Funkia undulata variegata; and variegated forms of Acer negundo, Hedera helix, Ruta graveolens, Scrophularia nodosa, Hesperis arabidtefolia, Tussilago farfara, Salix caprea, Spiraea ulmaria, &c.”

The Versailles Nursery, Hammersmith
from Stanford’s Library Map Of London And Its Suburbs (1872)

In the late 1860s the business was trading as John Salter and Son – Alfred had worked alongside his father since the founding of the original nursery at Versailles. He exhibited separately and won honourable mentions in both France and England. But by 1871 both men had retired and the Versailles Nursery was closed down. Perhaps cashing in on the value of land in Hammersmith was too tempting for Alfred to consider continuing the family firm. Although the nursery still appeared on maps for a few years, it and William Street on which it stood were soon buried beneath the newly laid Avonmore Road estate.

John Salter (1802-1874) was a skilled craftsman who made a valuable contribution to horticulture, not only in the breeding of chrysanthemums but in his invaluable exchanges with Charles Darwin. Perhaps best of all and least celebrated, he promoted variegated species at a time when England’s middle classes were going garden-crazy. Variegated enthusiasts today owe him a small debt of gratitude for suggesting, as the reviewer of that late-May RHS show pointed out, “how much may be done in adorning our gardens with this section of ornamental-foliaged plants.”

I am indebted to the editor of The Sport, Ian Warden, for bringing the variegated aspects of my plantsman ancestor John Salter to my attention. I’ve posted here, with his permission, the article which he commissioned.

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