The Purple Virgin’s Bower, Clematis viticella




Before launching myself completely into the debut of Longbourn to London, I cannot leave The Red Chrysanthemum behind without including one more flower used by both Darcy and Elizabeth in their nosegays to each other. Identified as merely “clematis” in the story, the specific plant they would have found festooning the fences of Pemberley would almost certainly have been Clematis viticella (pronounced “vie-te-sel-la”; Latin, not Italian), the purple virgin’s bower.

This species, native around the Mediterranean Ocean and well into upper elevation habitats in the Middle East, was brought into common cultivation in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, so naturally its common name pays homage to her. Given my love of Elizabethan history and my affection for this genus, I wanted to include it in the tale. When my research revealed its meaning is mental beauty, cleverness, or wit (depending on your source), it was all a perfect fit for Elizabeth and Darcy.

The only clematis native to England is Clematis vitalba, called variously traveller’s joy, old man’s beard (for the shaggy silvery seed heads), and the virgin’s bower (again for QEI). It has its own meaning, filial love. This is hardly appropriate for Darcy and Elizabeth. The other clematis commonly listed in herbals is the evergreen clematis, which in the early 1800s would not have been some relation of Clematis armandii, but rather the winter-blooming Clematis cirrhosa, from northern Africa and the Middle East, which is, in fact, evergreen when grown in mild or sheltered situations in the British isles. It means poverty! Hardly an appropriate flower to give a man with 10,000 a year (and very likely more!).

The Regency era saw many wonderful plants arriving from plant explorers active all over the world, plants seen first in the gardens of the wealthy and interested. Surely during the time of Darcy’s mother Lady Anne Darcy, interesting plants would have been cosseted by her as a lady of fashion who was devoted to her husband and estate. The large-flowered hybrids we grow today were nearly fifty years off in their first development. At Pemberley, Clematis vitalba would have been left to the wild places, and Clematis cirrhosa would have been too tender for anything but conservatory cultivation. That leaves the hardy and lovely nodding pagoda roofs of the purple virgin’s bower to blossom through the summer, adding a touch of impertinence and activity to the formal gardens. If ever a plant embodied Miss Elizabeth Bennet, it is this particular clematis.

The flowers branch in trios from the main canes on 8-10 inch flower stems, a perfect length for inclusion in a nosegay. The illustration here, from ~1800, shows the flowers to be a more violet hue than the typical purple, but the profile image is spot on. Clematis viticella has continued to be popular in gardens, and it is still widely used in breeding durable, floriferous, and relatively easy-care hybrids. Just as Elizabeth and Darcy remain vibrant in our modern age, so too does Clematis viticella, the flower of wit. Let’s believe Jane Austen would be well pleased.

Excerpt: The Red Chrysanthemum

Now that the TRC Blog Tour is over (with a HUGE thank you to Jakki Leatherberry at for being our tour guide), I am left with an excerpt that didn’t get used. Rather than have it languish, feeling sad to be left behind in a file of “excerpts for the tour” I will insert it here.

The Set-up: In this scene, Elizabeth Bennet has already found the nosegay meant for her from Fitzwilliam Darcy. She has come to Pemberley in secret, and at Darcy’s behest, to create a scent for him to give his sister on the occasion of her seventeenth birthday. This is the reason for such secrecy as Elizabeth moves through the Pemberley cutting garden.


Betony, Stachys officinalis

Chapter 5, A Flower Unseen                           25, July 1812

Elizabeth marshalled her wits and began looking through the shelves and cupboards of the Pemberley stillroom. She found some attar of damask rose in a brown bottle that had not lost its perfume. Generally, the room was clean but the cupboards were a fright with drawers housing broken shears as well as those still useful. Open shelves were full of dust and grimy bottles with contents no longer fresh, most with faded labels. One cupboard was devoted to vases of all shapes and sizes and half a dozen were sparkling clean as though recently used. She developed an idea for a scent and started making a list of the items she would need just as the housekeeper returned to the stillroom.

“May I be of service, Miss Bennet?” she asked.

“Mrs Reynolds! Yes, I was just putting a short list together. I need an apron and some boiled water, and if I could impose upon you, is there Arabian jasmine in the conservatory?”

“Yes, ma’am, shall I pick some?”

“Yes, please. Just blossoms that are open, as one would use in tea.” Mrs Reynolds nodded as Elisabeth continued, “And an empty bucket?”

Mrs Reynolds wanted to ask Elizabeth just how much scent she intended to make but knew such a question was impertinent. “And that is everything?”

“Yes, thank you. I am going to don my cloak of secrecy and venture out for some flowers whilst you are picking jasmine. Where is the cutting garden?”

“Are you sure you should, miss?” Mrs Reynolds was worried.

“I know what I want, and if the flowers I require are not there, I shall return directly.” Elizabeth took up the herbal and found a pocket in the cloak for it.

Mrs Reynolds gave her directions to the garden. It was located off the southwest corner of the house in a walled area and she consoled herself that Miss Bennet would be on the opposite end of the house from any view to be had by the occupant of the music room.

Elizabeth walked down a long dark hall, past little pantries of jarred fruit and curing meats. She squinted at the bright sun upon exiting the house and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust. To her right was a path lined with espaliered fruit trees; she had been told the cutting garden was at the end of it. She entered a walled garden and found Sweet William and scarlet lychnis growing there. She consulted the herbal. How much do I wish to say? I would not have him think me forward, but Charlotte always said a lady should leave a gentleman in no doubt.

Elizabeth found the first blossom on a clump of red chrysanthemums and snipped it. Dare I say so much? She walked back toward the house, feeling her nosegay would not be as eloquent as Darcy’s had been. She saw a perfect peach hanging low over the stone path and stooped to pick it. It occurred to her that fruit might have meaning and she consulted the herbal. ‘Your qualities, like your charms, are unequalled,’ it read. Hmm, she thought, I could leave the peach sitting with the vase and herbal. He would understand they are meant to be together.

As she walked back to the house, she noticed a swath of viscaria had seeded itself at the edge of the paving stones. She stopped, turning pages. It means ‘Will you dance with me?’ How marvellous! This is exactly what we should do! We should start over. Elizabeth picked enough for a whole vase full.

Another path lined with garden plants beckoned to her left. She could not resist a little exploration. She found betony, the flower of surprise, and decided it would do quite well. Mr Darcy was now surprising her daily. Bearing an armful of flowers, she snuck back into the house.


A Flower That Inspires

Scabiosa caucasica Sweet Scabious

Scabiosa caucasica
Sweet Scabious

A lifetime ago, when I made my living as a floral designer, I was asked what my favorite cut flower was, and often my answer was this, Scabiosa caucasica, the sweet scabious, or pincushion flower. Unfortunate name, isn’t it? The plant’s ancient medicinal use was the treatment of skin irritations, making that ugly generic name more understandable, if not more aesthetically appealing. Its native range is the Caucasus Mountains, vaguely northeastern Turkey and points east. It was painted on the walls of Pompeii, and grown in mission gardens in California even before Jane Austen was born. Clearly a well-traveled plant. And, it is beautiful.

The sweet scabious is an herbaceous perennial, meaning it goes dormant (appears to die) in the winter, and restores itself every spring to flower in the sun throughout the growing season if you do not allow it to set seed. It attracts pollinators like bees and butterflies to your garden. Its vase life is about 10 days if you harvest it at the state you see it in here, with the central composite florets still tucked closed, giving the center its distinctive quilted look. The color ranges from pale to near cobalt blue, and here you see a plant from the Isaac House Hybrid strain. The best blue, however, comes from the cultivar ‘Fama’, or ‘Fama Blue’, a luscious shade of periwinkle. There is also a very good white form, ‘Alba’.

Okay, it’s pretty and lasts well in arrangements. But cut to the introductory scene of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, as Elizabeth Bennet winds her way home from a walk along the Hertfordshire hedgerows, and you’ll understand my fascination. She is carrying Scabiosa. They had me right then and there, even if the acting hadn’t been brilliant and the screenplay genius. Although I don’t mention Scabiosa caucasica in The Red Chrysanthemum, it was there in spirit.

The “business” of the eldest Bennet sisters in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice is often flower-related. Lizzy and Jane are seen gathering flowers and tending their mother’s garden, Lizzy and Jane bundle flowers and herbs for decoration and fragrance for the house, Lizzy carries a pitcher of flowers into the dining room as Mr. Collins hovers about her like a fat greasy bumblebee, and, most iconic for me, Lizzy carries sweet scabious into the house in the very first scene. It wasn’t much of a stretch for me to imagine Lizzy happily occupied as a gently bred-young lady would be, in the family stillroom working with flowers and foliage to create teas, scented water, drying herbs for the kitchen, following recipes for strewing herbs and sachets to sweeten the house; all of this coalesced to bring her, in The Red Chrysanthemum, into the Pemberley stillroom.

The meaning of sweet scabious is Admiration. Well, really…what’s not to admire?



Rosa ‘Slater’s Crimson China’


The rose ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ is the model for Darcy’s open rose in his nosegay for Elizabeth. It is our “cover girl” rose, if you will, the inspiration for Janet Taylor’s lovely back cover of The Red Chrysanthemum. This is a rose with a great story, and it is still in cultivation over 200 years after its debut. It is certainly a rose Lady Anne Darcy would have had in her garden at Pemberley.

Remember, the earliest European rose species were not truly red. Deep burgundy, brilliant pink, even cerise, yes, but true red, no. The species that gave us genes for the vibrant red roses we grow today came from Chinese species and hybrids (the Chinese were hybridizing roses centuries before the Europeans made any planned crosses). What made the Chinese bloodlines even more remarkable was that they also had the capacity to rebloom throughout the growing season, a characteristic called remontancy, missing from European or even Near East species.

The earliest of these Chinese hybrids, arriving in Europe in 1781, was a repeating pink shrub now known as ‘Parson’s Pink China’. It was followed in 1792 by a red form, which came into England via the British East India Company, and was known as Rosa sempervirens (literally, always flowering), the Bengal Rose, and finally as ‘Slater’s Crimson China’, because a Mr. Slater was the first to sell it. A yellow and another pink rose followed just a few years later, and these four roses became collectively known as “the four China studs”. Well, you put the word “stud” with a rose name, and honestly, only one Austen romantic hero springs to mind.

When it comes to the China studs, ‘Slater’s Crimson’ may be the studliest of them all. It was most likely this rose that was the sperm donor for a group known as the Portland roses (still great roses to grow if you can find them), providing the repeat-blooming genetics that made the Portland line so popular. And, obviously, it was truly red. The Portlands in turn were bred with other roses of Oriental origin to produce the Hybrid Perpetuals, these were bred with the Tea group, and shazaam! we have our modern Hybrid Teas. Lift the sheets, so to speak, of any modern red rose, and you are likely to find ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ blinking at you, and telling you to turn out the lights so it can get back to business!

From Peter Beales’ book Roses (Henry Holt Company, 1992), here are the specifics of ‘Slater’s Crimson China’: a 3 x 3 foot shrub, well branched with dark green foliage; sparse, broad, flattish thorns; flowers semi-double [meaning more than 5 petals but less than 40-lb], crimson to red in color with random occasional streaks of white. Needs full sun, best against a warm wall. Continuous blooming, and a good choice for growing in pots.

Just about every characteristic of ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ made it the perfect rose for Darcy to select to say, “I still love you”. This is the traditional meaning of an open rose, implying a lasting mature love, where an opening bud might imply affection in its infancy. Red has always invoked love. Since the action of this story mainly takes place in late July, I had to find a rose easily available in 1812, and capable of blooming all summer. Most of the old garden roses of European origin would have been long finished by the first of July, let alone the 25th! That ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ also happens to be an acknowledged stud, well, it’s just a very happy accident.