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China Girl blog 8th January 2020

When I looked out this morning, the lovely films of cloudy mist entwined their silky vapours through the garden. This ancient place is submerged in time, for nowhere is more evocative of the past than here at Cothay.

This evening, Mother said there was little to write about which she had not mentioned last year for the month of January, with its ups and downs of icy and wet weather. Mother found notes she had written some years ago about Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbii, which she grows in the shade of the outer court under a yew. Euphorbia, the name given by Dioscorides, is said by Pliny to be named in honour of Euphorbus, physician to King Juba of Mauritania. Mother’s husband’s Great Great Grandmother, Mary-Anne Robb, was born in 1829 and brought up in the beautiful surroundings of her father’s estate at Great Tew, in Oxfordshire. From early childhood, she had a love of plants. Her father was Matthew Boulton, the son of the great 18th century entrepreneur, her husband Captain John Robb RN. Mary-Anne made many horticultural friends, amongst whom were Gertrude Jekyll, Edwin Lutyens, William Robinson and A.E. Bowles. On her husband’s death, she travelled to Asia to collect plants. Whilst travelling in Turkey in the mid 19th century, she collected many new plants, amongst them the euphorbia, Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbii. According to A E Bowles, Eurphorbia robbii was found near Istanbul. Protecting her in Turkey, the government gave her a Turkish Dragoman, dressed in scarlet with a tricorn hat. When on a plant-hunting expedition, in order to impress the local pashas, she took with her a most impressive hat, carried in its own special box. When she saw the eurphorbia growing wild on the side of the track, she told her porter to dismount and collect it. Having used all the plant containers, the only remaining container was the hat box so the plant was put there, in which it came to England, and in due course was shared with Mr Bowles and friends. For safe keeping, she put the plant under her bonnet, which gave rise to the plant’s nickname “Mrs Robb’s bonnet.”

The glory of the winter garden is not just about flowers and colour. It is about the preparation for things to come. Winter is about the delight in seeing a seed-head covered with hoar frost. The shape of the phormiums, the spiky yucca, the colour of hips and hoars. The scent of damp earth lingering in the air, the early morning mist rising across the fields, the cobwebs glistening in the sun and the browns and greens of England, which make up our land.

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