Who is Muscari Valerie Finnis named after? Not many will ever get a plant named after themselves. A few of us once gave a friend as part of her going away present the opportunity to name a new rose by a well known UK rose grower. While an acquaintance who’s an orchid specialist recently registered one of his new orchids with my name via the RHS. Most of the plants in our gardens are named after someone and when I added a new bulb called Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ to the garden I just wanted to find out about Valerie. Who was she and what did she do? Did she just find this plant growing in her garden or was there more of a story to tell? …Well she was quite a talented lady as you’ll soon discover!
First of all let me describe this little bulb for you. It’s an aquamarine sky blue grape hyacinth that is mildly scented and if forced indoors can be in flower during January and February. I’ll have to patiently wait until early spring before the rest of these bulbs are in flower in the garden. It has densely packed raceme’s with sterile top flowers on each spike and the more tubular fertile flowers lower down the stem. It’s well behaved and not as quick to naturalize unlike its cousin the darker blue common grape hyacinth.
I picked these few blooms to photograph so that the leaves wouldn’t get in the way of the flowers. My bulbs are young and these photographs are from forced indoor bulbs. As the bulbs age outdoors while planted in the garden each flower spike over subsequent years will become even fuller.
But who was the lady behind the name?
This beautiful and easy to grow bulb which is also deer and rabbit resistant was named after Valerie Finnis. She was not only a great plantswoman but one of the first recognised female photographers of flowers and gardens in the 20th century.
Valerie was born in 1924 and she had a fascination of plants from a very young age. Her mother (whom the Icelandic poppy – Papaver nudicaule ‘Constance Finnis’ group is named after along with Dianthus ‘Constance Finnis’) gave her a little plot of ground to garden in when she was only five years old.
|Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’|
Valerie the gardener
After the war Valerie went to a horticultural school for women and eventually became a horticultural lecturer, judge and expert in Alpine plants. She built up an extensive range of alpine plants propagating a staggering 50,000 on average each year. She was a highly skilled propagator as she excelled in propagating the most difficult of alpine plants. Her first exhibit at the Chelsea Flower show was in 1947 and she went on to exhibit there for many subsequent years and win various medals. Moreover she was awarded the very prestigious Victoria Medal of Honour by the RHS for her service to horticulture in 1975
|Fertile lower tubular flowers under the macro lens and 3 barrels of extension tubes|
Valerie the photographer
Valerie didn’t have any professional photography qualifications – a friend said that “she learned it all from a taxi man called Walde”. Her real inspiration was Wilhelm Schacht who not only was a renowned German gardener but also in her eyes the best garden and plant photographer of that era. She started taking plant photographs with a Rolleiflex camera in 1955. Consequently editors noticed her talent. As a result she started to receive commissions from authors and her work ended up in many publications.
|lower fertile flowers|
I never take more than one exposure as it’s too expensive ~ Valerie
She used that same camera for 40 years. I wonder what she would have made of digital cameras in her later years?
|sterile unopened flowers on the top of the densely packed spiked raceme
as cut flowers they will last 4 – 6 days as long as they are neither too hot nor too cold
Before Valerie’s death in October 2006 she set up the Merlin Trust in memory of her late husband and his only son Merlin who had been killed during World War 2. Valerie never had any children of her own. Young horticulturists from UK and Ireland can apply if they need funding for visits to UK gardens or anywhere in the world to study plants in their natural habitats.
|tubular flowers with white frills|
Cultivation of Muscari | Grape Hyacinths:
- Buy the bulbs in the autumn for planting.
- Or purchase the plants in flower late winter/early spring.
- Plant bulbs 8cm deep and 8 cm apart.
- If you’re buying a pot full of bulbs about to start flowering don’t separate each bulb – just treat the pot as if it was an individual plant and plant in the ground or in a container.
- Full sun or partial shade.
- Will grow in most soils but doesn’t like waterlogged conditions.
- Fully hardy.
- Slow to naturalize.
- Self seeds.
- Let the leaves die back naturally after flowering.
- Rabbit and deer resistant.
I’m sure that Valerie would have enjoyed photographing these grape hyacinth flowers as much as I have. It’s not only a muscari that carries her name there’s also Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’, Artemisia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’, Viola ‘Boughton Blue’, Hebe cupressoides ‘Boughton Dome’ and Helleborus x sternii ‘Boughton Beauty’ all named after their beautiful garden.If you’ve got a Clematis tangutica ‘Bill MacKenzie’ in your garden then that’s thanks to Valerie Finnis too as she crossed a Clematis orientalis with Clematistangutica and named it after her dear friend.