Special feature - Burnby Hall’s hardy water lilies

Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac's obsession with creating colourful hardy water lilies led to a whole new world of aquatic plants.
Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac's obsession with creating colourful hardy water lilies led to a whole new world of aquatic plants.

In October 2016, an intrepid team of Garden Heritage Volunteers started working on various research projects connected with our three year Heritage Lottery Project at Burnby Hall Gardens.

Heidi Woodhouse has been busy researching the history of the growers behind the variety of water lilies in the garden.

Heidi Woodhouse has been busy researching the hardy water lilies.

Heidi Woodhouse has been busy researching the hardy water lilies.

In particular Heidi has researching the forefather of hardy water lily horticulture, Latour-Marliac to help put the collection of hardy water lilies at Burnby Hall Garden into their historical context and to tell the story of how hardy water lily cultivation began.

After another successful water lily season at the popular attraction Heidi shares her experiences and research with you below:

I moved to Pocklington in my teens after my father had been relocated to Hull from Norwich, and have now spent 35 happy years in the town.

I am married with two children who have both graduated from university.

During my life in the town Burnby Hall Gardens has always been in the background, the most memorable times being when my children were of primary school age and I used to while away the summer days with my friends and our children could run around having adventures around the garden.

After my youngest left for university I found myself without a ‘job’ and struggled to fill the gap. I saw the opportunity to volunteer at Burnby Hall Gardens as part of the project and immediately applied. My first task on the research team was to investigate hardy water lilies.

At first I was a bit at a loss, after all, weren’t they just flowers that grew in water? As I delved into the subject though, I soon discovered that there was more to it than that, for starters, the water lilies as we see them on the lake only came into existence during the second half of the 19th Century!

The name that became the key to my research was Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, who is considered by many to be the most successful developer. It was through his obsession with creating colourful hardy water lilies that a whole new world of aquatic plants was born.

Latour-Marliac was born in 1830 at the family home in Granges-sur-Lot, France, where it was intended he would study law in Paris.

But he was forced to return home during the 1848 June Days Uprising, a brutal battle during the French Revolution.

There he married Alida Gonnère in 1852, and had two children: Édgard and Angéle.

The Latour-Marliac family already had a great heritage in horticulture.

His father Guillaume is known to have published pamphlets on French flora between 1830 and 1850, and his great-uncle Jean-Baptiste Bory de St Vincent had made his name working as a naturalist on expeditions in the South Seas as well as publishing and editing books and papers on natural history and geography. The book Classical Dictionary of Natural History edited by Jean-Baptiste was taken by Charles Darwin on his travels aboard the HMS Beagle.

Latour-Marliac began his career cultivating bamboo, but in the mid-1850s his curiosity was stirred after reading two articles: ‘Nymphaea Devoniensis’ by Charles Lemaire and ‘Ortgiesiano-rubra’ by Jules Emile Planchon.

The latter detailed an experiment in cross-pollinating white hardy and red non-hardy natural water lilies to produce a colourful hard water specimen. He referred to both in his articles read to the Royal Horticultural Society and printed in the publication ‘The Garden’.

Many believe a myth that emerged: Latour-Marliac only developed sterile plants to prevent others copying his success.

This is shown to be untrue through the 17,500 pages of correspondence with customers, naturalists, friends.

He simply found plants that seed became unstable and ultimately failed in producing flowers, and so developed his lilies to be propagated through division of the rhizomes.

Latour-Marliac’s name was established after he exhibited his lilies at the 1889 Paris

Exposition Universelle, where his display was situated across from the Eiffel Tower in the Jardins du Tracardérs. It was during the build up to the fair he discovered how robust his young plants were.

He posted 15 of his lilies, wrapped in moss for protection, to Paris in March.

The package never arrived and a second parcel had to be dispatched.

Eventually the original package materialised after April and was returned to Latour-Marliac, still intact and surprisingly healthy.

This unexpected development opened up a worldwide market as journey time had been extended.

It was during the Exposition that Latour-Marliac first met the impressionist painter Claude Monet, who regularly ordered aquatic plants for his garden at Giverny from him between 1894 and 1908.

Perhaps it was these paintings that inspired Katharine Stewart to start growing Hardy Water Lilies at Burnby Hall in 1935, a view which she enjoyed to paint from the conservatories.

After the death of Latour-Marliac in 1922 the nursery stayed in family hands until hi grandson Jean Laydeker relocated to Bordeaux in the 1950s and employed the Maurel family to run the nursery.

When I visit the gardens now I am immediately drawn to the lake to see which new jewels of colour have revealed themselves, I look at them with a new eye and appreciation.

After all if it wasn’t for Latour-Marliac providing Calude Monet with a variety of his aquatic plants then Monet’s famous water lilies scene may never have been created.

A painting which celebrates the beauty and delicacy of the water lily and inspired so many to start their own collections, perhaps even Katharine and Percy Stewart. I want everyone to know of the treasure that we have in our town of Pocklington, one that has put the

Gardens firmly on the horticultural map with over 100 varieties of hardy water lilies in this National Collection, and I can’t wait to see them all again in the Summer 2018.