Bluebells and Bunnies
Beatrix Potter once described England’s native bluebells as being “like a bit of sky come down.” She also references these sweet-smelling wildflowers — which bloomed in the woods near her country home in Near Sawrey — in several of her beloved children’s books, including “The Tale of Mr. Tod” and “Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes.”
Of course, we know Potter best as author and illustrator of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” the story of a mischievous bunny who steals radishes from Mr. McGregor. Generations of children and adults have come to love both the bunny and the book (which, with over 45 million copies sold, is one of the best-selling books of all time). Be it in the form of bunnies or bluebells, nature was Potter’s primary muse.
“The English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is a national treasure,” writes author Marta McDowell in her book “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life,” adding, “Potter would have appreciated the efforts that wildflower enthusiasts around the British Isles are undertaking to preserve them.” Two more of the many native British wildflowers to appear in Potter’s work are cowslip (Primula veris), a spring wildflower with yellow blooms that appears in “The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse,” and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), with its cream-colored flowers and spirally twisted fruits playing a part in “Wag-by-Wall.”
Potter was born in 1866 in London, where she spent her earliest years. But it was her well-to-do family’s holidays in the English and Scottish countryside — and later her own experiences “outside the city’s dust and grit,” according to Emily Zach, author of “The Art of Beatrix Potter” — that made her bloom as a botanist, gardener and mycologist (one who studies fungi). “Beatrix tied together nature and storytelling. It was good her family could spend about nine months out of the year on vacation. You could do that in the Victorian era,” says Zach.
To discover Potter’s detailed appreciation of plants, one need simply look at her perfectly painted brick red tulips or the voluptuous cauliflower proudly carried to market by Little Pig Robinson. Or to pore over letters Potter wrote to family, friends and professional acquaintances about the fungi she adored. Or to know she grew snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), saxifrage (Saxifraga spp.) and columbine (Aquilegia spp.) in her own wonderful gardens.
“Beatrix loved wildflowers,” says McDowell, noting that Potter grew a collection in her orchard that were most likely dug up and transplanted from the nearby woods. When a well-meaning niece helped Potter “weed” on one occasion, the young woman tore out all those wildflowers. “The niece got something of a tongue-lashing even though it was an accident,” says McDowell (who mentions having a u e, or group of wild rabbits, visit her own home garden in New Jersey, calling it “bunny revenge” for being a Peter Rabbit fan).
“I don’t think [the Victorians] distinguished much between what was really native versus what was just growing wild,” says McDowell. “They didn’t have that same sort of dividing line as we do today.” And though Potter and a garden helper once planted and fenced in (to keep sheep from nibbling) non-native alpine rhododendron shrubs near one of her favorite lakes (Moss Eccles Tarn, in Britain’s Lake District), McDowell says Potter “certainly used British natives in her gardens,” including foxgloves (Digitalis spp.) and ferns.
Potter even led wildflower walks on her properties for family and friends, sometimes accompanied by two Pekingese dogs. But it was Potter’s fascination with fungi that brought her closest to the scientific world. She drew poisonous y agaric (Amanita muscaria), the iconic red-capped toadstool with white spots; brown birch boletes (Leccinum scabrum); and Strobilomyces strobilaceus, or “old man of the woods,” which she painted in 1893, drawing a map on the back of the work indicating where she found this rare species. “It was the mysterious fungi that are associated with fairy tales that drew her to serious study,” says Zach.
But as a woman and an “amateur mycologist,” Potter had a difficult time presenting her research in the male-dominated world of science. With encouragement from an influential, knighted uncle (who was also a well-regarded chemist), her paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” was read by a member of Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens and eventually reviewed by the Linnean Society, London’s most famous botanical group — both to a lukewarm reception. Yet Zach claims, “What we know about fungi reproduction today was very much like what she wrote about then.”
Opinions on Potter’s importance to mycology are still conflicting, but even those who claim her research was less than groundbreaking, such as biographer Linda Lear, compliment her gusto for trying. And all seem to agree that her hundreds of highly accurate depictions of fungi, mosses and spores have been scientifically valuable.
Samantha Peters, a Texas-based science illustrator considers Potter “inspiring as both an artist and a scientist”: “Her innate curiosity about nature fueled her artistic study, which in turn drove her to study her natural subjects more closely,” says Peters, who interned at the Wildflower Center in 2016. “It takes a lot of skill to make watercolors look so effortless.”
In additional to her art, Potter left a living legacy of the plants that inspired her. She and her husband, William Heelis, donated an immense property (about 4,000 acres) to the National Trust. “She was absolutely dedicated to preserving native plants and natural methods of farming,” says Zach. “A lot of the area where she last lived looks like it did when Beatrix lived there, thanks to her. She really was a big proponent of native plants — absolutely.”
Jill Sell is a regular contributor to Wildflower magazine.