The Crocus King

6:50am Thursday 10th February 2011

By Val Bourne

Edward August Bowles (1865-1954) of Myddleton House, near Enfield, in Middlesex, was dubbed ‘The Crocus King’ because he grew more species than anyone else. His privileged background gave him time to devote to gardening. His family (the Myddletons) owned the water rights to the Lee Valley, which fed London with drinking water. Money seemed as abundant as the water flowing through the garden. He was encouraged to develop the garden by Canon Henry Ellacombe (a famous garden writer and relative) and it is still open daily, owned by the local authority (tel 08456 770 600).

Bowles wasn’t just a pleasure seeker, however. He devoted time to charitable pursuits and, encouraged by his father, he ran a Night School for underprivileged boys in Enfield. They were taught the three Rs and games always followed. A rabbit supper, prize-giving and a singsong, with Bowles on the piano, ended the school year (from The Crocus King, by Bryan Hewitt.) His garden was a haven to local boys and they became known as Bowles’s Boys. They helped with garden tasks and played cricket on the lawns. He also contributed much to the world of plants and the RHS.

He was not untouched by tragedy, despite his wealth. He lost a sister and brother to tuberculosis in 1887, and this is why he abandoned his training as an Anglican priest. A hay fever sufferer, Bowles always contrived to visit The Alps on plant-collecting trips every June and perhaps he saw lots of Crocus vernus — the Alpine meadow species that has formed the basis for many large-flowered forms. ‘Vanguard’ (pictured) was said to be a favourite form. It flowers two weeks earlier than other large-flowered varieties — hence the name.

His great love were the smaller earlier flowering species crocus and he bred and named 14 ‘bird series’ crocus using C. chrysanthus and C. biflorus. ‘Snowbunting’ is the only one still available commercially.

He often talked about crocus fever, but he grew these wonderful spring bulbs long before they were really popular in gardens. In 1924 he wrote A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum and it was republished twice. I still use my dog-eared copy. Brian Mathew also produced a monograph in 1982 and I had to pay a huge amount for one about ten years ago. It is very botanical and I find myself looking at the pictures more than the text. I am truly delighted to have a new monograph to add to the shelf by Janis Ruksans (see A Good Read).

E.A. Bowles was also a galanthophile (a snowdrop lover) and he invented the term. His name has been in the headlines again, because a rare poculiform snowdrop with six equal-length petals was found in his garden in 2002. I do wish I’d spotted it. One bulb has been sold on eBay for £350 and that’s a record. Hype has it that John Grimshaw (co-author of the only modern monograph on snowdrop varieties) bred it and sold it, but it was simply found in Bowles’ garden. The seller is Joe Sharman and royalties do go to Bowles’s garden. I must content myself with the snowdrop ‘Augustus’, named after him instead — see Looking Good.

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