The mysterious Mrs Popple

The very thing I dread as a garden writer is an email or letter that contains the word “wrong”. It causes the heart to race and the stomach to dip simultaneously, an alarming sensation. However, by the time I had finished reading Claire Hoare’s email in response to my article on hardy fuchsias (‘How to Grow’, Gardening Sept 18), all my discomfort had vanished, for she had solved one of the great plant mysteries. Claire’s grandmother was Mrs Popple, the lady behind nurseryman Clarence Elliott’s famous fuchsia of the same name. Her identity had been shrouded in mystery for 70 years or so.

My mistake (which was what prompted Claire’s email) had been to adhere to conventional fuchsia wisdom and give Mrs Popple’s date of introduction as 1899. However, the lady in question, née Eliza Winifred Holt, known as Winnie, was born in 1889. She was the youngest of eight, and her father was John Holt, owner of a shipping line based in Liverpool. She married James Alexander Marsden Popple (a London solicitor), in 1914, and moved to Daneshill House in Stevenage just after the First World War.

The couple had one child, Hazel, mother of Claire and her elder sister, Prue. Mrs Popple’s tennis court and garden were next door to Clarence Elliott’s famous Six Hills Nursery. It was during this period that Clarence admired a fuchsia growing by the tennis court, propagated it, named it after his friend and neighbour and then introduced it – probably in the early Thirties. It became an instant hit and was awarded an AGM in 1934. Claire’s picture of her grandmother (above) was taken in the Twenties and it seems to capture a golden era between the two World Wars.

However, great changes lay ahead. In 1947 a large tract of land was compulsorily purchased for Stevenage New Town. Mrs Popple’s garden and Clarence’s Six Hills Nursery both went under concrete – a cause of great distress to both families. Mrs Popple, “a mad keen gardener”, had to move but took her gardener, Edward Piggott, with her. She spent her last years near her daughter, Hazel, also a keen gardener.

Mrs Popple lives on in the memory of her two granddaughters, and cuttings from the original plant are still kept by Claire, who opens her Northamptonshire garden, Old West Farm, under the National Gardens Scheme. Prue also opens her Surrey garden, Walton Poor, for the NGS. Mrs Popple died in 1959 – but she lives on as an exceptional fuchsia.

Val Bourne
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph

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