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A prickly tale: Eryngium giganteum Miss Willmott’s Ghost

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Eryngium giganteum 'Miss Willmott's Ghost'

I’m blogging today about a plant I've never actually liked very much! Even though its forever associated with my horticultural heroine, Miss Ellen Willmott of Warley Place in Essex.

The plant in question is Eryngium giganteum, the giant sea holly, usually known as Miss Willmott’s Ghost, a short-lived herbaceous perennial thistle, native to the Caucasus region and surrounding areas. Cultivated as an ornamental for the garden, this prolific self-sower is also popular with flower arrangers due to its fabulously architectural form. Both the species and its cultivar, Silver Ghost, have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. Garden historian Jane Brown, writing about Miss Willmott in 1999, described it as a “tall, elegant form of sea holly with silvery-blue thistle heads, each with a translucent silver and exceedingly prickly ruff.” While Gertrude Jekyll, in her 1926 book Wood and Garden: Notes and Thoughts, Practical and Critical, of a Working Amateur, referred to Eryngium giganteum as a Silver Thistle of “metallic texture… whitish and almost silvery.”

Portrait of Miss Willmott from a pastel by Signora M. Gutti. Published in 'The Garden', 28 December 1907

You’ll hear more on Miss Willmott (1858-1934) from me in the future but, briefly, she was a wealthy, multi-talented horticulturist, active in the Royal Horticultural Society in the late Victorian/Edwardian period. Passionate about plants and her gardens (having gardens also in both France and Italy). One of the first women to be awarded the RHS’s Victoria Medal of Honour in 1897; celebrated as a hybridizer of various plant species, most notably narcissus; and famous for her book on roses, The Genus Rosa. Miss Willmott had many plants named for her or her garden, Warley Place, and, at the time, was just as famous as her friend and contemporary, Gertrude Jekyll.

The plant’s commonly used name refers to Miss Willmott’s alleged habit – probably later in life when she was herself considered to be somewhat eccentric and prickly, of carrying seeds of it in her pockets, and scattering them around the gardens of her fellow horticulturists where they would later pop up uninvited - a ghostly reminder of her visit. However, even though there’s little evidence for this tale, it's stuck (after all it is a good story). According to Miss Willmott’s biography, Miss Willmott of Warley Place: Her Life and Her Gardens, written in 1980 by Audrey Le Lievre, Graham Thomas asked readers of The Gardeners’ Chronicle in August 1966 if any of them could confirm the origin of the name – but apparently no-one could!

'Miss Willmott’s Ghost' planted with Echinacea

Most things written about this plant in print and on the web repeat the story that Miss Willmott indulged in this early form of ‘guerrilla gardening’ - and some also say that Eryngium giganteum was her favourite plant. However, there’s no evidence that I know of for this either. Miss Willmott did not write very much at all about her gardens – unlike Gertrude Jekyll, but she did publish a book of her own photographs of the garden at Warley Place in 1909 – Warley Garden in Spring and Summer. The book doesn't feature any photographic portrait of her supposedly favourite plant – the plants she generally spent most of her time on being narcissus, alpines, and her beloved roses.

'Miss Willmott’s Ghost' planted en-masse in the White Garden at Sissinghurst. Photograph by Kendra Wilson

The plant does, of course, feature in the horticultural press of Miss Willmott's time. One article in The Garden of November 1887 on "Sea Hollies" (along with an accompanying illustration as can be seen below), describes the "Giant Sea Holly (E. giganteum)" with its large flower-heads: “greatly appreciated for winter decorations, and although not highly coloured like many of the others, they make pretty bouquets arranged with Grasses, etc. It is an excellent plant for grouping, and in large masses… it forms a very picturesque object.”

Engraved illustration of E. giganteum in The Garden of 5th November, 1887

Miss Willmott’s Ghost also pops up (forgive the pun) in some surprising places!

There's a restaurant in Seattle in the USA called Willmott’s Ghost, which takes it name from our plant's story – as its website announces:

Named for the flowering plant botanist, Ellen Willmott would surreptitiously plant in friends’ yards and in public places, Willmott’s Ghost focuses on the flavours of Rome and Italy at large.”

Apparently, Eryngium giganteum is not as commonly grown in the USA as it is in the UK, so somewhat of a strange choice perhaps? Incidentally, according to the entry for this plant in Maund's Botanic Garden (more on this below), the roots of the Eryngium giganteum were made into something called "candied Eryngo" (Eryngo being another common name for Eryngium). The entry, published in 1849, reports that although something of a lost art it was still prepared by some confectioners. It goes on to say that John Gerard's Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597) even recommended candied root, writing that it's "exceedingly good to be given unto old and aged people that are consumed and withered with age."!

On searching for this delicacy on the web, modern botanical and herbal websites say that during the Elizabethan period, Colchester in Essex was famed for its candied eryngo (the roots candied with sugar and orange blossom water), although they report that it was Erynium maritimum (the smaller sea holly) that was used. Apparently, the candied sweet was much sought after for coughs and colds - and as an aphrodisiac (what wasn't?). Apparently, its generally thought that in Falstaff's line in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, where he runs off for an assignation with Mistress Ford "...hail kissing comforts and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation...", 'snow eringoes' refers to these candied sweets. Perhaps Willmott's Ghost restaurant should serve them?

'Willmott’s Ghost' restaurant in Seattle, USA and its logo. Photograph by Aaron Leitz/Kevin Scott

However, back to contemplating the origin of the name Miss Willmott's Ghost. Perhaps it was just some enterprising nurseryman, with an eye for good marketing, who picked up on something being talked of, or heard about, the ageing Miss Willmott and attached her name to this plant? The equivalent perhaps of calling a rose after Monty Don and watching sales rocket! She was, after all, one of the most famous amateur horticulturists of her day - or perhaps it wasn't until after her death? In any event, this plant has been around for a long time – so what of before Miss Willmott’s time, when it was just plain Eryngium giganteum?

As usual with many a plant’s history its all rather murky. So let’s get botanically scientific, and if that’s not your thing, just skip the next few paragraphs!

The botanical name for this plant is Eryngium giganteum M. Bieb. described in Fl. taur.-caucas, 1:201 (1808). M.Bieb. being the botanical shorthand for the person who first ‘described’ the plant scientifically in the modern era: Fredrich August Marschall Von Bieberstein (1768-1826). A German, Bieberstein was an early explorer of the flora of the southern area of Imperial Russia including the Caucasus (it's said he even worked for Catherine the Great at one point plant-collecting in Persia), and completed the first comprehensive catalogue of flora of the region in his book, Flora Taurico Caucasica (several volumes published between 1808 and 1819).

However, according to the plant’s entry in Maund’s Botanic Garden of 1849, the name Eryngium was adopted by the ancient Greeks, and the written description was sufficiently definite for Linnaeus to identify the plant and thus he kept the name.

Coloured illustration of E. giganteum in B. Maund’s 'Botanic Garden'* of 1849

Eryngiums also feature in beautiful coloured plates of a wonderful book of the complete flora of France, Switzerland and Belgium (including most plants in Europe) published in 1913 by Gaston Bonnier. Eryngium giganteum is not included for some reason, although as the smaller sea holly, Eryngium maritimum is, I've included it.

Below Plate 247 featuring various species of Eryngium from 'Flore Complete illustree en couleurs de France, Suisse et Belgique' by Gaston Bonnier, 1913

'Miss Willmott’s Ghost' with the grass Stipa tenuissima. Photograph by Jonathan Buckley

Today, this architectural plant is often planted en-masse with other plants - and looks particularly good in prairie-style plantings with grasses and echinacea. I also came across it in a garden this month - still looking good in a border as it faded into autumnal splendour.

It's also described as an excellent plant, especially planted en-masse, for pollinators. With a long flowering season, it's particularly attractive to honey bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Also, as the flower stems remain upright after flowering, it provides good shelter and habitat for over-wintering insects.

'Miss Willmott's Ghost' at Green Island Gardens, Colchester. Author's photograph October 2020

To finalise - I've come to the conclusion that, whatever the truth behind the story of this plant's enchanting common name, its long since entered gardening mythology so is sure to be continually repeated – probably as long as people continue to write about the wonderful Miss Willmott, and for as long as the plant exists.

And I'll admit that while writing this piece, and searching out photographs of it (including my own, as I always take a snap of it anywhere I find it), I think I’m finally beginning to come around to its spikey, ghostly beauty…

Sowing advice for 'Miss Willmott’s Ghost' from Burncoose Nurseries

Another photograph of 'Miss Willmott's Ghost' planted with echinacea. Image

*The full title of this publication (dating from a time when a title explained exactly what it was about!) is The Botanic Garden: consisting of highly furnished representations of hardy ornamental flowering plants, cultivated in Great Britain; with their names, classes, orders, history, qualities, culture, and physiological observations.

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