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Tribute to Baggesen and his golden honeysuckle

One of the temperate world's most widespread and popular garden plants is the shrubby honeysuckle Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold',   It is grown as a hedge, as various kinds of topiary and as a stand alone plant when it develops long sprays bearing its characteristic tiny shining yellow leaves.  Being a tough and hardy evergreen, it is popular with those who design municipal borders or beds in awkward corners of the public domain.  Apart from its elegance and forgiving temperament, it brings (provided it is grown in a reasonably well-lit situation) a fair imitation of a patch of sunshine to what might otherwise be a dull place.
 
The original form of Lonicera nitida  from south west China is sometimes known as Wilson's honeysuckle after the celebrated plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson, the first European to find it.  The wild green form of this species has been introduced into Western cultivation twice; the first clone, which arrived in 1908, never flowers, but the second, available since 1939, flowers freely.  It would appear that Baggesen's Gold is derived from the second introduction as it flowers freely in our Sussex garden.
 
In the 1970s we visited Brympton d'Evercy, a stately home in Somerset owned by Charles Clive Ponsonby-Fane.  I was particularly stuck by some pet graves there that were embellished by a low clipped hedge along their length using Lonicera nitida ''Baggesen's Gold' and I became quite curious about the origin and history of the plant.
 
This picture gives an indication of how it looked: 
 
 
There are some of my own pictures of the plant and its flowers here:
 
 
Julia Brittain in her Plant Lover's Companion says the eponymous Niels Baggesen was Danish and that he established a nursery in Cardiff after working at Kew when he first came to England in the early 1900s.  She adds that he later moved to Pembury in Kent where his sons Harald and John eventually joined him in the business.  Many sources say that Lonicera 'Baggesen's Gold' was introduced by J. H. Baggesen of Kent in 1967 and I wonder if th J. H. refers to John and Harald Baggesen rather than Niels.  Brittain points out that it was only after the nursery had closed down in 1970 that Baggesen's award-winning plants gained their widespread popularity.
 
In the mid-1970s I was doing much research in the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library and, having found out a little more about Baggesen's Gold, I began to wonder who Baggesen was.  After reading of the Pembury nursery I looked in the phone book for that area and discovered one entry for Baggesen.  When I called it turned out to be female relative of Niels's and she said he was now an old man in a retirement home in Haywards Heath.  I did, however, manage to contact him by phone and we had a long conversation on his golden honeysuckle.
 
He said they found just one golden spray on the normal green Lonicera nitida when they were taking cuttings at the nursery and that all subsequent golden plants had originated from this.  He said this was "after the war" and I wonder if the 1967 date of introduction is correct.  He claimed he had put the shrub up for an award with the Royal Horticultural Society several times but it had always been turned down.  He was rather bitter about this, saying he was only a humble nurseryman and not one of the gardening grandees to whose plants awards were normally given.  This is made particularly poignant by the fact that Baggesen's Gold was given a coveted Award of Garden Merit in 1993 after Niels's death.
 
The RHS point out that the Award of Garden Merit is intended to indicate a plant's practical value for the home gardener. It is awarded therefore only to a plant that meets the following criteria:
  • It must be of outstanding excellence for ordinary garden decoration or use
  • It must be available
  • It must be of good constitution
  • It must not require highly specialist growing conditions or care
  • It must not be particularly susceptible to any pest or disease
  • It must not be subject to an unreasonable degree of reversion in its vegetative or floral characteristics
Baggesen also introduced the false cypress Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Pembury Blue', described by BBC Gardening as "one of the most attractive, medium-sized, blue conifers."  This also gained an Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
 
I sometimes wonder if the good folk of Pembury have created one or more floral features combining 'Baggesen's Gold' and 'Pembury Blue' as a living tribute to the man who introduced two of the world's most popular and successful garden plants.
 
REFERENCE
 
Brittain, Julia (2006)  The Plant Lover's Companion.  Plants, People & Places. David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon
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