Have you ever heard of Ellen Willmott? She was an heiress who blew through her fortune on gardens and plants. Hailing from the UK, she spent vast sums of money on building gardens in Europe, staff to maintain these gardens, and plants to fill the garden beds. Several sources report that she had approximately 100,000 different types of plants in her garden. Her inheritance funded numerous plant exploration trips in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. From these trips, newly introduced plants were named with willmottiae or warleyensis in honor of her name and her garden, Warley. Willmott was eccentric and obsessed with the art of gardening. Another source reported that she would fire gardeners if they missed a weed in the mixed border. Unfortunately, near the end of her life, she had to sell off most of her property and possessions to pay off her debts. Her garden and home at Warley were eventually razed although now the area is a nature preserve.
Her legend lives on in the plants named in her honor and most notably, Eryngium giganteum. This species of sea holly is silver blue, reaching heights of nearly 3 feet when in flower. Eryngium giganteum is a short-lived perennial, usually dying after flowering. It is a self-seeder in the plant bed so it will come back from seed even after it dies. Ellen Willmott so loved the giant sea holly that she typically carried seed around with her wherever she traveled. Miss Willmott felt that a garden could always use a giant sea holly so she would freely toss out seed in others’ gardens. The seeds would germinate and turn into plants, earning the common name of Miss Willmott’s Ghost. Can you imagine inviting a horticultural celebrity over to your home only to find out later that they threw out seeds of a spiny, silvery plant in your garden? That is exactly what she did and people began to associate the presence of an Eryngium giganteum with a visit from Ellen Willmott. After searching on-line, Miss Willmott’s ghost appears to be more popular in the United Kingdom than here in the United States.
I am working on a garden design for a naturalistic border here in Maine where I would like to contrast the fine texture of Heavy Metal panicum with the bold, spiky foliage of Miss Willmott’s ghost. I have never grown this Eryngium before so it will be fun to see how this combination works out later this summer. Have you grown any of the Eryngium species before? If so, have you tried E. giganteum?