Hybridiser of lupins
Plaque erected 7 July 2018 at 20 Kensington Street, York YO23 1JA
Famous for developing the eponymous Russell lupins, George Russell was a jobbing gardener in York living in a house with no garden. At the age of 54, he began to develop improved varieties of lupins on his allotment. In 1937, Russell’s first display at the Chelsea Flower Show caused a sensation and, today, Russell lupins are experiencing a revival.
George Russell was born in Stillington, near York, on 13 October 1857 in the house next door to the parish church, the youngest of five children of John and Susan Russell. His father was a boot and shoe maker in the village and also parish clerk and a gardener. At the age of 10, George started work as a gardener’s boy on a number of large estates before finding employment at Backhouse Nursery in York. After he married, his wife, Sarah, became ill so he took work as a jobbing gardener in order to be on hand to care for her. When she died a kindly neighbour looked after him. They had a sickly son, Arthur “Sonny” Heard who was prescribed fresh air, so George took him on gardening jobs and to his allotments. Arthur eventually became George’s assistant. George lived at 20 Kensington Street, South Bank, York in a small terrace house with no garden but he had allotments on Bishopthorpe Road close to where the Terry’s Chocolate Works factory was built from 1926. He lived at Kensington Street for more than 20 years until he was persuaded to move to Boningale, Codsall, near Wolverhampton where his lupins were produced commercially.
Quest for the perfect lupin
In 1911 when he was aged 54, one of his employers, Mrs Micklethwaite, had picked some lupins for a vase in her house. George saw them and determined he could produce something better. The name ‘lupin’ – Lupinus Polyphyllus – derives from the Latin lupus meaning “wolfish” in reference to the mistaken belief that the plant devours nutrients from the soil. The common plant was mostly blue, sometimes white and pale pink. There were species available in the early 20th century from North and South America and Mexico and also tree lupins. George set out to improve the plant, introducing more colours and developing the spike of the plant to be covered in florets from the base to the top without showing any stem. He wanted the floret enlarged to have a fat “bell” or “keel” with erect standards or petals at the back as well as producing a sturdy plant which would require no staking and would flower continuously throughout summer into autumn.
To achieve his ideal lupin, George began a rigorous selection regime, pulling up and destroying poorer unwanted plants so that the pollen would not be carried. Bees were allowed to pollinate and hand-pollination and root division avoided. The seeds were chipped and intermingled with annuals and perennials to marry the desirable qualities of each to develop a hardy plant, saving the good seed by selecting and deselecting ruthlessly. Seeds from abroad were trialled including a German strain. It was a slow, dedicated process over many years but, gradually, new colours were developed and the size and roundness of the bells or keels increased, hiding the stem from view.
George’s named varieties grew in number. ‘Mrs Micklethwaite’ was salmon pink and ‘City of York’ flame red. Colours developed including two-tone: yellow and orange, purple and gold, apricot and sky blue, rose-pink and amethyst. ‘Mrs Noel Terry’ was named after Kathleen Terry who presided over the house and garden at Goddards in York. Now owned by the National Trust, the property is open to the public and Russell lupins can be seen there flowering today. ‘Boningale Maid’, ‘Boningale Charm’ and ‘Boningale Lad’ were introduced after the move to Codsall and there were varieties named after celebrities of the day such as actress Gladys Cooper and Elsie and Doris Waters, a popular variety act.
In York, George would never sell his lupin seeds or give away plants and each year people would come to look over the fence at his allotments to marvel at the superb flowers and colours. However, in 1935, James Baker of Baker’s Nursery, Codsall, Wolverhampton, a nursery noted for its herbaceous perennials, visited York to see George. Baker wanted to take over the propagation and promotion of lupins, offering George a house with Arthur, as his assistant, and his wife. George was by then in his 70s. He finally agreed as long as he and Arthur could maintain control and selection of the plants which would be known as ‘Russell Lupins’ to which Baker agreed. Plants were taken from York and, in the first year at Codsall, Arthur and George selected the best varieties for commercial production, casting out 4,800 of the 5,000 plants leaving the nursery with only 200.
Success followed rapidly. In 1937 at the Royal Horticultural Society Show in London, the lupins at their first showing caused a sensation. In the same year, 80,000 people came to see the lupins at Codsall. George was awarded the Veitch Silver Memorial Medal which is awarded to ‘persons who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture’. D.W. Simmons of the RHS Floral Committee said in 1937, ‘my first impression was indescribable: never before have I seen such marvellous colouring or been thrilled by such rich exotic blendings; and I can safely say I have seen every ‘worthwhile’ plant or race of plants introduced in the past forty years…. The highest possible RHS award, the Gold Medal, was never more richly deserved’. The Gold Medal was awarded to the Baker Nursery which showed the lupins.
George died in 1951, aged 94, and is buried in Boningale, near Codsall, in an unmarked grave at his request. In the year he died, he was awarded the MBE for services to horticulture. As The Times obituary said of him in 1951, he ‘banished forever the old-fashioned blue lupin’.
Pat Edwards, The Russell Lupin Story, (National Council for the Conservation of Plants & Gardens, June 2003)
Ronald Parrett, The Russell Lupin Story, (Andover, 1959)
The Observer Profile, ‘The Specialist’, George Russell, 18 June 1950
The Times, Obituary, ‘A Man and his Flowers’, 17 October 1951
The Gardeners’ Chronicle, Obituary, George Russell, MBE, 20 October 1951
With thanks to members of Bustardthorpe Allotments, York and RHS librarians at Harlow Carr, Harrogate and the RHS Lindley Library, London.
© Pat Hill