Why gardening is the one area of life where gender discrimination may be permissable

It comes down to basic botany. 

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I was standing in front of one of the display gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show back in May with a relative I had taken there for the first time. She marvelled at what she saw and said she would love something like that at home. “I’m sure you would,” I replied, “but remember it is not a real garden. It’s a stage set. It’s pure theatre.”

I have said the same on many other occasions, but despite being passionate about both gardens and the theatre as expressions of artistic creativity, on a recent theatrical trend I should sound a note of caution to those gardeners who might be tempted to follow the parallels too literally. We are in a period of gender fluidity on the stage: I often visit the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, where we have recently seen a female Cymbeline, a female Escalus and a male Salomé, while a female King John has just arrived.

But theatre-loving gardeners beware. Gender may not matter in the theatre but it certainly does in the garden. That attractive low-growing shrub Skimmia is a fine example. Many a gardener has been seduced into buying one for its attractive evergreen foliage only to find the bright red berries they had been promised never materialise. The reason is they have bought a male variety, probably Kew Green, when they need a female such as Nymans as its companion.

Basic botany is behind it. Some species are monoecious (literally: “one house”), meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. One plant will do everything, but others, such as Skimmia, are dioecious (“two houses”), meaning there are separate male and female plants. If you wish to have berries or other types of ornamental fruit, a male variety will not suffice. It will only provide pollen to a waiting female, so you need one of each sex.

Hollies are often monoecious but may be even more confusing. A friend recently told me he had bought a variety called Silver Queen. He said he admired its variegated foliage and felt the berries would come in useful at Christmas. I had to disillusion him because in addition to being dioecious, some hollies have names that are also gender fluid. Silver Queen is male; just as the holly called Golden King is female. Unlike Skimmias, however, one female holly variety is all you need to have berries: there are male plants everywhere in other gardens or in the wider countryside to provide some pollen.

As I write this I can see from my study window another splendid example of monoecism. We have an old archway embraced comprehensively – and particularly beautifully as the autumn colours take hold – by an ornamental hop. It is adorned with exquisite clusters of hop fruits, which will make wonderful decorations later when they are dried. The reason the appearance is so splendid is because I have a female variety. It’s called Humulus lupulus Aureus, sometimes known as the golden hop.

When you go to a nursery out of season to buy a plant for its berries, you will not see the words “dioecious” and “monoecious” on the label, but do check that it is described as female or “a fruiting variety”. In the theatre, a casting director can shuffle the gender pack any way she or he wants and it will come out all right on the night. But shuffle the genders wrongly in your garden and the stage may be bare. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries