Oscar Wilde's carnation makes a stately return

Gardens/ rarity revived
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THE floppy carnation that Oscar Wilde wore in his lapel, feared extinct since the 1930s, has been rescued from oblivion.

The malmaison, a variety that was once a feature of the Victorian gentleman's buttonhole before virtually disappearing, is being revived in the stately gardens of England.

Prince Charles has started growing malmaisons at Highgrove, as have the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth, Lord and Lady Rothschild at Eythrope Manor, and the Duke and Duchess of Westminster on the Grosvenor estate.

Throughout Britain, the well-heeled are exchanging cuttings to propagate malmaisons for use in buttonholes and table decorations.

The luxuriant, deeply scented bloom was known as "the breakfast tray" carnation in Victorian times because it found favour with the ladies of the house. It was first bred in France in 1857.

The large, floppy flower peaked in popularity in the late 19th century, when it was worn during the summer season by fops. But by the turn of the century, as fashion turned its attention to other flowers, breeders ceased to grow the malmaison.

By the 1930s the variety, which Oscar Wilde famously dyed green, was all but extinct. Until now florists have had to improvise by attaching two or more modern carnations together to create the malmaison effect.

The breed was rescued three years ago by Jim Marshall, horticultural adviser to the National Trust. He created the national collection from three surviving malmaisons, the first of which he discovered in Scotland.

The scarce plants, which flower during the summer in white and shades of pink, were micro-propagated in a laboratory from single cells, at Seale- Hayne Agricultural College, Devon.

"My original intent was to rescue them because they were completely lost," said Mr Marshall. "Now they are in demand with large estates where there is a tradition of growing cut flowers for dinner parties. In the last 18 months everyone seems to want them for wedding bouquets and buttonholes. I can't cope in my small way."

Mr Marshall, who grows the flowers in greenhouses in his back garden, has now subcontracted some of the work to a nursery in Devon. This year he has sold 5,000 plants and over 400 cut flowers and will exhibit five varieties at Hampton Court flower show this week.

It is not known how many malmaisons exist in Britain. "It is hard to say how many there are," said Brent Elliott, of the Royal Horticultural Society. "Their burst of popularity has been too recent."

What is clear is that the malmaison fad is only beginning. Lord and Lady Somerleyton hope to acquire some for Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk, and the Earl of Harewood is planning to introduce them on his 1,000-acre estate in Yorkshire.

"We have just got a few plants from the Rothschilds," said Ian Webster, assistant head gardener on the Duke of Devonshire's estate at Chatsworth, Derbyshire. "We are trying to build up a collection. The Duchess is very keen on them."

At Eythrope Manor, which had a handsome collection of malmaisons in the 19th century, there are now more than 200 plants with 1,000 flowers a year.

"They have been absolutely revived," said Beth Thomassini, daughter of Lord Rothschild, "We grow them and cut them for use in the house."

Society florists are eager for the carnations. "I haven't been able to get hold of any yet. There really aren't any around. I'm hoping to get some for buttonholes for my next wedding," said the florist Nance Angus.

Bloomsbury, the designer florist in Covent Garden, London, met an order from the Royal Opera House for "Oscar Wilde's carnations" by spraying constructed flowers with green paint. Mark Welford, a co-director of Bloomsbury, said that he was glad the symbol of Oscar Wilde, jailed for homosexual activities, had been revived.

But it is unlikely that the flower will become a gay icon.

Peter Tatchell, the gay activist, said: "I think it's a symbol of the past with very little chance of rivalling the modern symbols such as the pink triangle and rainbow flag."