From the medieval lady of the manor with her rose garden to the pink-cheeked cottager with her marigolds and hollyhocks, women have been imposing nurture upon nature through the centuries. But those horticultural skills may have resulted in a gender divide.
Modern women are quicker at finding and correctly identifying plants, showed a study reported at the British Psychological Society conference yesterday in Winchester, Hampshire. This natural gardening ability is thought to be related to evolutionary programming, which required men to hunt while women were gatherers and foragers.
Dr Nick Neave, of the human cognitive neuroscience unit at the University of Northumbria, and co-author of the research, said: "This division of labour seems to have created a modern sex difference, with women being more predisposed to being better gardeners."
Dr Neave cites the BBC series Ground Force, where Alan Titchmarsh designs and plans the gardens while Charlie Dimmock chooses the right plants. "The division of labour on the programme works well," he said. "The study showed women were able to find 'hidden' plants much more easily and were less likely to make mistakes."
The findings showed women were one-third more likely to identify plants correctly and, on average, 20 seconds faster than men. The results suggest men would have taken longer to get the correct greens for dinner and been more likely to poison their families, the professor said.
Dr Neave, who conducted the research with Ann Pickering, a botanist from the University of Newcastle, tested 25 men and 25 women on their ability indoors and outdoors to find common plants such as campanula and poppies.
None of the participants, all aged between 20 and 30, had gardening expertise. They were shown five different plants and asked to find the same plants as quickly as possible among at least 45 plants of a variety of species in both indoor arrays and on outside verges.
In each of the tests, participants had to find the "hidden" plants as quickly as possible. None of the plants had flowered so they could not be easily identified.
On average, men identified three out of six plants accurately and women identified four. "This is statistically significant and supports the folk mythology that female botanists are better out in the field than their male counterparts," said Dr Neave.
"This study is the first to test the evolutionary 'Gathering Hypothesis' using real plants and the results confirms differences between the sexes."
The research merely confirms what most female gardening enthusiasts already know. They would point to names such as Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Jekyll, Margery Fish and Ellen Willmott, plantswomen who figure prominently in any gardening history of the 20th century.
In contemporary gardening, there are Beth Chatto, Rosemary Verey, Ann Scott-James and broadcasting household names such as Pippa Greenwood and, of course, Ms Dimmock. Ursula Buchan, a gardening journalist and author, said: "Women have had tremendous influence on gardening in this country this century.
"They are undoubtedly good at it and it has always been looked on as a respectable profession, more than respect-able, a positive good. Vita Sackville-West wrote the first book on gardening I read, she made it sound like it was so much fun."
Pippa Greenwood, broadcaster and plant pathologist, said: "I know a high percentage of gardening is done by women. I think the answer is, as a broad generalisation, women are more inclined to have art in their soul.
"When it comes to planting and envisaging what things are going to look like, women have the edge, they tend to be more creative than men.
"As to whether we really are better or not, I think the classic thing of men to do lawnmowing and work vegetable gardens does tend to be a little bit true."
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