The Development of the Modern Polyanthus

In the 1870's Gertrude Jekyll at her garden at Munstead Wood near Godalming in Surrey started out down the road to produce the Polyanthus as we know it today. She had obtained an almost white polyanthus from a local cottage garden and planted it next to a plant of 'Golden Plover' a mottled bronze polyanthus.

She collected the seed from both plants, and planted the seedlings in her 'hazel copse'. Each year she marked the best specimens when they were in flower, collected the seed and raised further seedlings, until in 1880 when she found a pure yellow polyanthus amongst a batch of seedlings. By the end of the 1880's she began selling seeds and plants of the Munstead Strain of 'bunch-flowered primroses', and launched the first modern strain of polyanthus.

The Munstead Polyanthus were in white and variations of yellow and varied greatly in size, flower form and eye size. Anthony Waterer meanwhile was working on a strain of "red colourings', and by crossing with the Munstead Whites and Yellows he produced a greater range of mahogany, red, crimson and muddy pinks. By the 1930's Polyanthus seed was being produced in large quantities in England with strains being produced by Carters, Blackmore & Langdon, Toogoods and of course Suttons who gained a great following for their 'Brilliancy' strain.

In America in the depth of the Depression Florence Bellis, a pianist by profession living in Gresham, Oregan decided to try to make a living by selling polyanthus plants which were largely unknown in the USA. In 1935 she bought $5 worth of seed from Sutton & Sons of Reading, and began cross-pollinated them by hand and created the Barnhaven strain. She produced the first Barnhaven list in 1939 By selecting and cross-pollinating the finest plants she at last managed to stabilise some of the colours that provided the foundations for some of the present-day strains and they were sensationally clear and pure. The blooms were of a size of a Silver Dollar and it was by this name that they became known. In 1944 she introduced the 'Marine Blues' which was the first strain of true blue polyanthus.

Early 1960's Barnhaven Seed Catalogue cover

Also in America Frank Reinelt of Vetterle & Reinelt, Californian growers, started developing a strain of polyanthus which was to become famous as the 'Pacific Giants'. Frank Reinelt concentrated on the stronger colours more able to withstand the Californian sunshine, and carried out all his hybridising work under glass which was to have a massive effect on their hardiness. Over the next few years the Pacific Giants were widely produced and sold in bloom as pot plants.

On a much smaller scale Linda Eickman in Dayton, Oregon raised a strain she called 'Majestic Primroses', from an original packet of seeds bought from Toogoods of Southampton in 1939. From this start she produced a clear pink flowered polyanthus and a second less clear pink flowered plant. Realizing it was a colour break dug the plants up and took them to Florence Bellis who advised her to cross-pollinate the two. Linda Eichman did this and by careful selection produced a strain of clear pinks which she began selling in 1950 as 'Crown Pink', and a few years later the coral pinks as 'Warm Laughter'. Both strains lacked hardiness and on the death of their creator in 1955 both strains disappeared. In the late 1940's Linda Eichman had given Florence Bellis some clear pink flowered plants and by crossing these with her own strain was able, in 1958, to introduce the Barnhaven 'New Pinks' and 'Desert Sunsets'.

Barnhaven New Pink

In the early 1930's Major Knocker who lived in Cowichan Station, British Columbia found in his garden a polyanthus seedling whose velvet garnet flowers were completely eyeless. He gave the plant to a neighbour, Mr Norie who called it 'Norns' after his house. This plant subsequently was passed on to the Palmer Gardens, who realising it to be sterile repeatedly divided the plant to supply an increasing demand. The plant failed to thrive and eventually died out. In 1942 Florence Bellis obtained a plant, and from it's only flowering managed to obtain pollen which she used on her existing 'Kwan Yin' and eventually sudcceded in establishing the Barnhaven Cowichans which still today out-rival all other polyanthus.

Barnhaven Garnet Cowichan

Back in the UK Suttons and Blackmore & Langdon introduced the Barnhaven strains into their own strains and began pollinating by hand. By the 1950s there were many seed strains available such as Langdon's Blues, Sutton's 'Triumph', Read's 'Festival', Toogood's 'Giant Excelsior', Cluseed 'BIythe Maximum', Carter's 'Sunset Hybrids', Harrison's 'Kelmscott' and Hansen's F2 Hybrids are popular and nostalgic examples. In Australia there was Dank's 'Gartford Strain' and Goodwin's 'Regal Supremes', and in New Zealand, Harrison's 'Tango Supreme' which was famed for it's waved petals.

Barnhaven Harvest Yellow

Barnhaven Spice Shades

All these strains were possible because of the work done by Florence Bellis with the 'Barnhavens' and Frank Reinelt's 'Pacific Giants'. The 'Pacific Giants' became world leaders and to meet demand many of the seed houses raised their own versions of the strain by open pollination which turned out to be far inferior to the originals. Whilst the Pacific Giants had much to commend them the fact that they had been developed under glass had a serious effect on them. In the 1960's several severe winters killed many of the plants growing in gardens and showed the strains lack of hardiness … the Barnhavens survived and flowered unchecked. The Pacific strains are now raised by Sakata in Japan and are marketed almost entirely for the pot plant market.

Barnhaven Seed Catalogue 1974

All commercial strains are based on the fixed colours of the Barnhaven strains. In the early 1960's Florence Bellis started sending seed across to England for Jared and Sylvia Sinclair to distribute in Europe. When she retired later that decade the Barnhaven strains survived she was determined that Barnhaven would not be swallowed up by a large seed house. In 1966 Florence Bellis sent Barnhaven back to England "whence it sprang and where it belongs", and the now world famous Barnhaven Strains were transferred from Johnson Creek near Gresham in Oregon to Brigsteer near Kendle in Cumberland and is now in the safe hands of Jared & Sylvia Sinclair.

© John S Harrison, 1976
With thanks to Jared Sinclair for use of illustrations from Barnhaven Seed Catalogues.

Florence Bellis died in 1987.
In 1989 Jared & Sylvia Sinclair retired and Barnhaven was transferred to Angela & Keith Bradford who moved to France in 1990.
Sylvia Sinclair died in 1996 followed by Jared Sinclair in 1998.

In 2000 the Barnhaven strains transferred to Lynne & David Lawson.

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