Posted: Wednesday 12 February 2014
by Richard Jones
As it’s so cold and wet this week, I do the next best thing to getting out and about - I sit indoors reading old books.
As it’s so cold and wet this week, I do the next best thing to getting out and about - I sit indoors reading old books. I love the idea of a window into another world, and for me these old books are personal time machines. I’ve picked up one on garden pests and am immediately transfixed by the glorious engraving above of a flying mole cricket, Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa.
It’s slightly surprising to find such an insect in what is, in effect, an early pest-control book. The churr-worm, eve-churr, or earth-crab as it is called there, is now one of Britain’s rarest insects. It made the news when it was found in an Oxfordshire garden in 2005. I don’t think it’s been found since. Hardly a pest candidate, really.
The accompanying text is pretty damning: '…not only one of the most destructive animals to culinary vegetables, but extends its ravages to meadows and corn-fields…. As they do a great deal of damage, when very numerous…(so much as, in many seasons, to destroy a sixth, or even a fourth part of the young corn, by digging and eating off the roots) it has always been a consideration to find out means of extirpating them.'
That was another world, though. Not only was it 177 years ago, it was also in Austria. The book I’ve been flicking through is A treatise on insects injurious to gardeners, foresters, & farmers, by Vincent Köllar, and was first published (in German) in 1837, under the auspices of the Royal and Imperial Agricultural Society of Vienna and by command of Emperor Francis I.
Köllar’s work is generally regarded as being the first book written on garden pests, and I have to say he was very thorough. Apart from a couple of non-British central European beetles, almost everything he covers would be familiar to most UK gardeners today.
This explains why the book was translated into English in the first place. My copy is, of course, the translation (with engravings) by J. and M. Loudon, published in 1840. I can’t find out much about Mary, but Jane Loudon seems to be the well-known botanical writer and artist, wife of John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), botanist, garden (and cemetery) designer and author/ editor of An Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1822), and founder editor of The Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Rural and Domestic Improvement (in which his wife’s Köllar translation is enthusiastically reviewed).
I doubt I will ever see a native British eve-churr. (My father recalls what he thought was one when, as a 9-year-old, he was evacuated to relatives in Yorkshire in 1940, before his own fascination with natural history really took off.) But if I’ve got books like Mrs and Mrs Loudon’s to wander through, I’m still happy.