Geranium 'Bill Wallis'

Posted: Monday 1 July 2013
by James Alexander-Sinclair

I really do not know how I first acquired Geranium ‘Bill Wallis’. All I know is that it was one of the first plants we ever put in our garden, and it is still there.

Geranium pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallis’

I really do not know how I first acquired Geranium pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallis’. All I know is that it was one of the first plants we ever put in our garden, and it is still there.

It probably came from my mother-in-law. Many peoples’ first plants come from their mothers - passing on plants seems like a cosily maternal thing to do. I know that my wife has already pressed mint and basil plants upon our children.

Our geranium may not necessarily be the same specimen by now, however, as it has a tendency to seed itself - not profligately, but with a certain restraint. It is a very charming, little blue-flowered geranium. It blooms for a long time and is excellent for little crannies in the front of the border.

Geranium pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallis’ grows to about 30cm tall, and the same across. It is quite spindly to look at, which is deceptive, as it is a tough old sausage, determined to survive by seeding itself into any available crevice. It is one of those plants that does not really like growing in containers for long, so it might be a bit tricky to find unless you get it while it is very small.

The question that has been troubling me is, who is (or was) Bill Wallis? The ‘pyrenaicum’ part of the name is easy – it means that the plant comes from the Pyrenees. But, Bill? He sounds like a bluff old cove, fond of a pint and never without an ounce of Navy Cut ready rubbed tobacco.

I have used the wonder of the internet to try and find out. I found an actor called Bill Wallis, you might recognise his warm, treacly voice, or possibly have seen him playing 'bespectacled lurker' in Brazil (1985), Gaoler Ploppy in Blackadder II, or Archbishop Cranmer in The Other Boleyn Girl.

There is also a Bill Wallis who has a golf tournament in Missouri named after him, and another who is a chiropractor in Ontario, but I seriously doubt whether any of them have much to do with geraniums.

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No expert 04/10/2013 at 22:45

One of the few flowers growing in my yard. 4 different clumps of it some as big as a car bonnet. Only knew it as Purple Geranium. Got some from my mom and more from a woman i used do a spot of gardening for. Great plant.

waterbutts 05/10/2013 at 23:33

I think it comes into the category of "be careful what you wish for" plants. Like oriental poppies and forgetmenots.

Still, I suppose if you have a spot where nothing else will grow, Bill Wallis is the man to fill it.

Btw, are you from north America or do you really grow it in a yard? It would be tough enough I suppose.

No expert 06/10/2013 at 14:36

Sorry for the Americanism, Didn't mean to say that really because it is growing in my lawn. Watching too much US tv.

Ian Gosling 07/06/2014 at 20:35

Bill Wallis was my father-in-law. He was a passionate gardener and plantsman, who lived for most of his life in the village of Buckden in Cambridgeshire.

Bill was born in 1919, and his love of gardening was inspired and encouraged by his mother. After graduating from Reading University he joined the Ministry of Agriculture as a scientific officer, initially in Nottingham, then at Rosewarne in Cornwall. In the late 1960's he returned to live in Buckden when transferred to the MAFF offices in Cambridge where he was a senior horticultural advisor.

He took over his mother's garden, which extends to about 3/4 acre and quickly established himself as a leading light of both the Buckden Gardener's Association and the Buckden Winemakers, and for many years hosted a rather boozy annual barbecue for the winemakers in his garden.

After his retirement in 1979, Bill established a small horticultural nursery in the garden. The "Useful Plant Co." specialised in rare and unusual hardy perennials, and whilst he never made a fortune (not that that was ever his intention) it gave him an opportunity to share his love of plants with customers and other growers from far and wide.

He was also an active member of the Hardy Plant society, and for many years curated part of the Chrysanthemum Rubellum national collection. Hardy Geraniums were always amongst his favourite plants and the variety "Bill Wallis" was named for him by a nurseryman friend when the plant was first shown at Chelsea.

Sadly Bill passed away in 1991 at the age of 72, but his memory lives on. Always generous with both his time and his plants - many of the village gardens are filled with his plants and his ideas. The rose walk he planted in the local churchyard, just opposite his house, is looking splendid at the moment; and later in the year we will enjoy the underplanting of Autumn Crocus.

Shortly before Bill's death the Channel 4 Garden Club programme had arranged to feature his garden. The family decided it should go ahead as a tribute to Bill, and the plant that Roy Lancaster chose open the programme with was of course Geranium pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallis'

Bill's garden has seen many changes over the years, but it is still very much his, and will continue to be so for many years to come as my wife and myself now live in the old family house and tend the garden in which "Bill Wallis" continues to flourish.

Scott Edwards 07/06/2014 at 21:05

The entry in my Hardy Geranium book says:

G. pyrenaicum 'Bill Wallis.' Dark bluish purple. Very pretty, but is capable of spreading like a weed. The name is often misspelled 'Bill Wallace.'

I believe it spreads by scattering an enormous amount of seed, which germinate and grow quickly  steamrollering other plants in the garden. Therefore have to be careful where you plant it if you allow it into your garden.

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