[There are] many plants which are curiosities only, which nature meant to be grotesque, not beautiful, and which are generally the growth of hot countries where things sprout over—quick and rank. Take note that the strangest of these come from the jungle and the tropical waste, from places where man is not at home, but is an intruder, an enemy.
— William Morris, 1882
This is a story of English cultural beliefs about where plants belong. For at least a hundred years people have debated the merits of growing foreign plants, particularly those of tropical origin, together with natives in the English domestic garden. As the numbers of "new" plants introduced into English gardens grew in the 19th century, fears for the future of the English garden and the nature of the plants it contained also increased. William Morris, for example, believed that tropical plants did not belong in domestic gardens, but should be confined to specific places: "Go to a botanic garden and look at them and think of those strange places to your heart's content." The model English garden, largely constructed from myth and hazy memory, was the backdrop against which campaigns to protect so-called native species against foreign "invaders" were most often played out. These campaigns had nationalistic overtones, citing the moral and artistic superiority of natives over foreigners, and still resonate today in current conservationist debates about indigenous landscapes.
The beginnings of the "natural" English garden
Gardening with exotic plants, although prevalent for most of the 19th century, had been held in check by fondness for "old-fashioned" plants, or "pretty little English natives" throughout. In the middle of the century it was common to recommend that a member of "the town-dwelling middle class … might blend with the beauties of his own land some of the more striking productions of tropical regions." But protest against those gardeners who steadfastly refused to cease cultivating their alien taste at the expense of "our sweet-scented, old-fashioned English natives" accelerated as the 19th century moved toward the 20th. The most vociferous critic of this style of gardening was the gardener and journalist William Robinson (1838–1935).
The story of the transition from the high Victorian gardening style (brightly colored masses of tender plants, often of South American and South African origin, laid out in geometric patterns) to the so-called English, natural gardening movement (informally laid out drifts of hardy plants which could survive the winter) has been told before. In simple terms there were tensions between art and nature, architect and gardener/plantsman, and, to a certain extent, between alien and native. However, these tensions were always more evident in print than on the ground, particularly as they were perpetuated by William Robinson in his promotion of native and hardy naturalized plants in The Wild Garden (1871), The English Flower Garden (1883), and a host of other book and periodical titles until the 1930s. According to one report of the 1912 Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, "Mr. Robinson smashed the Victorian garden beyond repair." But Robinson was only the most vociferous critic of "unnatural methods" of gardening with non-hardy exotics, and many other writers proposed a model of the English garden that increasingly excluded alien plants, or those plants of alien appearance, which required artificial propagation methods in temperate climates.
Protecting this new model English garden from invasion gained urgency as it was increasingly used to represent the nation's ideals as a whole. The invention of tradition within garden craft at this time was closely associated with folk revivals in architecture, dress, music, food, and other aspects of culture. The incessant demand for new and foreign species and their hybridity frightened traditionalists into calling for the preservation of "Old English" plants, to protect them from racial, cultural, and technological impurity.
Horticultural nationalism in its most triumphantly patriotic form seems rarely to have been found in private gardens. Rather, it took root in public arenas designed explicitly for the display of national might and munificence. In 1861 the Horticultural Society of London received its royal charter and a site for new gardens, around which the International Exhibition of 1862 was arranged. As the centerpiece to the "imperial archive" at South Kensington, the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens provided the perfect theater for the expression of national pride and prejudice. The square at the heart of the garden was divided into four parts, each representing, in colored stone and bedding plants, the national floral symbols of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales: "The triangles are elaborate examples of scroll work, in which may be traced out, without difficulty … the outlines of the Rose, Shamrock, Thistle, and Leek."
In many ways the Royal Horticultural Society gardens marked a watershed in the history of 19th-century garden design and culture. Critics of the "South Kensington" style of gardening cited excessive artifice in the breeding, propagation, and display of plants, and overuse of non-plant materials as the reasons for the debasement of the nation's gardens, as these methods of design and culture were more often associated with tender exotics than with hardy native varieties. In fact it was the culmination of a process that began with the first plant introductions, where rare and strange-looking plants were prized for their otherness, laid out and labeled as objects of wonder, only to be gradually subsumed into the body of the "English" garden. However, between 1860 and 1870, as a taste for excitingly unfamiliar plants filtered down to those who planted small gardens, the few murmurs of protest against the time and money wasted upon tender exotics in the nation's gardens swelled to an audible crescendo, advocating the use of both indigenous species and hardy exotics which could survive the rigors of the English climate unaided by glass and constant cosseting by gardeners.
Reinventing the English garden
This was a time when agricultural crises, urban and suburban growth, industrialization, and increasing technological innovation invested in the garden by the horticultural trade (and the number of new plants introduced) all conspired to make the largely invented tradition of the supposedly simple, pre-industrial (essentially idealized peasant) garden additionally attractive.
From around 1870 the model of national garden design had increasingly become an idealized "English" one. Aided by the growing popularity of artists' watercolor impressions of cottage and small country-house gardens, and the proliferation of similar images in poetry and prose, the idea of the English garden had become a powerfully symbolic and pervasive presence in late 19th-century print culture. This new "Old-English" garden was derived from idealized old-fashioned, usually cottage, gardens; its evocative appeal was due in large measure to increased animosity toward exotics, bedding, and other "unnatural" plants and their cultural requirements. Collaborations by artists and writers advocating this English garden between about 1870 and WWI ensured its continued visibility, and it was reproduced everywhere from technical gardening books and seed packets to greeting cards and crockery.
There was a concerted attempt to encourage the cultivation of a particular form of "Englishness" in domestic gardens and in parts of public gardens (walled "Shakespeare" and Tudor gardens, for instance), and efforts were made to theorize arguments about the inappropriateness of some horticultural foreigners in the English garden. These theories were reactionary and frequently theoretically inconsistent. The strong emotional associations of the subject and its supposed national bearing nevertheless ensured that thousands of column inches would be devoted to the arguments, their proponents, and to literary and pictorial representations of idealized "English gardens."
Cottage-like mixtures of vegetables and simple flowers were recommended for all sorts of gardens, rich and poor, on the grounds that they were inexpensive as well as traditional. These were heralded as the morally correct alternative to exotic and expensive plants in the garden, the latter being emblems of arriviste suburban and cottager classes whose presence, like their plants, further disrupted the harmony of the already precarious state of the rural English landscape. Writers heralded the cottage garden as the archive of traditional English domestic values. Here was a landscape preserved from the corrupting influences of competitive consumption and mass-produced goods, and which appeared to maintain its links with the pre-industrial past. Because the cottage garden seems to have attained something of a metaphysical status in the collective psyche, maintaining the tradition became a national preoccupation. Cottagers had long been accused of neglecting their gardens or, worse, allowing them to be corrupted by the modern plants seen in the gardens of their social superiors, an accusation carried into the 20th century. Cheap food, the public house, and, later, the cinema, were all blamed for distracting the cottager from his proper place in the garden. Critics suggested that the neglect of the cottage garden was as bad for the morale of the country as it was for the morals of the cottager.
While tender, usually tropical, exotics were falling out of favor with proponents of the English gardening movement in this period, hardy exotics were usually welcomed. Hardy aliens were assimilated by their ability to withstand temperate (as opposed to torrid or frigid) climates, and they were naturally selected for their place in the English garden.
Mrs. T. Francis Foster's On the Art of Gardening (1881) was a "plea for English gardens of the future with practical hints." Mrs. Foster appealed for a return to the aesthetics of a glorified English past, which she located somewhere between the late 14th and the early 17th centuries, and gave instructions for making a Chaucerian garden, a Shakespearean garden, and Tudor and Elizabethan gardens. These gardens were truly native, she reasoned, not only because they provided "sweet retired places for lilies of sorts or for roses or for specimens of British flowers," but also because even when they harbored foreign plants, the dates at which these had been originally introduced were key moments in English political, military, and cultural history. These plants, claimed Foster, were imported when England and its gardens were at their most beautiful, because the nation state was at its most powerful at home and abroad. However, although she wrote at the height of Britain's imperial might, Foster found little to commend in the plants imported for the Victorian garden. Perhaps she found the sheer numbers of foreigners arriving in the English garden unsettling, even though, over time, many of these would seem as much at home as longer established and native varieties.
Despite the fact that many prominent horticultural journalists ran nurseries and undertook regular garden design commissions, there was a strong emphasis in the press upon the superior aesthetic taste of the amateur gardener. Head gardeners and their staff were by definition lower class, and by implication mechanistic, insensitive to the "genius of the place," and overly impressed by the sorts of modern horticultural technology that preferred innovation, immediate gratification, and overall effect at the expense of subtlety, detail, and "natural intuitiveness." Thus professional gardeners and florists (specialist growers of particular flowers) were held largely responsible for the "depraved" style of gardening, being heavily dependent upon masses of tender exotic species, reproduced from regular cuttings, and planted out seasonally in elaborate patterns. Bedding plants stood for all that was repulsive to the "true" English gardener. Everything about "bedders"—their color, layout, breeding, and procreation—was "unnatural." Industrial production, warned traditionalists, was infiltrating the English domestic garden.
Rhododendrons in an English garden. From William Robinson, The English Flower Garden (7th edition, London, 1899) Cultural contamination
The criticism of "unnatural" or "ignoble" gardening was also founded upon the repugnance felt by many at the sexual language that had been used to describe modern propagation (and classification) since the 18th century. The foreign origin of many of these plants and their offspring, and the sultry conditions often required for their cultivation, rendered any sexual connotations even more firmly entrenched. The increasingly apparent interference with nature, especially artificial breeding, in the garden through horticultural science upset social commentators such as John Ruskin and William Morris (who thought bedding, or "carpet-gardening," "an aberration of the human mind" and "blush[ed] with shame at the thought" of it).
Attitudes towards aliens and natives and their respective sexuality in the garden were often revealed in discussions about scent. They followed an uneasy and rarely convincing path, which cast one group of scented plants as innocent and English, and another as overblown and foreign. The Gentlewoman's Book of Gardening
(1892), for example, refused a place in the English garden to the foreign relative of the English bluebell because of its feminized, oriental associations:
The hyacinth is one of the few florist's flowers which has a perfume. But its smell is not an English one—it is too rich and heavy. Rather does it breathe reminiscences of its Eastern home, and we associate it more readily with the song of the bulbul, and "the fragrant flowers of Amherabad," than with an English garden. It is one of the harem of night flowers.
The book protested foreign invaders:
The marguerites are perhaps the only plants of purely British breed. The geranium has numerous English relations, and may be considered a naturalized foreigner. The pelargonium is, however, a decided colonial, and hails from the Cape of Good Hope. The begonias are tropical invaders [from South America], and have somewhat of an alien look upon a smooth English lawn, whilst the abutilon comes from Brazil. The Gladioli come from the Cape of Good Hope, and the Dahlias from Mexico … Against this terrible invasion of foreigners we would protest.
The authors could not afford to apply their immigration policy too strictly, however. Apart from the fact that the public would find such a wholesale revolution untenable, for practical and financial as well as aesthetic reasons, a complete ban on "foreigners" would have left the English garden rather bare. Instead, Edith Chamberlain and Fanny Douglas suggested a horticultural compromise. They recommended that:
a certain proportion of [the foreigners] may be admitted as ambassadors, and their brilliant uniforms will give status and distinction to the floral court, but they should not be allowed to oust wholly our sweet-scented, old-fashioned English natives."13
Some foreigners could earn their place in the English garden, then, provided they did not overrun or outshine its native varieties.
Not surprisingly, horticultural technology was defended most ardently by those practicing it. The seed company, Sutton and Sons, for example, noted in 1884 how a "real revolution has taken place in the economy and complexion of the English flower garden."
On the eve of its centenary in 1905, the firm was attributing this in large part to "hybridization, the crossing of one variety with another, and by … patient selection and reselection."
It lauded the "cultivators [who] are at this moment tending flowers in the antipodes and the Himalayas to beautify English gardens in due time."
Because Sutton's was a family of seed merchants (as opposed to nurserymen), it had a particular investment in recommending growing plants from seed rather than from "the laborious and precarious mode of perpetuation from cuttings" required for popular (and much criticized) modern bedding schemes.
According to this logic, the selection and reselection of seeds, both foreign and native, would improve the stock of plants for the nation's gardens. Claims of "improving" strains and races of plants through selective breeding enabled seedsmen to counter any suggestion that their methods would lead to miscegenation. These claims were informed by contemporary discussions about eugenics and belonged to the same tradition of social Darwinism that argued for the replacement of sickly tender plants in the English garden with the hardy stock emanating from the temperate northern world.
Others resisting the cottage model English garden included those who made small suburban and town gardens, probably on the grounds that their homes would thereby resemble those of the agricultural poor. For example, Mary Hampden seemed to offer a direct challenge to the English garden proposed by The Gentlewoman's Book of Gardening
. In Every Woman's Flower Garden
(1915), Hampden purposefully introduced some exoticized horticultural passion into what she saw as the lackluster planting of the typical early 20th-century English suburban garden. This was a garden "that might, just as economically, display the scarce-known glories of the Veldt, blaze with the vivid blossoms that have been introduced from South and West America, blush with roses, shiver with the silver of lilies."
Although Hampden's plea can be read as an appeal for a return to imperial triumphalism in the garden, especially given its publication date, it was also a protest against the top-down direction of horticultural criticism which rebuked villa and suburban gardens in particular for their highly visible and obstinate attachment to exotics. Hampden complained about the "vast amount of nonsense—disheartening nonsense too—[which] is talked about small gardens by critics." She condemned the writing in "the press [which] sneered at tablecloth lawns, pocket-handkerchief beds, and ribbon-wide borders"
as horticultural snobbery dressed up as aesthetic truth. Other "ordinary" gardeners writing at this time also continued to cultivate an interest in exotics. For S. Graveson, author of My Villa Garden
, exotic introductions such as the red-hot poker reflected a fascination with the generalized difference of places "abroad," places to which he would not otherwise have access. In his own "little world" (a garden which measured approximately 25 feet wide by 100 feet long), he was "always discovering something new":
Every month of the year reveals the floral treasures of many lands than our own. The exigencies of twentieth-century civilization do not permit of more than a small minority of us becoming explorers of the wild places of the earth, but in a garden we may experience some of the feelings of the explorers as we watch the breaking of the earth crust in spring.
Undoubtedly Graveson saw these floral treasures as exotic others to the treasures of his own land, with all of the cultural imbalances that those terms imply. However, this mixed garden with its possibilities for growing a range of plants with different cultural requirements, whilst remembering their origins, provides a model that can more easily accommodate aliens and natives, and begins to merge the distinctions between them.
Rhodo-bashing versus multiculturalism
Today, although there is a general move toward appreciating the value of natives, usually on environmental grounds, arguments over where foreign species do or do not belong are more likely to take place in the context of the British countryside rather than its gardens. Hardy and tender exotics have arguably become as much accepted, and expected, as native varieties in English gardens. For example, one garden writer finds that "the sight of a foreign tree in the countryside can affect me like a piece of grit in the eye" for both aesthetic and "worthy" ecological reasons, but finds their presence acceptable in suburban gardens.
Most reactions to foreigners concentrate on the threat posed to indigenous species and the ecosystems they support, and their aesthetic differences are highlighted in order to illustrate how they are somehow essentially out of place in the countryside. Although increasingly controversial, the "foreigners out" mentality of recent naturalism is widespread in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
Julian Agyeman has written on this subject in the context of heritage in a multicultural society, comparing the reception of alien plants by conservationists to that of "immigrant" cultures in Britain—seen "as being interesting but ultimately unequal and inferior to the 'native culture'":
Conservationists and ecologists see "alien" plants as being inferior, in wildlife terms, to "native" plants. Whilst there is some scientific evidence for this, it is by no means universal, especially in our warmer urban areas, which are home to a rich ecological tapestry of plants from around the world resulting from botanic garden/domestic escapes, plant collecting, trade … war and travel. The "immigrant-native" and "alien-native" schism in our society, and increasingly in Europe … runs very deep.
In another article, Agyeman and Phil Kinsman show that while alien plants are acceptable in gardens and even growing wild in industrial or urban areas, they are unwelcome, or out of (their) place, in the countryside.
In particular, they discuss the alarmist reporting of the invasion and "ethnic cleansing" of groups of naturalized aliens in the British countryside during the 1990s, and the xenophobia expressed by much environmentalist rhetoric. This is associated particularly with the control of escaped colonies of rhododendrons.
Ironically Robinson, the "father" of modern ecology,
was at least partly responsible for popularizing the naturalization of hardy rhododendron varieties on their own root stocks (rather than less hardy varieties grafted onto hardy stocks) in British gardens.
Escaped descendants of these rhododendrons are now the bêtes noires of many modern conservationists. The practice of rhododendron control in modern times has been euphemized as "rhodo-bashing" by some preservationists, echoing the racist language and practice of British fascist groups in the late 20th century.
The authors of a paper on urban restoration note that, in Britain, "'rhodo' (rhododendron)—or 'syccie' (sycamore)—'bashing' expeditions" have been joined more recently "with increasingly vigorous destructive campaigns being waged against a more recent invader, Japanese knotweed" (also popularized by Robinson):
These negative attitudes persist in spite of the fact that, for example, the sycamore supports a larger biomass of invertebrates than does the "revered" English oak … whilst such species certainly are both foreign and invasive, they are not devoid of ecological merit.
Yet the conservation writer Richard Mabey points out that although the commonest of the pink-flowered rhododendrons "is regarded as a menace in many parts of western Britain, where it has escaped from gardens and built up impenetrable, obstinately rooted, evergreen thickets at the expense of almost all other species … it may just be reclaiming old territory." Mabey stresses that "subjective value judgments are … inevitable in attitudes towards individual species, and in deciding whether they 'belong'" in particular places. In the case of naturalized rhododendrons, he says, they are removed "either because qualifications of nativeness are restricted on theoretical grounds to those plants that arrived here of their own accord, or more practically, because it is an aggressive shrub and a poor habitat for birds and insects."
"It is not universally hated," however, and he says that because the rhododendron is "less inclined to invade" in some drier climates, it is "tolerated as cover for birds." And, in a final ironic twist, "even where rhododendron is at its most imperialistic … it does have some historic interest" because it has escaped from the large estates of the wealthy.
Rearguard actions to exclude certain alien plants from the English garden at the turn of the 19th century, and from the English countryside at the turn of the 20th, appeared just as the landscapes that these actions were designed to protect seemed most under threat. Agricultural crises, social and demographic change, and, more recently, ecological fears helped give rise to the idea of preserving an ancient, ordered, and stable landscape, from cottagers' small holdings to parts of the surrounding countryside. However, not all responses to social and environmental change have attempted to manage or control this change with recourse to policies of exclusion. In recent years, a more inclusive and forward-looking approach to incorporating plants from around the world, usually known as multicultural gardening, was born from dissatisfaction with both the language and practice of excluding certain foreign plants on the grounds of their racial, cultural, or apparent difference to native and longer-established species.
Multicultural gardening is increasingly practiced in municipal parks and gardens in London and elsewhere in Britain. As the author of a handbook on multicultural gardening for a London borough says, "Gardens in Britain have always included plants and ideas from around the world, yet in the 20th century, plants that are perceived as 'too foreign' have fallen out of favor." However, he believes that "interest in 'exotic' plants is now growing, both because they often look spectacular, and because they are part of the heritage of Britain's many ethnic groups."
Exotic plants are part of British heritage per se, and belong to an inclusive model of gardening, which does not favor particular species or varieties on the basis of their geographical origin. It is, in fact, the way that most of us garden, but with a more explicit agenda. In this inclusive British garden, exotics are welcomed rather than tolerated; they are not considered as potential invaders intent on de-nationalizing an idealized indigenous garden. The Chumleigh Multicultural Gardens in southeast London are made up of a series of interconnected gardens, designed to reflect the various ethnic groups they serve. There is an African–Caribbean garden, an Islamic garden, an Oriental garden, a Mediterranean garden, and, finally, an English or British garden. Instructively, the plant labels in this last plot show the exotic origins of many plants in the traditional English garden. Whether or not this approach will ever be transferred to the countryside remains to be seen.
- William Morris, "Hopes and Fears for Art" , in May Morris, ed., The Collected Works of William Morris, vol. 18 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1910–15), pp. 89–90.
- See, for example, "Domestic Notices," Gardener's Magazine ,no. 5, (1830), p. 487. Elizabeth Kent grew these in favor of "sickly geraniums."
- Shirley Hibberd, Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (London: Groombridge and Sons, 1857), p. 153.
- Edith Chamberlain and Fanny Douglas, The Gentlewoman's Book of Gardening, The Victoria Library for Gentlewomen (London: Henry & Co., 1892), p. 47.
- See Brent Elliott, Victorian Gardens (London: Batsford, 1886), and David Ottewill, The Edwardian Garden (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989).
- Reginald Cory, The Horticultural Record (London: J. & A. Churchill, 1914), p. 9.
- Floral World 4, no. 6, (1861), p. 126 and Gossip for the Garden, no. 7 (February 1862), p. 52.
- See Andrew Clayton-Payne with Brent Elliott, English Flower Gardens (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), p. 73.
- William Morris, "Hopes and Fears for Art," in William Robinson, The English Flower Garden , (London: John Murray, 1899), p. 204.
- Chamberlain and Douglas, The Gentlewoman's Book of Gardening, op. cit., p. 44.
- Ibid., pp. 46–47.
- Ibid., p. 47.
- Sutton & Sons, The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots (London: Hamilton Adams & Co., 1884), p. 196.
- Sutton & Sons, "After One Hundred Years," The Times, (22 December 1905), p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- Sutton & Sons, Culture of Vegetables and Flowers, op. cit., pp. 194–195.
- Mary Hampden, Every Woman's Flower Garden (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1915), pp. 5–6.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Foreword in S. Graveson, My Villa Garden (London: Headley Brothers, 1916).
- Ursula Buchan, "Blending In," The Garden: Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, (August 1998), p. 596.
- See Gert Groenig and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, "Changes in the Philosophy of Garden Architecture in the 20th Century and their Impact upon the Social and Spatial Environment," Journal of Garden History 9, no. 2, (1989), p. 65, for a discussion of nationalism in recent German naturalism. The authors argue that "this turn to nature is not incidental; it seems part of a process of social restoration" (p. 69) and draw parallels between present day environmental nationalism and earlier manifestations in the German garden. Elsewhere they also make clear connections between the nature garden under the German Reich and the "wild" garden movement begun by William Robinson in England. See Wolschke-Bulmahn and Groenig, "The Ideology of the Nature Garden: Nationalistic Trends in Garden Design in Germany during the Early Twentieth Century," Journal of Garden History 12, no. 1, (1992), and Wolschke-Bulmahn, "The 'Wild Garden' and the 'Nature Garden': Aspects of the Ideology of William Robinson and Willy Lange," Journal of Garden History 12, no. 3, (1992).
- Julian Agyeman, "Heritage in a Multicultural Society: Alien Species," Museums Journal, December 1993, p. 22.
- C. Yarrow, quoted in Agyeman and Kinsman, "Analysing Macro- and Microenvironments from a Multicultural Perspective," in Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, ed., Cultural Diversity, Developing Museum Audiences in Britain (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), pp. 84–85.
- See Wolschke-Bulmahn, "'Wild Garden' and the 'Nature Garden,'" op. cit., pp
- Miles Hadfield, A History of British Gardening (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), pp. 328–329.
- Julian Agyeman and Phil Kinsman, Analysing Macro- and Microenvironments from a Multicultural Perspective, p. 84. "Paki-bashing" was used to describe racist attacks on British Pakistanis or, in effect, anyone who appeared Asian to attackers.
- Margaret Kilvington, Jo Rosier, Roger Wilkinson, and Claire Freeman, "Urban Restoration: Social Opportunities and Constraints," Landcare Research Science Collaborative Learning Urban Management Paper, (September 2001).
- Richard Mabey, The Common Ground: The History, Evolution and Future of Britain's Countryside , (London: J. M. Dent, 1993), p. 166.
- Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996), p. 158.
- Mike Prime, Multicultural Gardening (Lewisham Leisure, Nature Conservation Section, 1993), p. 1.
Rebecca Preston researches and writes about garden history and suburban development. She lives in London.
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