The similarity of the British climate and range of soils to those of such varied places as Europe (including the Mediterranean coast), the mountains of northern India and western China, the Pacific coast of North America, the isles of Japan, and even parts of South America, has made it possible, from very early times, to over-come the poverty of the native British flora by bringing plants from overseas. A few examples are the potato and runner bean from South America; rhododendrons from south-east Europe, North America, China and Tibet; apples from the continent of Europe (only the harsh, almost inedible kind of crab apple is a native); the horse chestnut from the Balkans; and all roses, except those of the hedgerows, from the continents of Europe, Asia and North America. Some of these plants now grow more vigorously in the British Isles than they do in their natural homes.


There are no reliable records of how plants were brought to this country before 1548, when William Turner, who had a garden at Kew, compiled a list of plants-grown in England. He named a number of plants from overseas already well known in cultivation. Such were the black mulberry, now believed to have originated in central China; southern-wood or lad’s love (Artemisia abrolanum) from southern Europe; the winter cherry (Physalis alkekengi) from Europe; the almond and apricot from western Asia; the common white jasmine, which ranges from Persia to Kashmir and China; and the old red paeony from southern Europe.

In 1596, John Gerard, who was gardener to Lord Burleigh, but who also had his own physic garden in Holborn, added very considerably to the list by publishing a catalogue of the plants he grew, some 1,030 kinds. Sometimes he named the man who introduced a plant, usually a merchant or someone with overseas trading connections, who was also a gardener. It is to be noted that his list included plants from across the Atlantic, such as the so-called African marigold from Mexico, and the tomato (long grown for decoration but not eaten) from western South America.

The potato is without doubt one of the most important and valuable plants ever introduced into the English garden and, much later, to the farm. This picture and description were the first to be published, not only in England but in Europe.

The manner of the arrival of the potato has long been a puzzle. Gerard wrote that it came from Virginia. Tradition has it, in one version, that Drake introduced it to Britain, while another and more popular version maintains that Ralegh was responsible. There are extremely sound reasons for dismissing these stories as legends, for the potato is a native of South America and was quite unknown in North America until a century after Drake’s single visit there, and Ralegh never visited Virginia.

The true history seems to be this: the Spaniards originally collected tubers from their Spanish colonies, probably in the 1560’s; they certainly cultivated them as early as 1573. By 1580 Spanish ships were being provisioned with them. When Drake raided Cartagena he apparently seized supplies of the Spanish tubers and had some on board when he brought back to England from Virginia a certain Thomas Harriot, mathematician and scientist. It was Harriot who realized their importance, and obtained some to give to his botanical friends, among them Gerard. Harriot’s patron was Ralegh, who also received some roots and was probably the first to grow the plant on his estates in Ireland.

Within the next few years there was a steady influx of plants and trees from the English estates in North America, or via Paris from French colonies in America. Others came through Dutch traders in the Cape and East Indies. The horse chestnut, which plays such a lovely part in the spring landscape, arrived from Constantinople via France, during or shortly after 1615. It was long believed to originate in India, but in 1879 was found to be a native of Greece and Albania.

In 1629 John Parkinson published his are noted many plants new since Gerard’s Herball. It also contains an account of John Tradescant, formerly the famous gardener at the Earl of Salisbury’s Hatfield House, and one of the earliest gardener-botanist plant collectors. From Hatfield House, Tradescant travelled to the nurseries and botanic gardens of Europe buying rare plants for his employer. When Salisbury died in 1612, Tradescant went to work for Lord Wotton, and, becoming interested in the Virginian trade, imported many new American plants. One of these was later chosen by the great botanist Linnaeus to bear his name: Tradescantia. Several kinds of this plant are now very popular as room plants, but the one Tradescant obtained was hardy, the spiderwort Tradescantia virginiana.

Tradescant then joined a band of gentleman adventurers formed to harry the Barbary pirates, and was soon making highly dangerous landings on the Barbary coast of North Africa to collect plants. A quieter spell at home then followed, and he was soon appointed gardener to the favourite of King James I, the Duke of Buckingham, who addressed letters to the Admiralty urging the officers of His Majesty’s ships to make every endeavour to obtain rare plants for the Duke’s collection — Tradescant, of course, being responsible for these requests.

During the 17th century a number of new plants came to England through the so-called ‘Turkey Merchants’, an English trading community centred at Aleppo. It seems fairly certain that the merchants’ chaplain, the Rev. Edward Pococke, was responsible for introducing, in about 1640, the cedar of Lebanon, a tree that during the succeeding centuries has lent great dignity to the lawns of many houses and parks.

Much that was new came from Holland, then as now a nation of gardeners. At that time the Dutch had close connections with South Africa and the Dutch East Indies and introduced many of the strange and brightly coloured Cape bulbs which can be grown in Britain if kept free from frost.

Dutch traders were also almost the only contact with the then largely unapproachable islands of Japan — for centuries the home of wonderful garden art. In 1690 the German traveller, Kaempfer, was attached to the Dutch Embassy in Japan. The result of his two-year stay was the first account of the natural history of Japan, its plants and gardens. The popular and exotic-looking Japanese Iris kaempferi is named after him.

From Holland also came the great vogue for the tulip. This remarkable plant arrived in about 1578 via Holland from Vienna, having been introduced there from Constantinople in about 155-1. By 1629 Parkinson was able to name HO varieties. Many other plants came from France, particularly pears, many of which today still bear French names.

Quite as important as those who collected the new plants were those at home who were prepared to pay for them and cultivate them. At Fulham Palace, Henry Compton, who became Bishop of Lon-don in 1675, grew for the first time in England many trees and plants, particularly those that had come from North America. In his stove houses, seeds from the East and West Indies were raised. A contemporary described his collection of these ‘Indian’ plants as ‘very wonderful and scarcely credible’. But when Compton died in 1713, his successor either destroyed or sold this wonderful collection of ‘exotics’ — and replaced it with vegetables and fruits.

The London Quaker, haberdasher and linen draper, Peter Collinson, began growing plants collected from all over the world in the garden of his house at Peckham (then a quiet village in Surrey) and later at Mill Hill. Through his business connections with North America and the West Indies, many plants were sent to him. In 1731 he received an orchid from the Bahamas which he successfully brought to flower — the first tropical orchid to bloom in England. In return for helping to finance the travels of the American John Bartram, founder of the first botanical garden in America, near Philadelphia, Collinson received the first azaleas and rhododendrons to be grown in England, as well as maples, magnolias, and other plants now found in many gardens.

In 1772 Kew Gardens sent overseas the first of its numerous plant collectors, the Aberdonian, Francis Masson. Me travelled principally in the Cape of Good Mope, and to him are owed the plants from which the modern cineraria has been bred; the Cape heather, popular in green-houses and as a room plant; and many bulbs.

John Frazer of Inverness, who was a Chelsea draper, became absorbed in the plants of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and resolved to go to America as a collector, making his first visit in 1780.

In 1796 he went to Russia, sold a collection of plants to the Empress Catherine, and obtained a commission to collect plants for Tsar Paul. But when he returned with them, a new Tsar was on the throne who refused to acknowledge him. On his final trip he collected a rhododendron, R. calawbiense, which he never saw flower. This was to become the chief ancestor of the race of hardy rhododendrons that is now such a prominent feature of many gardens and parks in early summer.

05. September 2013 by admin
Categories: Gardening History, Plant Biology, Top Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on HISTORY OF BRITISH PLANTS


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