Flowers from Abroad

Wilfrid Blunt explains the history of British flora's natives and invasives

In making a survey of the introduction of plants into British gardens and greenhouses there seem to be two possible methods of approach: to trace, generation by generation, the additions made to our stock of plants; or to discuss in turn the contributions of the various countries that have supplemented our beautiful, but limited, native flora. These two methods are not so different as might at first sight appear; for as new territories were brought within reach of botanical observation, they yielded their treasures to our store: Europe, the Near East, Mexico and Peru, North America, the Cape, Australasia, Central and South America and the East Indies, and finally Japan and China, were successively combed for plants that would endure our treacherous climate or whose superior beauty justified their inclusion in the stove-house. Such is the rough sequence of discovery.

Though the medieval garden was primarily a herb garden, with a strong emphasis upon utility, the beauty of certain useful plants was not unappreciated. Many of these were native British wild flowers which were later gradually driven outside the fence by the introduction of more spectacular exotics. A few of those grown by the medieval gardener—such as the foxglove, yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) and gladdon (Iris foetidissima)—we still retain; others, such as the daisy (Beilis perennis), we find difficulty in exterminating; but the majority—poppy, primrose, cowslip, periwinkle and cornflower, for example—we now either grow in cultivated forms or leave for the pleasure of a country ramble. But even before the Middle Ages, English gardens contained certain flowers that had come to us from across the water. The Romans had probably introduced the snowdrop and the vine (and, incidentally, the most venomous form of stinging-nettle, Urtica pilulifera, which they valued as a pot-herb); and no one can tell when the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) first reached our shores from the Levant.

Alexander Neckam, who was appointed Abbot of Cirencester in 1213, tells us in his De Naturis Rerum that the garden,

“should be adorned with roses and lilies, turnsole, violets, and mandrake; there you should have parsley and cost, and fennel, and southernwood, and coriander, sage, savory, hyssop, mint, rue, dittany, smallage, pellitory, lettuce, garden cress, peonies. There should also be planted beds with onions, leeks, garlick, pumpkins, and shalots; cucumber, poppy, daffodil, and acanthus ought to be in a good garden. There should also be pottage herbs, such as beets, herb mercury, orach, sorrel, and mallows”.

This list can be substantially enlarged from the plants mentioned in John Gardener’s The Feast of Gardening (1440 or earlier). It contains a number of British wild flowers—the daisy, cowslip, foxglove, gladdon iris, henbane, primrose, periwinkle, honeysuckle and many others; to these were added certain plants— for instance, the hollyhock, vine, lavender and crocus (Crocus sativus)—which, like Neckam’s lily, peony, acanthus, mandrake and cucumber, were exotics from the European mainland or the Near East. The cabbage or Provence rose (Rosa centifolia), possibly of western Asian origin, is mentioned by Chaucer, and the red rose of Lancaster may have been the Provence rose or the damask.

William Turner (d. 1568), the Father of English Botany, was for a time in charge of the Protector Somerset’s garden at Sion House. His Herball (1551-64) is valuably supplemented by his Names of Herbes (1548), which establishes the fact that a number of well-known plants—e.g., the mulberry (Morns niger), apricot, almond, white jasmine, oriental plane, winter cherry (Physalis Alkekengi)—were already growing in this country during the first half of the sixteenth century. The few exotic plants to reach England before this time had entered by stealth at some moment rarely determinable with any accuracy. But during, roughly, the Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages— the period from about 1560 to 1620—the flower garden, as we know it to-day, began to be systematically built up by the labours of botanists and horticulturists in various parts of Europe.

The majority of plants then introduced were natives of south and south-east Europe and the Near East, but an interesting group were the first arrivals from the New World. Almost all of them reached our gardens after a sojourn, usually of brief duration, in one or more European countries. By far the most important centre of introduction was the court of the Austrian Hapsburgs, where three of the greatest botanists of the day—the Italian Pierandrea Mattioli (1501-1577), and the Flemings Charles de L’Ecluse (1526-1609), better known as Clusius, and Rembart Dodoens (1517-1585), were at one time or another in service. Jean and Vespasien Robin in Paris, and John Gerard (1545-1612), gardener to Lord Burghley, and John Tradescant the Elder (d. 1637) in London, received many valuable plants from Vienna, and thus the newest discoveries passed into the gardens of France and England. Botanical gardens were established in Italy (Padua, Pisa, Florence and Bologna), Holland (Leyden), France (Montpellier and Paris), Germany (Heidelberg), and finally England (Oxford). All over western Europe, gardens were also formed by private owners for the cultivation of rare plants. This wave of enthusiasm for beautiful—as opposed to merely useful—plants, and especially for bulbous plants, was responsible for the floral embroideries fashionable at the French court, the engraved flower-books of France, the Low Countries and Germany, and the Flemish and Dutch cult of the flower-piece; it reached its climax in the fantastic Tulipomania that swept Europe in the opening decades of the seventeenth century.

Our most valuable contemporary source of information is unquestionably Clusius’s Rariorum Plantarum Historia (Antwerp, 1601), embodying the material of his two earlier works on Spanish and Austrian plants. In 1596, Gerard issued a list of plants growing in his Holborn garden; this rare work, an annotated edition of which was published by B. D. Jackson in 1876, usefully supplements the more famous Herball, since the latter includes many plants not actually cultivated in England. Among the most spectacular additions made at this time to our gardens were hyacinths, lilies, anemones, ranunculuses, tulips, fritillaries, narcissi, grape-hyacinths, scillas, irises, dianthus and auriculas. The trees and shrubs then making their appearance include a number that are familiar in our gardens today—the lilac, mock-orange, laburnum, horse-chestnut, laurel, Judas-tree, Daphne Mezereum and Hibiscus syriacus. The formal gardens then in fashion, which retained their popularity until early in the eighteenth century, afforded little scope for trees and larger shrubs; some of the finest of these, therefore, were to be found chiefly in botanical gardens and in the collections of the curious until the day when William Kent “leapt the fence and saw all nature was a garden”. But one or two—the lilac and mock-orange, for instance, at this period, and the tulip-tree in the second half of the seventeenth century—attained instant popularity.

A few figures will give an idea of the extraordinary development of horticulture at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Caspar Bauhin, in his Pinax (Basel, 1623), refers to over six thousand varieties of plants known in Europe. Since Fuchs (1542) had only listed some five hundred varieties, in less than a century the stock of plants cultivated in Europe had increased more than tenfold. Parkinson’s Paradisus (1629) is the fullest account in English of the flowers to be found in the “Elizabethan” garden. He numbers a dozen or more primroses (single and double), polyanthus and cowslips derived from natural sports occurring in England. Ralph Tuggy was famous for his “florist’s” carnations, and many other plants were developed and improved upon, in England or on the continent, about this time. Viola odorata, Papaver Rhoeas and P. somniferum, Scabiosa purpurea, lychnis, cornflower and columbine were raised in various colours, single and double. Anemone hepatica and A. coronaria from the Balkans, both variable in the wild, were also grown in several colours, and pink and red forms of lily of the valley were obtained. By the year 1600, more than sixty varieties of dianthus were available, and Viola tricolor had attained to a standard which was scarcely improved upon until the beginning of the nineteenth century. By 1580, a number of varieties of the oriental hyacinth had been raised in Holland, a double variety is recorded in 1613, and in 1623 Caspar Bauhin mentions sixty-nine varieties of single and double hyacinths.

The discovery, at the close of the fifteenth century, of the New World had revealed the advance-guard of a strange and wonderful flora that was in due course to have a considerable influence on our gardens and greenhouses. We may mention, in passing, one or two of the many economic plants that were soon to become of immeasurable importance to the whole world. To Columbus we owe tobacco and maize, found on his first voyage in cultivation in the West Indies; and subsequently the pine-apple and cassava—the latter being the source of that nightmare of our childhood, tapioca, by 1521, Mexico had fallen to Cortéz, and a decade later Pizarro overthrew the Inca empire of Peru. In Mexico, where maize, cotton, cocoa, tomato, capsicum, prickly-pear, haricot and agave were in cultivation, the botanic gardens, especially that of Huaxtepec, were far in advance of anything then in existence in the Old World. Peru grew the cassava, potato, maize, agave, cocoa and tobacco (for snuff). The principal plants of horticultural interest to reach Europe from Central and South America at this time were the “French” and “African” marigold, Argemone mexicana, giant sunflower, marvel of Peru, lesser nasturtium (Tropaeolum minus) and Yuccagloriosa.

Between 1620 and 1680 a number of important herbaceous plants were introduced to us from eastern North America, especially from Canada and Virginia. Among the best of these to gain a footing in England were the Michaelmas daisy, Lilium canadense—the first American lily to reach Europe—Lobelia cardinalis, Tradescantia virginiana (which, like Ipomoea purpurea, had been grown on the European mainland a generation earlier), Rudbeckia laciniata, bergamot, golden rod and perennial lupin. The exotic-looking Jacobean amaryllis (Sprekelia formosissima) was brought from South America in 1658, and that “surprising delight of all flowers”, the Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), from Virginia in 1629. Of the plants native to eastern North America— some eight thousand in number—about fifty had been brought to England by 1650 and perhaps another hundred before the close of the century.

The great period of importation of North American trees and shrubs began in earnest in the opening years of the seventeenth century, though arbor vitae (Thuja occidentalis) had found its way across the Atlantic at least fifty years earlier. The Robins in Paris, and the Tradescants in London, were the chief instruments of these introductions; to the former we owe the acacia (Robinia pseudacacia), to the latter the American plane, American walnut, deciduous cypress (Taxodium distichum) and scarlet maple (Acer rubrum). Tradescant the Younger himself visited Virginia, returning with many rareties for the family garden in South Lambeth.

In the second half of the century, Dr. Compton, Bishop of London from 1675 to 1713, made his garden famous for its trees, especially for those from North America. Here were grown the tulip-tree (very probably an introduction of Tradescant the Younger), Magnolia glauca, liquidambar, and various species of crataegus, comus and rhus. The Rev. John Banister, who was sent out by the Bishop as a missionary to Virginia, was one of the principal agents who supplied the gardens at Fulham. Evelyn’s enthusiasm for arboriculture is well known—he probably first introduced the cedar of Lebanon, known to travellers since the year 1550; and many other private patrons, such as the Duchess of Beaufort, stimulated the search.

With the development of landscape gardening, trees became even more important, and throughout the eighteenth century the flow of novelties from North America continued unabated. Peter Collinson’s garden at Mill Hill was among the most famous of the private gardens growing the plants and seeds sent back from Florida and Carolina by Mark Catesby, John Bartram and other collectors. The Chelsea Physic Garden, and later the royal gardens at Kew, were still richer than those built up by private owners. Magnolia gran diflora, several species of kalmia, the catalpa, the Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) and two species of sumach are only samples of the hundreds of plants introduced at this time. Nurserymen such as Robert Furber helped to distribute the plants throughout the gardens of the nobility and gentry; his Catalogue of Trees and Shrubs, both exotick and domestick, as will prosper in our climate, in the open ground (1724), the first trade-list of trees ever published, testifies to the widespread interest that was being shown. The fullest account of the subject will be found in the first volume of that miraculous depository of information, Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum (1838). Among later collectors in North America was David Douglas (1798-1834), discoverer of the clarkia, musk plant (Mimulus moschatus) and Douglas fir.

Contemporaneous with the introduction of North American trees and shrubs is the first influx of South African plants. Already in Sweert’s Florilegium (1612) we find Cape plants listed, but it was under the vigorous direction of Paul Hermann (1640-95) and Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738), who made the botanic gardens at Leyden world-famous, that South African plants began to reach Europe in large numbers. Species of euphorbia, mesembryan-themum, aloe, stapelia and crassula were among the earlier introductions, and towards the close of the eighteenth century the Englishman, Francis Masson (1741-1805), who was sent to South Africa by the authorities of Kew Gardens, filled the stove-houses of England with heaths and pelargoniums. Strelitzia Reginae was among the most sensational of the many bulbous plants given to Europe by South Africa.

On June 11th, 1771, Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and Dr. Solander reached England after their memorable voyage to Australia. To Banks we are indebted for our earliest New Holland plants. The first mimosa (Acacia laurifolia) was brought back from Cook’s second voyage (1772-75). Through Banks and Peter Good we received many species of melaleuca, eucalyptus, hakea, casu-arina, banksia, metrisideros and grevillea, and their work of collecting was carried on in the early nineteenth century by Allan Cunningham. From England, these plants were distributed to botanical gardens all over the continent.

At the close of the eighteenth century, considerable improvements in the construction of stove-houses made possible the cultivation of tropical and sub-tropical plants from Central and South America and the East Indies. Under Nikolaus von Jacquin (1727-1817), who also promoted the culture of South African plants, the Habsburg greenhouses of Schonbrunn became celebrated throughout Europe. During the first half of the nineteenth century many species of gloxinia, cattleya and calceolaria reached our greenhouses; later were added cypripediums, oncidiums, and—from the East Indies—dendrobiums. The first fuchsia arrived from South America about 1790, and the dahlia from Mexico, by way of Spain, in 1798.

Some 12,000 foreign plants, so experts tell us, are cultivated in our gardens today; of these, at least one-third come from the great mountain ranges of Europe, America, India and China; and the Himalayas and the mountains of western China have provided most of the spectacular introductions of the last hundred years.

Plant collecting in the Far East may be said to begin in earnest with the travels of Robert Fortune (1812-1880), but the work of one or two earlier botanists, both amateur and professional, must not be overlooked. The German

Engelbert Kaempfer, who was in Japan from 1690 to 1692, discovered Lilium speciosum and L. tigrinum, as well as the celebrated ginkgo tree (Ginkgo triloba), which was planted for Princess Augusta at Kew in 1754. James Cunningham, who was in China in the opening years of the eighteenth century, found several important plants and sent home seed of the yellow and purple Hibiscus manihot, which was raised at the Chelsea Physic Garden; and such valuable plants as Dianthus chinensis and Camellia japonica had reached England before the middle of the century. The French Jesuit missionary d’lncarville was responsible for despatching seeds of the tree of heaven (Ailanthus glandulosa) to both England and France (1751), and the wealth and enthusiasm of Sir Joseph Banks provided us with such splendid exotics as Magnolia heptapeta (the Yulan tree), Iris japonica, Paeonia suffruticosa (Moutan), Hydrangea macrophylla (hortensis) and Lilium tigrinum. The last-named plant was collected by William Kerr (d. 1814), to whom we are also indebted for the double form of Kerria japonica—named in his honour—and the Banksia rose. Charles Greville gave us Bignonia grandiflora; and John Reeves (1774-1856), an inspector of the East India Company, was closely associated with the exportation to England of Camellia reticulata and Wistaria sinensis, though his attempts to introduce Primula sinensis failed. The florists’ chrysanthemum, long cultivated in Eastern Asia, seems to have been grown in Holland as early as the end of the seventeenth century in six varieties; it soon became extinct, however, and it was not until a century later that a Marseilles merchant named Blancard, and the English virtuoso Sir Abraham Hume, again imported varieties of this famous Chinese plant into Europe.

After the close of the First Chinese War (1842), the Horticultural Society despatched Robert Fortune to China; in the East, his four journeys were to provide us with such popular favourites as the yellow winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), the Japanese anemone (Anemone japonica, now to be called A. elegans), Weigela rosea, Prunus triloba, Primula japonica, Deutzia scabra florepleno, and the valuable Rhododendron Fortunei. Seed of Magnolia stellata was first brought to Europe by the Russian botanist Carl Maximowicz, and Augustine Henry sent bulbs of the lovely orange lily, Lilium Hertryi, to Kew in 1889.

Of hardly less importance was the work of French missionaries such as Pere David (1826-1900) and Pere Jean Delavay (1834-1895). To the latter we owe Osmanthus Delavayi, Incarvillea Delavayi, and several important rhododendrons and primulas. Pere Jean Soulie (1858-1905) sent home the popular Buddleia Davidi, better known as B. variabilis, first found by Henry in 1887. Of the Russian plant introducers, mention must also be made of Nicolai Przewalski, Captain Sosnovski, who discovered Buddleia alternifolia, and Grigori Potanin.

Neither the French missionaries, too little of whose time was available for plant collecting, nor the first collectors sent out by Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society, who were largely tied to the coastal districts, had the opportunities afforded to Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930). A list of his important introductions, the outcome of four extensive journeys into the interior, would fill a page; we can only mention a few of these: Rhododendron Augustinii, Rosa Moyesii, Clematis Armandii, Magnolia Delavayi, Davidia involucrata, Meconopsis integrifolia, Lilium Sargentiae and Lilium regale.

George Forrest (1873-1932), third of the great British collectors in China, travelled on behalf of private syndicates who financed the expeditions and divided the spoil—a method which has become the most common practice today. His seven journeys to Yunnan, during the last of which he lost his life, added to our gardens such treasures as Gentiana sino-ornata, Primula nutans, Iris chrysographes and many important rhododendrons. To Reginald Farrer (1880-1912)—best known, perhaps, as a vigorous and colourful writer—we owe Buddleia alternifolia (found earlier, but not at that time introduced), Viburnum fragrans, Nomocharis Farreri and Rosa Farreri (the threepenny-bit rose).

Frank Kingdon Ward is still with us today after forty years of botanical exploration. His name will forever be associated with the Tibetan blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), though a long list might be compiled of his introductions, which include a number of interesting rhododendrons.

In so small a space it has only been possible to touch upon a mere handful of the plants that, during the last four hundred years, have transformed the face of our gardens and greenhouses. Every year new additions are made; we have only to recall the sensation made in 1945 by the discovery of Metasequoia glyptostroboides, which, up to that time, had only been known in a fossil state. It may well be doubted, however, whether many plants of the calibre of, say, Lilium regale still await discovery in the unexplored valleys of Yunnan or the remoter mountain ranges of Tibet. But, considering what miracles have been worked during the last hundred years in the development and breeding of plants already in our gardens and greenhouses, we can feel sure that we shall yet see flowers whose splendour and variety cannot even be visualized today.


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