Plant-hunting’s influence on British gardens

The beauty of our gardens is fully apparent at this time of year, where many colourful plants will be blooming in the next few months. However, did you know that many of this country’s most popular species are not native to Britain and were introduced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through a method called plant-hunting? Here at Winterbourne, we have been researching our garden’s links to this practice through the history of some of our current plants.

Plant-hunting involved the dispatching of botanists by nursery and botanical garden owners on worldwide expeditions to seek out and send back specimens of plant species that could be grown in the British climate. This sparked a competitive race between wealthy Victorians who saw having unique plants in their gardens as a status symbol and so contended with each other to acquire new species. Plant-hunters endured harsh conditions during their expeditions, facing dangers such as disease, shipwreck and piracy. However, their actions transformed British gardens and introduced many of today’s popular species like magnolias and camellias to this country. We are lucky here at Winterbourne where the garden boasts multiple types of plant species that were introduced in Britain through plant-hunting. We have chosen a few from our Geographical Beds to shed light on below:

Davidia involucrata (Dove tree)

White bracts surrounding flowers of dove tree
White bracts surrounding flowers of dove tree - Credit: User Σ64 on Wikimedia Commons, permission to share under

The dove tree is a native species to south and central China. The plant’s colloquial name ‘dove tree’ was inspired by the two white bracts that subtend the tree’s flowers which were thought by Ernest Henry Wilson to ‘resemble huge butterflies or small doves hovering amongst the trees’ ‘when stirred by the slightest breeze’. The tree can grow between 20 to 60ft high and flowers in early spring. It was first introduced from its native country to Europe and North America in 1904 and is today a popular ornamental tree in large parks and gardens. The British plant hunter Augustine Henry found a single dove tree in the Yangtse Ichang gorges and sent the first specimen of this plant species to Kew Horticultural Gardens.

However, it is Ernest Henry Wilson who is better known for his influence in the introduction of this species in Britain. Before taking up the occupation of plant-hunter for the firm James Veitch & Sons, Wilson forged Birmingham connections through his employment as an apprentice gardener at Birmingham Botanical Gardens and studying at Birmingham Municipal Technical School in the evenings. During this time, he was awarded the Queen’s Prize for botany. Before his first expedition to China, he was briefed by his employer Henry Veitch on the fundamental aim of retrieving the dove tree Augustine Henry had encountered, with Wilson being advised to ‘stick to the one thing you are after’ and not get distracted by other species.

Wilson arrived in Hong Kong in June 1899 and then spent the majority of his expedition collecting in the Hubei Province for a period of about two years. Upon his mission to find Henry’s dove tree, he arrived to find that it had been felled to be used as building material for housing. Fortunately, he later found a grove of dove trees he was able to collect specimens from. Despite suffering shipwreck on his journey back to England in April 1902, Wilson was able to save his dove tree specimens, one of which is still alive today in Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum!

Ernest Henry Wilson
Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Trachycarpus fortunei (Chinese windmill palm)

The Chinese windmill palm tree was introduced into Britain in 1849 by the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, who smuggled the plant from China to Kew Horticultural Gardens and the Royal Garden of Prince Albert of the United Kingdom. His employment by the East India Company demonstrates how closely related plant-hunting was to British imperialism. This involved seeds from across the British Empire being sent to Britain and grown in greenhouses to test their viability. Plant species with economic potential were then sent to various colonies with suitable climates, with an example of this being Fortune’s influence on the successful introduction of the tea plant into India in 1851 after smuggling plants there from China. It was during the same expedition that Fortune discovered the trachycarpus fortunei, which was given his name. The palm tree has been cultivated for thousands of years in Japan and China and is believed to have originated from central China, southern Japan, northern Myanmar (also known as Burma) and northern India. The species is famed for its hardy nature with it being able to tolerate cool summers and cold winters, making it an ideal species to acclimate to British weather. Outside of China, the palm can grow to heights of 30ft tall but is usually shorter and is famed for its circular, fan-shaped leaves as well as its yellow flowers.

Chinese Windmill Palm
Leaves and flowers of Chinese windmill palm Credit: User W. Bulach on Wikimedia Commons permission to share under

If you are interested in learning more about these plants and their histories during your visit, our gardeners will be happy to point them out to you as well as other plants with plant-hunting origins and answer any of your questions.